As I sat in front of my class of 20 freshman writing students in a suburban university just outside of Boston, one student coughed and then another. Someone sneezed. The room went silent for a moment as we collectively wondered if that would be the sneeze that would spread COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, through the room like wildfire. I considered breaking out my last remaining mini bottle of hand sanitizer for the third time that class period.
Typically, sniffles and occasional coughing are commonplace in a classroom of college students looking to avoid penalties for missing too many classes. Except this happened to be the day we were all waiting to hear if the university would be closed and moved online for the rest of the semester so we could practice social distancing to reduce the spread of coronavirus, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That, and I am eight-and-a-half-months pregnant.
As most parents know, the birth of a first child is an epic, momentous occasion in any adult’s life. I bought books about what to expect when expecting and how to have a calm, nurturing and even hypnotizing birth. I toured the maternity ward at the hospital and took online courses and chatted about possible birth plans with my partner and doctor.
We had just settled on delayed cord clamping as an important priority when news of the coronavirus spreading to our city took hold. The first confirmed case was reported. And then a second. And then a Biogen conference held at a Boston hotel created a ripple effect of cases spreading throughout the commonwealth. Hand sanitizer and toilet paper disappeared from store shelves, schools were closed, and nonessential employees moved to remote work.
Now, the pile of baby clothes from my baby shower remains in an unfolded heap, my baby books are shoved under the coffee table, and I spent much of my first day as a remote writing instructor in my pajamas, obsessively refreshing news outlets to read up on the most gruesome details of the pandemic that I could find. This is not the stuff of the stress-reducing, preparing-for-birth mediations and mantras I had expected to be indulging in six weeks before my due date.
“I spent much of my first day as a remote writing instructor in my pajamas, obsessively refreshing news outlets to read up on the most gruesome details of the pandemic that I could find. This is not the stuff of the stress-reducing, preparing-for-birth mediations and mantras I had expected to be indulging in six weeks before my due date.”
The icing on the cake is that I am also about to be a first-time novelist, when my debut novel, “The Way You Burn,” is released on April 14th — even as readings, writing conferences, and book tours have been canceled in recent days. At least that due date, I remind myself, is a known entity. Yet the urge to choose a theme for my nursery feels almost as irrelevant now as questions over whether or not my author website is formatted optimally pre-publication.
I debate going to the gym because I’ve read about the importance of continuing to exercise throughout pregnancy ― but I wonder how contaminated the bars of the elliptical will be. I contemplate spending some time researching online book launches, but opt for leftover cake from the fridge instead. I consider heading to the grocery store to stockpile canned goods with the rest of the country, but social media tells me that lines are out the door and shelves are empty. Plus, all I really want to do right now is nap.
My doctor encouraged me not to worry, and the CDC claims that, although there isn’t much information about how the coronavirus affects pregnant women and newborns, there aren’t enough examples to indicate that my population of women with burgeoning bellies and our soon-to-be offspring are at a higher risk of complications, like we are with the flu. But I’m not sure if this does much to assuage the anxiety attached to a word like pandemic.
The unknowns associated with a pandemic feel overwhelmingly weighty stacked up next to the unknowns of a pregnancy. Will hospitals have a shortage of healthy doctors and nurses in six weeks? Will I go into labor early or will the baby come late? Will tens of thousands end up dying in the clutches of respiratory illness over the next month or will these quarantine precautions “flatten the curve”? Will I be able to deliver naturally or will I require an emergency cesarean-section to get this baby out?
I read that in China, pregnant women were forced to cancel their regular check-ups before birth because hospital staff and resources were reallocated for coronavirus patients. At this point, it is unclear if the situation in the U.S. will escalate to Wuhan- or Italy-scale proportions in the coming weeks or months, but those requiring regular medical interventions, facing unexpected emergencies, or preparing to deliver their babies are carrying the burden of the unknown, when it comes to the risks associated with the virus spreading throughout hospitals and the availability of beds for patients without the virus.
I try to force the vision out of my head of laboring alone in a hospital room where visitors aren’t allowed, hoping a doctor ― who may be lacking proper safety equipment ― is freed up in time for me to deliver. Or maybe it won’t even be a private room at all, but a hallway. I stop myself there. As it is, hospitals are already facing a shortage of protective masks for hospital staff due to the general public’s hoarding tendencies, but I have learned that languishing in worst-case-scenario fantasies does no one any good.
Although this is the first coronavirus pandemic that mine and my parents’ generations have ever endured, I wonder if my unborn son will grow up in a world in which new viruses become more common, as global travel and interconnectivity continues to expand and develop. I imagine chubby, child fingers flying across iPads and keyboards as distant learning becomes the norm, and social media becomes one of the only safe means for building community without the risk of infection.
“Although this is the first coronavirus pandemic that mine and my parents' generations have ever endured, I wonder if my unborn son will grow up in a world in which new viruses become more common, as global travel and interconnectivity continues to expand and develop.”
As for now, the wait-and-see technique ― coupled with vigorous hand washing ― seems to be the only option for surrendering to global and personal circumstances never yet experienced in this lifetime. The feeling of leaning into the future with my arms spread and my eyes closed in a trust fall comes with a keen sense of terror and yet, in other ways, something like relief.
Christine Meade is a writer, editor and educator. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the California College of the Arts. Christine lives and writes outside of Boston. Her debut novel “The Way You Burn” will be published by She Writes Press in April 2020. To learn more about Christine Meade’s life and work, visit her website, christine-meade.com.