“I saw in several places they’re not letting husbands in the delivery room,” I remember saying to my wife. It was the beginning of March, a month before our baby was due, and it was becoming more and more clear that a storm was brewing in the medical community with novel coronavirus.
This was our first successful pregnancy, after two heartbreaking miscarriages, and we tried to do every damn thing right in the nine months leading up to the due date. We woke up bleary-eyed in the dead quiet at 4:30am three days a week to haul our stiff, 37 year-old bodies to the gym. And in the evenings my wife logged miles around the pond at the park nearby our house because walking lowers complications of birth. She ate cleaner than Adam and Eve and avoided any and all things over-the-counter. Strong odors and salty language were also avoided. We even took the in-person birthing, car seat, and breastfeeding courses the hospital offered in those pre-COVID days before such gatherings were history. As is my tendency, I offered a more liberal approach. “Look, honey. Emily Oster says fish is actually okay in Expecting Better.”
Around March 10th, before anyone knew the hammer had already fallen, I called a pharmacist friend in Seattle to ask him his sense of the virus at its early epicenter. It was shocking to hear him say, “Dude, you can’t find any hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, and get this, toilet paper. It’s bizarre, man. People are losing their minds.” A week later the stock market would bottom out and the company I work for would terminate several employees. A week after that a young woman died in the rural town I’m from after contracting the virus from a high school basketball tournament that my father had attended. On that the same day he had swung by my house to visit (no one traced the outbreak to the tournament until later). At that time, there were only 164 cases in the U.S., and it had already made its way to our isolated little swathe of blowing West Texas dirt.
It was then, a week before the due date, that we began seeing reports of wives in delivery rooms giving birth with their husbands cheering virtually from iPads and smartphones. We watched the clips of Carson Daly welcoming his own child like this. Then our own city started airing press conferences every day and changing hospital protocols just as often. Soon, businesses across the state shut down and family members got laid off. This is what we talked about on our walks. We crammed those fearful sentences between plans of assembling the nursery room dresser and questions of whether or not our dog would like having a baby around. Suddenly it was as if we weren’t in control of anything anymore and the baby, our very first baby, hadn’t even come yet.
On the day of induction, there was to be only one visitor, which meant I was able to be in the room. Hooray! I was able to stand there next to my wife and wonder how messy was this actually going to get as the OBGYN rolled out a tarp system and donned what appeared to be head-to-toe Deadliest Catch rain gear. I was there by her side to hold her hand and wonder how one could be expected to push the right things from the right holes in a state like this with your lower body numb as a tree trunk from the epidural. And then, when baby girl’s hair appeared for the first time, I wept and wondered how anything in the world could ever the same again.
And of course it hasn’t been the same in so many ways. We brought our daughter home during the mandatory quarantine period. I nearly cried again when I pulled up to our house and saw an enormous “Welcome Home” message installed in our yard with four-foot letters. The loneliness was already on us by then as we were both remembering seeing our nieces and nephews on the day they were born. A month earlier my wife had said, “Do you think you can ask people to leave the room if I’m looking too tired and can’t get any sleep once the baby comes?”
“Absolutely,” I said.
I always remembered going to the hospital to visit a new mom and feeling bad for the congratulatory small-talk I was making as the dad fought to keep his eyes open and the mother dozed-off half-sentence. We, on the other hand, dealt with a deafening silence. Our friends and family were quick to remind us that it’s probably nice getting to be together so intimately and isolated in those early days of maternity leave. They were trying to comfort us. But feeling like you’re on an island shipwrecked is different from feeling like you’re on an island at some beachy resort with no cell signal or TVs.
We didn’t choose to do this all on our own. Our ship just kinda ran aground. We didn’t really have anyone to help pick-up the clothes or do the dishes while we caught our breath. There was no one to tell us what those red bumps were and if we should be worried when she cried a certain way. In fact, my wife was busy wiping down takeout boxes and I was visiting grocery stores with empty shelves on no sleep. I saw a line 50 people deep waiting for toilet paper rations to be loaded off a truck, like some dystopian nightmare, and saw half of them turned away empty handed. Then I had to play it cool when I got back home, so my wife wouldn’t worry about the world crumbling beyond our doorstep. We had to turn off the nightly news while still paying close attention because how long could we actually keep our families from meeting the two-year hope and promise finally turned flesh? Their granddaughter. Their niece is finally here.
It wasn’t until we started to get more sleep that I began to realize something. As a new parent, you live under this false assumption that others who’ve gone before you have it figured out. You think, if my mom was here, she’d know what to do, because she learned it from her mom. So then, she’d teach it to me. But nobody knows what the hell they’re doing. COVID or not, every parent has to figure it out as they go. There’s an odd comfort in that.
Jonathan Scott is a new, marginally successful dad from Lubbock, Texas. He blogs compulsively about food and suburban culture at icamehereforthefood and publishes the Sticks & Twigs Newsletter about creative interests and inspiration.