Over the summer, I broke quarantine to support my wife at the hospital as she gave birth to our first child. Just the word, “hospital,” conjures sad memories of my mother who battled cancer for nearly ten years, but this promised to be different. This hospital visit was going to be a celebration of life. However, when the time came, my joy was eclipsed by the anxiety and the uncertainties surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
I was reading at home when my wife told me that she thought her water had broken. It was five days ahead of her due date. As first-timers, we weren’t even sure that it had broken until a phone description from a more knowledgeable friend confirmed our suspicions. We then braced ourselves to welcome our child into this new world of masks and isolation, where the only people she would be introduced to for the foreseeable future would be her parents.
On March 11th, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. This did not surprise anyone since the numbers had been rapidly climbing throughout the world for some time. It did, however, trigger my company to send me along with most of its personnel to work from home the very next day. About a week later, on March 20th, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a total lockdown for all of New York State.
The shelter-in-place mandate brought so much change to my everyday routines; work meetings on Teams, evening classes on Zoom, workouts in the living room, and even a weekly online birthing class. The changes felt weird and different but were admittedly convenient. What became apparent was the mental stress that inevitably comes with living in a pandemic. Hearing about friends losing their jobs, colleagues succumbing to the virus, all while your family remains virtually inaccessible—it’s a lot to bear. So, I did my best to focus on welcoming our daughter to this world despite the instability that 2020 promised.
UNICEF projects that over three million babies worldwide will be born in the shadow of the pandemic by the end of the year. While the specific numbers are not readily available yet, in New York City, three hundred and twenty babies are born every day, on average. So, between March 11th and the end of the summer, close to 36,000 babies were born, including my daughter. That means that roughly 36,000 pregnant women, like my wife, had difficult discussions with their partners and loved ones about whether the hospital would be safe and what their alternatives were. An equal number of fathers-to-be, like me, wondered what role they would play when the time came, if any.
Driving to the hospital with my laboring wife, I thought of when I used to visit my ailing mother in the hospital and how, just before entering her hospital room, I would wipe my tears and manage a happy, “there she is,” to lift her spirits. I found myself facing the unknown again and I was confident that I would be able to be strong and supportive for my wife.
At the hospital entrance, we were both screened for temperatures. I was worried that if I had a fever my wife would have to go through birth without me. Would I have to quarantine away from my wife and newborn daughter for weeks?
In triage, my wife received a COVID-19 nasal swab test: an eight-inch Q-tip was inserted up one nostril and held there for what feels like an eternity. The COVID testing of pregnant women was standard now and in April results had showed a 13-percent percent positivity rate among women in labor in New York City. What was even more concerning was that 90 percent of those positive tests were among asymptomatic women. What if my wife was one of those many asymptomatic positive tests? Our birthing class had taught us that the current protocol was that if my wife tested positive, she would need to wear a mask around her newborn daughter and keep away from her for several weeks except to nurse – a struggle many families had already gone through – but we agreed to not reflect on this until it would be necessary.
There is something very odd about bringing life into the world during a pandemic which inherently insists on death. Death had become the headline in the newspapers and on cable news. Death might have also been the topic of personal conversations throughout the world, but my wife and I had been talking about and preparing for life. Of course we spoke at length about our concerns over COVID also, but in order to stay positive and to talk about what truly mattered to us, we spoke mostly of the progress with the pregnancy and what it would be like when our baby would be with us. While this often felt very strange, I realized that it was actually quite natural.
The strangeness came from the fact that it felt as if we would spend an abundance of time discussing the opposite subject of everyone else – life instead of death – but it was natural too, in the way that life is constantly changing and adapting to the surrounding world – it learns to evade death. When a virus came to bring death to the world, our daughter, simply by virtue of being born, would give a voice to the other side of the battle. To me, she would be the embodiment of life fighting against death. While these thoughts were hopeful and kept us in a positive state, we were far from immune to the grief and the fear that COVID had brought upon our city which was then the epicenter of the outbreak.
The next morning, during the summer solstice which coincided with an annual solar eclipse, my wife began to push. When my daughter started to come out, I felt a rush of emotion that the birthing classes had not prepared me for. I went from providing a calm and reassuring, “You’re doing great,” to suddenly repeating, “Oh my God,” to keep myself from bursting into tears.
In addition to our doctor and nurse, there was a pediatrician from the neonatal infant care unit in the delivery room with us. We were told it was a precaution but as soon as our daughter was completely out, I cut the thick umbilical cord in a blur and our baby was taken to the other side of the room under a heat lamp. My wife, already in a daze from the battle of labor, was asking if everything was okay. At first, I was echoing what our nurse was saying to soothe my wife, “she’s fine, she just needs to cry.” But I couldn’t take my eyes off my daughter. Her entire tiny body was completely blue, refusing to take her first breath, she was surrounded by more and more people pouring into the room. I started to count. There were 15 people in scrubs all around my daughter.
Our nurse said, “she has good muscle tone,” once she realized that she couldn’t continue to say something as trite as, “everything is okay.” Watching my baby struggling to breathe, I couldn’t help but make the connection with the coronavirus pandemic. Scanning through the symptoms I remembered: shortness of breath, difficulty breathing – I wondered if this was how COVID presented in newborns. For a moment, I let myself go to a dark place and I wondered if the last nine months of excitement and preparation were coming to a crushing end. The thought was unbearable. I knew that I could no longer play the role of the strong and supportive husband. As the seconds started to feel like minutes, I felt my legs get weak beneath me and I told my wife, “I need to sit down.”
Finally, I heard my daughter cry and I allowed myself to cry tears of relief and so much joy. With renewed strength in my legs, I got up when one of the nurses returned our baby daughter from the far side of the room. As the delivery room began to empty again, my wife held our daughter closely and I let myself bask in the sight of my new family.
When we were discharged, on the drive back home with my wife and our healthy daughter, I thought of how proud my mother would be to have her granddaughter honor her name: Marinella, in honor of Maria. I drove through the empty Manhattan streets with boarded up shops and realized that eclipses are temporary. COVID might have cast a shadow on the experience of birth but the radiance of our baby had shined through. And now, no matter what happened, I had boundless hope in the form of a tiny baby girl, and her promise of the future was bright and endless in possibility.
Daryush Nourbaha is a Columbia University graduate student, an Analyst at Con Edison, and a father of one.