New motherhood during a pandemic: ‘In the COVID world, you do everything alone’

The Quebec Health Ministry offers support to new parents, but those services were restricted during much of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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When Arantza Laberdesque gave birth to Louis and Mathéo three years ago, she found the daily responsibility of taking care of twins difficult.

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“You feel frustrated sometimes because you want to be the best mom, you want to be the best parent, but you’re limited by your own ability,” she said. “At the end of the day, you have to eat, you have to sleep, you have to go to the bathroom, as simple as that, so sometimes you have to let them cry. It’s the hardest thing to hear them cry.”

The Quebec Ministry of Health’s specialized Perinatal Resource Centers offer subsidized prenatal, birthing, and breastfeeding classes, plus home visits to help mothers adjust, but those services were restricted during much of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Laberdesque, a games company business development manager, had a helper who visited once a week to assist with everyday tasks. But her helper stopped coming at the start of the pandemic.

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“I couldn’t have her any more, one day to another. So it was very brutal.”

Laberdesque became anxious, despite never struggling with anxiety before.

“The twins were never sick, but because they were preemies, they might have had complications because they were little. I was so scared. You feel like you have to protect your babies at all costs, but you need help.

“I was always looking at the news, I was reading everything, consuming it, and you know the articles, they put it in your faces like, this number of deaths, this is happening there, and it’s terrible and the world is on fire .”

Her husband’s family had an outdoor party in the summer of 2020. “Everyone was going because it was outside, but I said, ‘No, no, no,’ we cannot take chances, my babies cannot get sick, I cannot get sick. I’m asthmatic, so I was thinking, ‘What if I have it and I die and my babies are left without a mom?’ ”

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The pressure of the pandemic on new mothers has had serious consequences.

“The rate of perinatal mental illness has gone from one in five pre-pandemic to one in three now,” said Patricia Tomasi, communications director of the Canadian Perinatal Mental Health Coalition (CPMHC).

Tomasi said perinatal anxiety “is actually the most prevalent of all the perinatal mental illnesses.”

Laberdesque and her husband, Daniel, wanted a big family, and in 2021, she was pregnant again. After three months, she miscarried.

Laberdesque went to the hospital alone for medical care during the miscarriage. Because of pandemic health measures, her husband was not allowed to accompany her. “I remember being there on the table to have my baby removed, and I felt so bad. I was lonely, in the middle of the corridor with everyone going to their things, and I was just like, I hate this. It’s not possible to do everything alone, you have to have someone with you.”

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Before the birth of their third child, Océane, in 2022, the couple took every precaution so he could attend the birth. “It was very strict. I don’t want anyone in the house. I didn’t want to see anybody. He didn’t work for a month, because I wanted to be sure.”

Nearly 96 per cent of Canadian health practitioners believe that perinatal mental health services are insufficient, according to a survey conducted by CPMHC. There is no national plan for perinatal mental health, and 87 per cent of health-care practitioners said they do not have mandated screening for perinatal mental illness at their workplace.

Tomasi said the CPMCH has met with the federal Health Ministry and participated in working groups with the ministry and other perinatal mental health advocacy groups. The ministry’s mandate letter of December 2021 included a promise to “ensure timely access to perinatal mental health services.”

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“In the COVID world, you do everything alone. Pregnancy and miscarriage, everything,” Laberdesque said. Ella’s Laberdesque and her family have so far avoided contracting COVID.

Parents who are struggling should contact their local CLSC, family doctor or pediatrician, or call Info-Santé at 811 for information. If they fear for their own safety or that of their children, they should immediately call 911.

Portraits of motherhood

COVID restrictions and employer regulations on working from home have worsened the isolation and challenges faced by new mothers. Many reported experiences similar to those of Laberdesque: isolation, pandemic anxiety, sleep deprivation, being alone during critical health procedures and a lack of accommodation from employers.

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The administrator for a Japanese games company and mother of Chloe, who’s now 14 months old, went to all her prenatal health appointments alone, including the ultrasound when she learned her baby’s sex. She texted her husband afterward: “It’s a girl, I’ll tell you the details.’ It really sucked.”

After delivery, Akane’s husband had to leave her hospital room to secure their car rental, but because of COVID restrictions, he wasn’t allowed back in. She said, “I was having a hard time walking and I had to pack and dress this newborn baby for the first time, and it’s minus-20 outside, I had all these bags to carry, and the baby, and there was no one to help.”

Liz Smeets

The linguistics professor and her baby, Otis, used to go once a week to the pool, library and a yoga class. With COVID, all their activities stopped.

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Otis, who is two and a half, goes to daycare now, but Smeets often had to keep him home. A runny nose or a fever meant he had to take a PCR test and wait 48-72 hours for the result.

“If you ask him what the doctor does, he says, ‘Up my nose.’ That’s the only association he has with doctors.”

Emily Freeman-Lavoie

The language and literacy teacher had postpartum anxiety. “It was really severe insomnia. The baby was sleeping, but I was not. It was like torture. I wouldn’t sleep for three days in a row and then I’d crash. I’d have panic attacks every day.”

She called her family doctor and talked to her for five minutes, sobbing. She says the doctor told her, “I’m going to prescribe you antidepressants. Call me back in a month and see if it works.”

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She also found a private therapist, despite long waitlists for care. She pays for her therapy herself.

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The BC neurologist and mother of seven-month-old Alfie experienced feelings of sadness after giving birth by C-section. She encouraged mothers to seek support. “It’s something that people shouldn’t be ashamed of.

“It’s a big deal to have created a human and then birthed this human. There should be a very low threshold to talk to a professional about the feelings that are coming forth.”

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