Born in Lockdown, a creative collaborative writing project initiated as part of Mothership Writers by author Emylia Hall, has been such a raw and emotional read for me. Each paragraph, each story, each reflection on pregnancy, birth and post-birth during lockdown had me hooked, and at the same time filled with so much emotion. And no matter how hard I tried to detach myself from the words I read, everything reminded me of my own experiences of giving birth, and how much I had relied on having my husband and my mother by my side, especially when the paediatric cardiologist gave us the initial diagnosis.
“My child, in a year of turmoil, change and isolation, you are my silver lining, my reason for being, my hope.”
My daughter has congenital heart disease. I had an elected c-section as the attempted induction didn’t quite go to plan, and caused more pain and distress than I had anticipated. Our baby girl was born on her due date, and I didn’t get to have skin to skin because her oxygen levels had drop and they whisked her away. They carried out tests and scans, and then they told us. But all we took in was the fact that there was something wrong with her heart.
What followed were 4 days in the ward for more tests, and a transfer to Great Ormond Street Hospital. And there was no time to focus on recovery, because the appointments started coming in thick and fast, the health visitor came to check on us frequently, and then struggles in feeding, difficulty breathing and weight loss became our daily challenge with this rosy cheeked baby girl of ours. Because of her heart. We were fortunate that by the time she was 5 months old, they were able to operate, insert a few devices in her heart, and by the time she was 1 years old and lockdown began, it was as though she had nearly caught up with all those missed milestones.
But these words that I’ve read, and read again and again, don’t just trigger those uncomfortable moments, and the days and nights of struggles I had as a first time mum, with an unwell baby, they make me feel as though I had so much more to be grateful for than I had known at the time. I remember the faces. All the faces that I saw, the midwives, the nurses, the medical team, the cardiologists, the surgeons, the lovely couple who calmed my nerves, the taxi driver who sent us prayers, the cleaner who would always check up on us, the lady at the Costa who served us that warm tuna panini. I remember the faces, and the smiles, and the warmth.
“To the midwife who was there for me after a long, tiring night of feeding my newborn. Exhausted and hormonal without my husband by my side. ‘I wish I could hug you,’ she said, as she put her hand on my shoulder. I will never forget you.”
277 new mothers, 277 stories, 277 women who had to do it all alone for some, most, or all of it. And yet in every story there was still so much gratitude, and so much fight to keep going, despite the uncertain circumstances they were in, despite never having imagined things would have been the way they ended up. Credit here goes to the way in which each mothers contribution has been sewn together, almost as though it was one story being told through different perspectives, and yet each word feels so important, and so necessary, conveying a depth of feeling and rawness of emotion that only this style of writing could have achieved.
Mothership Writers, was initially set up in January 2019 by Emylia Hall, and was funded by the National Lottery through Arts Council England. As the pandemic hit, and lockdown resulted in the closure of offices and workspaces, and people working from home, Mothership Writers moved online and opened up its doors to new mothers to join the creative writing courses offered, as a way for them to tell their story, feel inspired and get writing. By November 2020, Born in Lockdown launched and called upon mothers everywhere to make a contribution and share their experiences of pregnancy, birth and motherhood in 2020, in a short few sentences.
“New friendship opportunities were missed on the maternity wards. No cotside cooing or corridor conversations were allowed this time. Just a room for us two, surrounded by the faint echoing of other new mums and babies. But the bubble brims with love and understanding. It’s just me and you.”
It’s this style of writing that has brought a smile to my face many times, and tears too. It’s the unedited words of the lives of those 277 mothers, that have been carefully been put together, the knowledge that these words have come about during times of sheer joy or at times of struggle, and the honesty of every emotion and every feeling that makes me pause and reflect in each chapter. And it also serves as a reminder, of how hard things were, and even now how hard things sometimes get, but how I had a group of people around me who were there when I needed it, and in the background cheering me on otherwise.
“No-one told me it would be like this. After seven years of trying, eight miscarriages, countless referrals, examinations, tests and procedures. Then it happened: twins. No-one told me how sad I’d feel. To finally get what I wanted. How isolated I would be. How I grieved my old life.”
The midwife during pregnancy, the health visitors post-birth, and the family and friends who came and visited me at home, they comforted me when I didn’t understand what I was doing, they shared their struggles to make me feel “normal”, they fed me and held the baby, and they all made such a big difference to me getting through the struggles I had, and they also celebrated the wins. The first time she smiled, the first time she laughed, the first time she sat up, the first time she crawled. And despite the health challenges that we faced, she was such a happy and active baby. There were so many firsts, and so many people to share it with. And even through all of this, I still at times felt alone and isolated.
“No one came to see you, to smell your hair or stroke your face. The gentle coos or warm embrace. No one came to see me, to ask if I was doing OK, to cook a meal or make me tea.”
It was also this gratitude to having had each other, having our jobs, and having our people around us that made the realities of motherhood in lockdown even more daunting to witness. The mother who stood in the aisle in tears because there was no baby milk left, and the distressed father frantically searching for the right sized nappies, in the few that were still left. My husband tried to beat the queues, but it didn’t matter what time he went in, the shelves always seemed to be empty. We moved from formula to cows milk soon after lockdown, and started ordering nappies online, and he kept telling me not to worry that soon enough people would realise that there’s enough for everyone, but those initial months when everything stood still was scary. But reading through these stories I place myself back to how we so carelessly we assumed that whatever we needed would always be available, and yet only a year on there were so many struggling for the basics for their babies.
“No nappies. Not a single brand in newborn size is available. People are at it again: hoarding. I cry. I wonder what they’ll do with their mountains of nappies, toilet roll and pasta. I assume they hope if they stack them high enough, they’ll keep the virus out.”
Soon they start sounding like familiar voices, and they became more raw, and the feelings of worry and anxiety of doing it alone stare back at me on the page. When lockdown had started I had felt a sense of relief that we had had our last major appointment with the cardiologist for the year, and the next post-op review would be in 2021. We continued with our lives, and the new normal, and assumed things would return back to normal by the summer. When lockdown continued, and continued into the New Year, I started to worry. The thought of having to take our little one to a single appointment, on my own, filled me with so much dread and uncertainty, that I suddenly realised how anxiety filled and even traumatic this past year would have been to all those who went through pregnancy and birth without their partners, their parents, their siblings or their friends around them. And the words that I read as the pages turn, trigger those feelings of concern, and the weight of responsibility and not having any other choice.
I keep counting my blessings as there is talk of isolation, and masked faces, and zoom calls with their loved ones. I didn’t have a lockdown baby, we went into lockdown when she turned one. But as I read on I realise that even though I couldn’t ever truly feel what they’ve felt, and what countless other mothers have felt giving birth alone during a pandemic, I still feel it in my gut. Every word sharing love, and pain, and happiness, and tiredness, and isolation, I feel.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child, but where do you turn when the village is closed? The usual support is deemed ‘unsafe’. You have no choice but to dig deep inside, trusting that you were made for the role of being a mother. You focus on that bond between you and your baby, you realise that this is your most important life’s work and that nothing is more precious than this child.”
So I look more inwardly and see what we had missed. No toddler classes. No play-dates. No aunts and uncles. No cousins. No friends. No travel. FaceTime with the grandparents. My husbands parents live overseas, so never having ever met them. No work colleagues because I’m working from home. No human contact. No touch. No hugs. No kisses. A sense of worry every time we have to leave the home, and the new ritual of stripping and showering before anything else is done when we return. My grandmother passing away. Then an uncle. One uncle has a stroke. And then my Nan has a stroke too. There’s something wrong with her heart, but they couldn’t do anything to sort the issue out because she’s old and frail. And then we hear that a family member has tested positive, and another, and their children, and a new father is self-isolating, and then a friend and her husband, and then day by day our worry increases. My brother works in intensive care and updates us on the severity of the pandemic, and how he’s working 24 hr shifts because of the shortage in staffing. He went a whole year without getting the virus, and just as the new variant came about both himself and his wife were tested positive and bed-bound for weeks, with 4 children under the age of 10, and no help. I pause, and reflect.
“I am so proud of him for working in the NHS, but this was becoming tinged by a resentment as others spoke of how wonderful it was that their partners could spend more time at home. Around me the isolation grew, and the walls closed in on me.”
These 277 stories have touched me in so many ways, and have served as a reminder of how everything is different, and yet so many things are still the same. Emylia Hall has managed to capture the life of a new mother, through the words of many, and these words have taken me back on my own journey into motherhood after being told we would never be able to have children, and as I read through the chapters again and again, they bring back memories I had forgotten and memories I had suppressed. But they have also made me confront the losses faced as a new mother, as a person, as part of society, because of the pandemic. Some words are still echoing, and I have shared them in this blog post, and others have made me feel warm and comforted during these troubled times.
But most of all, for the first time in a year I feel like I’ve sat in a room with people, who have opened up and shared with me how they really feel. And they haven’t glossed over the reality of parenting, the reality of being a new mother, nor the reality of this journey. For the first time since my little one was born, I’ve felt connected to other mothers, and not felt ashamed or embarrassed about the emotional turmoil I have gone through. And for the first time in a very long time, I’ve felt the world has spoken the words I couldn’t speak, and there are those who understand me.
And that’s why, as I read the names of those who contributed to this story, I say a silent prayer for each and every one of them, and hope that the days ahead bring them love, joy, calmness, family and old and new friendships, and most of all I pray that the village is restored.
Born in Lockdown is available to download for free here http://www.mothershipwriters.com/borninlockdown and funds from any voluntary donations will be going to Sands, the leading stillbirth and neonatal death charity in the UK. So far this project has raised over £5000 for Sands.
“Some days we didn’t even go outside. A lot of days we still don’t go outside. We’ve been inside so long I can hardly remember what the ‘old world’ felt like. Yet the rooms in this home are now filled with a tangible sweetness that didn’t exist before. Maybe just maybe this scary pandemic has a soft side. Actually, I think it may have helped us become a family.”