CÁDIZ, Spain—With a newborn on the way, our family had begun the year well aware that our (typically packed) travel schedule would be limited throughout the summer. What better time for a staycation, we thought—spring is the best season to spend in southern Spain. We were eager to enjoy some of our favorite things about this country: Semana Santa processions in Sevilla, dancing the Sevillanas at regional Feria de Primavera festivals, or just relaxing with a sangria at our local playa.
Then everything began to shift. Spain’s first case of COVID-19 was reported in the Canary Islands at the end of January, and by mid-March the virus had spread to every province on the mainland. A national response was deemed necessary, and the Spanish government issued an Estado de Alarma, or State of Alarm, and placed the country on a mandatory national lockdown effective March 14.
Although my husband is an officer in the U.S. Navy, we don't live on the base, and we followed the same rules as Spaniards as the death toll began to mount as dramatically as anywhere in the world.
Essentially, we were required to live under a mandated quarantine within our personal residence until the State of Alarm could be lifted—a regiment much more limiting than the lockdowns imposed in the United States later in the month.
We were only permitted to leave our homes for groceries, medical appointments or emergencies, and any work that was recognized as essential by the government. Any walking or exercising outdoors was prohibited, and children were unable to accompany parents on any essential outings.
TOSS THE BIRTH PLAN
As restrictions in Spain were implemented, I wondered how they would affect my birthing experience. Within days, the postpartum support system I envisioned and the birthing plan I had meticulously prepared came undone.
The first piece to unravel was my mother’s flight to Spain. Her bags were already packed for three weeks of quality time with our toddler and soon-to-be newborn baby when the State of Alarm was issued. The next few days, we went back and forth with my parents on the pros and cons of cancelling her trip. Every passing hour presented new information and gave rise to additional questions. So, when President Trump’s European travel ban was announced, and talk circulated of Spain closing its borders, we all agreed that staying stateside was the safest option to avoid any complications returning home. She cancelled her flight just hours before it was scheduled to depart.
That night, my search history might have read, “How to maintain sanity locked in a house full of boys.”
Our plan needed to be reworked, so we reached out to local friends to see who would be OK temporarily taking on a toddler in the middle of a lockdown. I began to wonder what else would change due to COVID-19 and its accompanying restrictions. Would my husband be allowed in the delivery room? Would I retain access to the Naval Hospital, or would I be transferred out to our local Spanish hospital for delivery? Would I be at risk for exposure to the virus during my stay? If I contract the virus, are they going to separate me from my children?
For months, I had been planning for a Vaginal Birth After Cesarean (VBAC) to take place at the Naval Hospital on base. The childbirth experience I had with my firstborn was unexpected and far from ideal—a 40-hour labor ending in a cesarean section. Delivering my second child via VBAC would give me the chance to rewrite the trauma of my first labor.
Just days following the State of Alarm announcement, I received a call from my obstetrician. Due to an increased need for doctors on the floor to combat the virus, our hospital’s capacity to deliver via VBAC was suspended. A VBAC would require the obstetrician to be by my side throughout labor and, given the all-hands-on-deck situation, that was no longer an option.
My heart sank. This was my last chance for a traditional labor and delivery, and it was taken away in an instant. “Breathe deep. Stay strong,” I told myself. Two days later, we scheduled for a repeat cesarean.
The next two days were spent hoping the hospital’s policy on visitors would remain the same. With the COVID-19 situation in Spain rapidly escalating, there was no promise of what new regulations would be in place when we arrived for the cesarean section.
Two more days and we found ourselves loading up the car to drive to the hospital. It was a strange feeling knowing the exact time and date that our child would be born. Gone was the element of surprise— that feeling of being more than ready, but not prepared at all.
At dawn, we pulled a sleepy toddler out of his bed and made our way to a friend’s house to drop him off. I am still uncertain if this was entirely legal during the State of Alarm. It fell within a gray area between medical necessity and illegally gathering outside of the home.
We were the only car on the road as we drove to the hospital in the morning fog—nervous about the imminent surgical procedure, and all the while hoping we would not get pulled over and have to explain our situation to the police.
We arrived at the hospital to what looked like a scene from the beginning of an apocalyptic film. American military in personal protective equipment waited at the entrance of the Naval Hospital to check our symptoms and screen us for the virus. It was eerily quiet as we were guided around triage and quarantine tents and sent up to the labor and delivery ward.
The beauty of a planned cesarean is how quickly you go from checking into the hospital to holding your newborn in your arms. Within two hours of leaving our home, we welcomed a healthy 9-pound, 15-ounce baby boy into this isolated new world.
Fortunately, at the time of our stay, the hospital had no confirmed cases of COVID-19. Nevertheless, we fixated on leaving as quickly as possible to minimize contact with any undiagnosed sick patients or medical personnel. (A week later, we learned that the virus had officially reached the American community and was likely present in the hospital during our stay.) With the support of our medical team, I was discharged from the hospital 48 hours after my cesarean—diverging from the traditional three to four day stay.
Bringing a baby into this world in the midst of a pandemic with so many unknowns is nothing less than nerve-racking—but it is also inspiring.
In less than ideal circumstances, I was hugely reassured by the resiliency of the labor and delivery team and the dedication to their jobs in the middle of a crisis. Off the Emergency Room floor, the COVID-19 outbreak has a much different face. Rather than confronting the virus directly, they were working against it in other ways—bringing life into a world full of fear and loss. For our family, their strength was a symbol of hope and a promise for the future. We are endlessly grateful for their sacrifice in the face of a pandemic.
PARENTING IN A PANDEMIC
During those first two weeks postpartum, I found myself thinking that there were not many differences between caring for a newborn during a lockdown and caring for a newborn under normal circumstances. In both cases, we would be staying home and struggling through sleepless nights and never-ending diaper changes.
Now that those dizzying first weeks of newborn care have passed, the reality of parenting through a quarantine has truly hit home. Having a baby is an isolating experience even in the best of times when you are surrounded by loved ones. When they are far away, or nearby but unable to visit, it makes the postpartum period that much more difficult.
Instead of smiling visitors and meal trains, we have weathered this newborn period entirely on our own: no one has held our sweet-tempered little boy, no one has been around to distract our boisterous toddler, no newborn photos have been taken, and no leisurely strolls around the block have been made.
Without the freedom to leave our home, the only physical introduction our newborn had was to our neighbors from a distance—raising him high enough above the fence line for them to see.
Due to decreased manning for essential services, we didn’t even leave the hospital with documentation that we gave birth to a child. We joked that the only proof we had was currently asleep in our arms. A week (and many hoops jumped through) later, paperwork finally was obtained from the hospital and the Spanish courthouse.
Life with a newborn is not the only thing that has been affected by this pandemic. Our toddler’s world has been completely turned upside down. He has been taken out of school, isolated from his peers. He remained confined within our home, welcomed a new baby, and had to process that members of the family he'd been so excited to see would no longer be flying here to visit. He is also dealing with two parents who are processing this lockdown in their own way. Yet, he remains resilient.
This lockdown has been particularly difficult for children. Unlike lockdown mandates in other countries, which allowed kids to take walks outdoors with their family, Spain did not allow for children to leave their homes at all. Daily bike rides to our local pastelería for coffee and pastries were traded in for biking around our small patio. Weeks passed.
Parenting during a pandemic is not for the faint of heart.
THE NEW NORMAL
Minor variations from ordinary life added up to make the lockdown an exhausting reality. Masks at the grocery store, virtual medical appointments, and conversations with our neighbors from a safe distance—this was our new normal.
Spain was hit incredibly hard by COVID-19 and loss has been felt within every community. The city of Madrid alone accounts for one-third of all deaths from the virus within Spain, a nation that, as of this writing, has lost almost 24,000 people to the disease, a per capita toll almost three times higher than the United States.
Given the profound loss experienced across the country, the government has been very cautious with a timeline for ending the State of Alarm.
The gradual lifting of restrictions began on April 26th and will continue over the coming months. Children are now permitted to leave their homes for up to one hour to take walks or ride their bikes. The rollback of more restrictions is in the works if there is a continued downward trend of cases.
When I reflect on everything that has happened, the same three themes keep echoing in my mind.
One. It is important to look for silver linings and focus on the positives. We are unable to control the chaos surrounding us, but we can control how we react to it. Some days, the silver lining for our toddler is perching on his father’s shoulders and waving to the garbage men as they drive through our neighborhood. Whether it is the smell of homemade apple pie we finally had time to cook, or an extra hour of sleep from our newborn at night, these silver linings can be found around every corner.
Two. There is no perfect childbirth experience—and that’s OK. It is normal to feel guilty when things end up differently than you planned. It is also OK to grieve for the childbirth experience you never got to have. Being 0 for 2 in this category, I am learning to let go of the things that are out of my control… and a pandemic is undoubtedly one of them.
Three. I have discovered an inner strength I did not know I had. The hits certainly piled up. Facing an overwhelming number of obstacles, resiliency and positivity have been critical in getting through each day. Some days, this means successfully homeschooling, cleaning, cooking, and virtually connecting with friends and family—all while keeping up with a newborn. Other days, it means sitting around watching movies all day to relax and maintain sanity.
As for what’s next, we are focusing on staying strong and hopeful. We are looking ahead to brighter days when we can soak up the sunshine on our favorite restaurant’s terrace with a café con leche in hand—enjoying the hum of joyful Spanish conversation after this lingering period of silence.