Parent-Newborn Relationships in the COVID-19 Pandemic: Moments of Meeting

Leila and George generously opened their home for me to meet their 5-week old son Adam, via Zoom of course. In this strange new world in which social interaction is both more easily available and tantalizingly unreal, we spent 30 minutes together as I got to know this new little person while hearing their story of delivering a baby in the coronavirus lockdown of 2020.

When the call began, I observed Adam’s alert engaged expression as he faced the camera from the comfort of his mother’s lap. As we spoke, Adam nestled himself into the crook of Leila’s arm. When I commented on how easily and peacefully he fell asleep, she told me, “He’s always been cuddly like this.” After this initial stage of observation, I asked if she would feel comfortable sharing the story of Adam’s birth. I explained that as an infant-parent mental health specialist I was curious to learn about the experience of families delivering during the pandemic. She agreed.

Leila was in the early stages of labor in mid-March when she and her husband learned they would have to go it alone. They already had planned a home birth, but neither they nor their doula had yet mastered the techniques of remote healthcare as we as a society tried to find our footing amidst the chaos of the exploding pandemic.

Leila’s initial anger at the situation transformed to gratitude as George proved himself to be an extraordinary coach over the full 2 days of labor. But an eight our hole in time-between a photo of the birth bath and newborn Adam on Leila’s chest- offer the only evidence of the depth of feelings they experienced alone together in the late stages of labor. Their midwife arrived three hours before Adam and ushered him into the world. Leila described being blissfully unaware of the stress of clearing secretions out of his mouth, a process she described as a “mini CPR.” She worried that it was more scary for George, but when I asked him later, he brushed it off as “nothing” compared to the experience of supporting her in labor.

At this point in her story, George arrived on the screen. Immediately I observed Adam, who was once again seated in his mother’s lap, still the movement of his body and organize himself to turn his full gaze to where his father sat beside his mother. Even through the camera, the connection between the father and son was palpable.

Then Adam began to fuss ever so slightly. Leila and George looked at each other with behavior that communicated to me how well the two of them together had learned to understand their son’s language. They agreed that his diaper was wet and he needed to be changed. George held Adam prone across his two hands and moved him up and down, explaining to me how they had learned to appreciate his preference for intense movement over gentle rocking. Sure enough, Adam quieted immediately. George carried him off screen to change his wet diaper while Leila continue her story.

They had learned to read Adam’s signals of hunger, tiredness, or need to be changed. But the hard part came in the evening when nothing worked. While Leila appeared calm in telling me the story, I could imagine the young couple alone with a screaming infant unsure if, as she explained to me, “there was something wrong with him.”

Eventually with time, the guidance of their pediatrician, and a hefty dose of Google they got through it and now felt comfortable navigating these evening crying bouts. My explanation that babies typically have more difficulty settling after of a full day of interaction rang true but of course came after they had already figured it out themselves.

Adam and George arrived back on the screen and soon Adam again offered a gentle communication of distress, to which his parents, after exchanging a subtle glance, responded with “he’s getting hungry.” I asked if Leila felt comfortable feeding him in a video zoom call. She said yes, if I did, and began to settle Adam at her breast. “How is the breastfeeding going?” I asked.

In real time Adam showed me what they had been through. At first he tried to latch on and then seemed to change his mind. Leila continued her story as lay quietly on the pillow across his mother’s lap. His calm, content expression was revealed to me as he faced the camera. But this smooth navigation I observed followed weeks of frustration and challenge.

Adam always got sufficient milk, as he peed and pooped normally and gained weight well. But Leila struggled. Nursing had been intermittently painful from the start. Sessions with their doula, who had now mastered the use of technology, proved frustrating. She instructed Leila on technique but Leila felt that she misread her emotions and did not appreciate Leila’s anxiety and frustration. Eventually, with George’s support and more help from Google, Leila felt that she and Adam had found a comfortable rhythm. Now the breastfeeding was only occasionally painful. At this point in our conversation, I noticed that Adam was at her breast and quietly nursing.

When I asked about family support Leila poignantly captured the sense of loss, saying that while adults understand the Zoom interaction, Adam doesn’t get to “feel the love” of all the other members of the family. But once again showing their resilient attitude, they acknowledged that unlike many others, they were doing pretty much what they would have been doing during this time. And they expressed gratitude to have each other and to be able to be with Adam in the way that he needed. They shared how the pleasure of witnessing his emerging self brought them fully into the present moment, protecting them from much of the pain and hardship in the outside world.

I was guided in my virtual visit by the work of pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton who was among the first to describe the tremendous capacity newborns have for complex communication right from the moment of birth. My experience with this new family validated the idea, as described in my forthcoming book (June 2) The Power of Discord co-authored with renowned developmental psychologist Ed Tronick, that relationships grow and thrive as partners move through what Tronick calls “mismatch” to moments of “repair.” George and Leila described in words their ability to successfully navigate difficult experiences imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Adam’s behavior, his form of communication, showed how much of little person he already is at the tender age of 5 weeks. As they told their story of disruption and healing, over the course of our visit, in real time, both parents successfully navigated multiple moments of mismatch and repair with their infant son.

Every family who is pregnant and delivers a baby during the pandemic will have some degree of disruption to their birth plan. An extreme version of this disruption will be separation of mother and baby. If a mother is sick with the virus, parents may choose in, decision-making process together with healthcare providers, that the risk to the baby of illness overrides the risk of separation. Countless heartbreaking losses of all kinds will occur.

This new family, born out of the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, revealed the power of moving through mismatch to repair. In all forms of disruption along the full spectrum of possibility, protecting time and space for repair holds the key to moving through healing to new growth. These moments of meeting, strung together over time, will show us a path forward.

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