This morning I caught my lonely reflection in my hallway mirror: my work-appropriate blouse fitted down to where the view of my computer’s Webcam ends, then heavily stretched over my rounded stomach—the bottom few inches of my belly protruding over baggy sweatpants below. I’m nine months pregnant, but the world hasn’t seen me.
On June 28, 2020, in the thick of COVID lockdown, I found out I was expecting my first child. Inability to drink alcohol during the pandemic aside, being pregnant in 2020 has been nothing short of bizarre and challenging. At times I have felt maddeningly alone, missing the rewards of sharing my life milestone or the ability to reach out for help when I needed it most.
In July I saw my baby on ultrasound for the first time—alone. COVID restrictions meant my husband was not allowed to come with me to doctor’s appointments. I laid there on the exam table, my face shielded behind my mask, looking at my doctor, shielded behind hers, as she pointed to the screen. Suddenly there was a beating heart and a third face—the only one in the room that was not veiled. This is how it will be through delivery: I will never see my obstetrician’s face.
For months my belly has grown a few inches south of my Webcam: no colleagues have seen me pregnant. And by the time I return to the physical office in Boulder, Colo., where I work, I will have a child that nobody saw me grow. Many of my colleagues don’t even know I’m pregnant. Without the need to explain my getting visibly rounder, it feels like an odd secret—a secret I would not have had the option to hide any other time.
Sometimes I’m grateful for the isolation. I got to endure nausea in private, be exhausted in private and work from my couch on the days when it felt too hard to stand. Luckily for me, I had a job that allowed me to work from home. Luckily for me, I had a job at all. And as others also reported in a 2020 survey of 70 pregnant women in Ireland, taking a break from life’s fast pace while I grew another life did, at times, bring me peace.
My challenge instead has been letting go of the picture I had in my head of what pregnancy was “supposed” to look like. Gone is the fantasy of the Good Samaritan on the crowded bus giving up his seat for me or of colleagues in the hall asking how I’m doing. Also gone are the strangers trying to touch my belly or giving me unsolicited advice. Sometimes, without that constant feedback, I forget I’m pregnant. At other times, the aches and pains I feel in isolation seem stronger than they would be if someone was around to provide distraction.
My struggle is muffled to everyone besides my husband and myself. Colleagues, family members and friends only see snippets of my experience through a screen. I’ll smile, say I’m doing well. But when I shut off the camera, I sit in silence once again—looking down at my belly that no one else recognizes, getting up from my chair with a grunt that nobody hears. When the baby kicks, I’ll search the room for someone to tell and see only the sweet, silent stares of my two dogs. “That was your brother,” I’ll say.
My relationship with my future son feels eerily like my interactions with friends and family. He’s in his own tiny quarantine bubble, and I’m in mine. We can’t touch each other, but one day we will.
The baby exists in the epicenter of my compartmentalized worlds, isolated in his cocoon like the core of a Russian nesting doll. My husband and I are the first shell of the nesting doll to surround the cocoon. I knew I’d be more susceptible to COVID in my condition, so my husband is the only human I’ve seen in person. The two of us live in solitude together. And although our shared experience has had its challenges, it has brought us surprisingly closer—another revelation that a number of the 2020 survey respondents had, as well. We went into quarantine as two, and we will emerge as three.
The next outward shell of the doll consists of close friends, family and colleagues—those I’m linked to only by the Internet. Connected yet apart, we peer through small windows into one another’s lives. The final shell is the rest of the world, from the work acquaintance I used to bump into while making coffee to the cashier at the cafe near my office to the bustling crowds at the supermarket. This bubble seems far away to me now.
All of these separated chambers add to the disconnect I feel. All I can do is hope that soon the shell walls will fall with the help of vaccines and medical experts, and we will all be dumped back into the same pond once again.
Sometimes I wonder if I am missing out: there will be no baby shower, no visitors at the hospital. Could I find the same celebration in welcoming my child without the social validation of others? I think about the college students who graduated without ceremonies, the newlyweds married without parties—they must feel similar. I think back to my own wedding. While beautiful, I spent most of the time running around in a constricting dress, worrying about who I had greeted and if everything was operating smoothly. Maybe there’s value in stripping away the fluff, in focusing on the connection without the confetti.
As I navigate my fears—like the possibility of giving birth in a mask or not having the help I need when the baby arrives—I must remind myself I am not alone. The members of my village may be far way, but they are still out there.
If a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound? If your belly grows and nobody sees it, did the milestone—the magic—really happen? I wonder if we can be content in our own experience, our quiet forest. Maybe, in this new world we live in, we must intentionally reach out when the tree falls, and yell (or text or Zoom), “Timber!” when it does.