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SUNDAY FEATURE: Births for the history books: Flagstaff parents on childbirth during COVID-19 pandemic
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SUNDAY FEATURE: Births for the history books: Flagstaff parents on childbirth during COVID-19 pandemic

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When the time came for her son’s arrival on June 16, first-time mom Arielle Conway said her face mask felt especially unpleasant.

“Pushing while wearing a mask was not enjoyable. I don’t know how much of that was just the pushing part of labor, but I think the mask definitely added a certain part to it,” Arielle said. “You get really hot when you’re breathing in your own breath and trying to take deep breaths.”

She laughed as she recalled the moment her son was placed on her chest and her husband, Carl, asked if their top name choice, Axel, still seemed like a good fit — but Arielle couldn’t see past her mask to tell if it did.

The name was right, they determined, but it was one of the strange moments of delivering a child at Flagstaff Medical Center in the middle of a pandemic -- which local families described as an experience having an equal share of benefits and disappointments.

“I honestly kind of forgot about the whole COVID situation besides the fact that we had to wear masks any time nurses were in the room,” Arielle said, describing moments the couple scrambled to retrieve their masks when someone knocked on the delivery room door. “But besides that, most of my worrying about germs and food and preparation and stuff like that kind of went away, because I think they are taking such great precautions at the hospital.

“Or it could be the large amount of pain that I was in,” she added with another laugh.

Although in the early months of the pregnancy, the Conways were able to celebrate and attend doctor’s appointments as expected, as the due date approached and local COVID-19 cases increased, procedures for Arielle’s check-ups changed and Carl was no longer able to attend with her in person, an unexpected challenge as they prepared for their first child.

Her April baby shower was canceled, too, though the virtual replacement turned out to be a success because so many of her friends and family are located outside of Flagstaff. Instead of traditional baby shower games, the group focused instead on sharing advice.

“That was actually really special to me. Since it was virtual, I could have all the people I very deeply trust to talk through postpartum care and all that stuff, so it was really nice,” Arielle said.

Axel’s grandparents, who live in Chicago and Canada, have still not met their new grandson in person due to concerns about traveling from out of state. The couple has been isolating at home to protect themselves and their young child, and they have been taking advantage of more educational resources now available online as well as the additional time together.

“The fact that we’ve had so much time as us, as a small family unit, without being distracted by having to go to social gatherings and things like that, I think has really helped,” Arielle said. “Instead of being distracted by people constantly coming to the door to visit or see him, we’ve been focusing on him. So I feel like the bonding is potentially better by the fact that we’re so isolated.”

Work-life separation

First-time parents Rose and David Kent spent the weeks prior to their son Sawyer’s June 9 arrival trying especially hard to prevent David from bringing home the virus from the hospital, where he works as a trauma technician in the emergency department.

After his 12-hour shifts, David showered once in the hospital locker rooms before changing clothes, driving home, and showering and changing again. He even kept a separate pair of shoes in the car. Two weeks before the due date, he took off work for a full self-quarantine.

Rose, meanwhile, spent months at home to avoid exposure to the virus, causing her to miss out on the small experiences of being out in public while expecting.

“When you first get pregnant, people tell you, ‘Oh, when you get bigger, strangers in the grocery store are going to touch your stomach and come up to you,’ and they tell you it’s so annoying, but I think it’s kind of funny because I never got to experience that, so I have no idea if it would have been annoying or not,” Rose said. “I didn’t get to experience those little things in pregnancy that you don’t really even think about, just the being in public around people. I didn’t go to the store at all, and I think even if I did, people wouldn’t approach me because they are keeping distance.”

When their son missed his due date, the Kents scheduled an induction, which required them to get tested for COVID-19 a few days before their hospital stay. When they arrived at FMC, they were required to wear masks and also had to place all their belongings into large bags until they got to their room.

When they brought Sawyer home about a day later, they were met with an unexpected stillness.

“It’s a lot of time spent alone with just us. It’s weird,” David said. “When I first found out we were pregnant, I didn’t have any thought about going through a pandemic, so I’d thought we’d have our parents over to help and do things, or friends to come over and help and do things. Turns out, it’s just very little movement that happens within the house now.”

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With this unexpected alone time, Rose said she has been thinking about how she will describe the birth to Sawyer when he is older.

“It will probably be in his history books and maybe he’ll ask us about it,” she said, hoping he can learn the same lesson of the importance of family that his parents are learning now. “It’s like the story from the grandparents about walking uphill both ways in the snow to school. ‘I quarantined at my house for five months to have you be safe and sound.’ I don’t think he’ll ever really grasp what that truly was like for us. At least I hope not, because hopefully we won’t have another pandemic in his lifetime -- or in his childhood, at least, but who knows at the rate all this is happening.”

Just pick one

Dorothy Nelson’s newborn son just missed pandemic precautions on his birthday, Feb. 11. Unlike those who delivered children later, Nelson was not impacted by the one-visitor rule at the hospital for deliveries — including that the visitor must remain in the room and cannot return if they leave — and had her husband, doula and photographer all present.

“If we had had to pick only one person to be there in the delivery room with us, it would have been a hard decision because had it been my first birth it absolutely would have been my husband. But with the second time around, having Kristen, my doula, there was an absolute necessity and it would have been really hard to choose between the two,” Dorothy said.

Dorothy’s doula, Kristen Pearson with Flagstaff Doulas, said she has seen only two cases where mothers selected to have their doula at the hospital with them instead of their partner. In both cases, the partners stayed home with their first child.

Though Nelson’s delivery was similar to the birth of her eldest child, early life with an infant did have to shift to adapt to the pandemic.

Only one guardian was allowed to attend pediatrics appointments with the infant, where nurses would meet Nelson at the door to take her temperature and escort them directly to an exam room. The lactation consultant who originally visited Nelson at home also switched visits to virtual only.

“That’s tricky because they’re not there to see what’s going on,” Dorothy said. “Luckily we got things squared away before that happened.”

Dorothy and her husband, David, who took an optional furlough from his job to reduce the chance of exposure, have had family and friends offer to do their grocery shopping for them. They’ve also used curbside pickup options at stores and restaurants.

“It’s a little nerve-wracking, especially not knowing what’s going on exactly, but I think this will eventually all pass. It will just take a while,” Dorothy said.

The highs and lows

Like everyone else, expecting parents are not free from other effects of the pandemic.

Despite her best efforts, Kaitlin Hublitz’s plans for the birth of her second daughter, Caroline, on May 27 all unraveled when she lost her job as a senior lecturer at NAU.

She got the message the day she went into labor.

Although her former colleagues have provided abundant support for Hublitz and her husband, Aaron Girod, after Caroline’s birth, Hublitz said it was difficult to cope with the idea that her well-planned pregnancy -- which would have allowed her to take maternity leave until November -- hit at a high point in the local outbreak.

She admits she has had moments of great sadness during the experience.

“Part of this pandemic has been giving up a sense of what was normal. That’s time you don’t get back. She’s never going to be a month old again, she’s never going to be a 2-week-old baby again,” Hublitz said, lamenting that her family, who lives in the area, hasn’t been able to spend time with Caroline. “I don’t know how long we will have to stay isolated because when you have a newborn they have no immune system, so you really have to be careful. And that’s sad because that’s time lost with family and friends that won’t get to know this new baby.”

In spite of these moments, Hublitz said, she remains thankful that her husband can work from home and their daughters have a home with a yard to play in during isolation. She was also especially grateful to the hospital employees who she may not ever recognize if she sees them in the community someday because of the high level of personal protective equipment they wore during the delivery. She’s appreciative of even the unexpected and less-than-perfect elements surrounding her youngest daughter’s birth, too.

“I keep reminding myself I’m going to look back on this one day and think, 'Holy crap, I can’t believe I did that,' and just try to be empowered by it,” Hublitz said. “If I can bring a baby into the world during a global pandemic, then I’m unstoppable.”

Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at kolson@azdailysun.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253.

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