Pregnancy and childbirth are as old as time but pregnancy and childbirth under the cloud of COVID-19 is not reliably recorded anywhere in human history. Until we find proof of an earlier outbreak of this particular strain of coronavirus in our species’ medical record, we can safely say this is an unenviable first.
We can also say, unequivocally, it’s super stressful. That’s the word from Texas doula and midwife Aisha Ralph. As a doula, Ralph’s job is to work with mothers to relieve anxiety during childbirth; for mothers, she educates, assures and relieves stress. She’s there for physical support and advice for coping with the pain and insecurity. She also helps her patients create a childbirth plan and strategy for post-partum baby care.
Ralph says young and new mothers are increasingly nervous about giving birth in a hospital as the COVID-19 virus tears through the nation, risking a 70 percent eventual infection rate among the U.S. population. These mothers have good reason to be nervous, she says, even before the virus showed its face.
“In a location like a hospital, you are exposed to germs that are not yours,” Ralph told The Lighthouse. “Those germs belong to a whole host of other people in that environment, and many of them are sick.”
Between contractions, panicking spouses and obnoxious relatives, germ-fighting safety procedures were once just an afterthought for expectant mothers. COVID-19 makes cleanliness and exposure a whole new level of nerve-wracking anxiety now, however. Ralph advocates for home birth, but this carries considerably more weight under the shadow of a festering new virus.
“I acknowledge my bias, but according to WHO ([World Health Organization]), roughly 98 percent of pregnancies can be considered low-risk, and home is the best place to be for low-risk pregnancies. At home, all of the germs there are yours. You know them. Your body has been interacting with them and you’re not getting sick by them.”
The mother’s body already has an immunity to the germs in her own house, she adds, and that mother can pass immunity to her baby through her breastmilk.
There are other reasons to be leery of a hospital birth beyond the germ factor, however. Hospital staff are generally more stressed and overworked in this new pandemic-fighting environment, and medical doctors now appear to lean overwhelmingly on inducing childbirth, which comes with a volley of unwanted complications and costs.
“Doctors are now scheduling childbirth for appointments in order to have a bed free at the hospital because you just don’t know whether the space will be free under ([COVID-19]),” said Tiffany Townsend, a doula and midwife in Grand Rapids, Mich. She added that these inductions increase the likelihood of caesarian sections in women who otherwise would not need one.
This is a problem for mothers who would like to avoid as many complications as possible, as well as the long and painful healing process from major surgery and unnecessary medical costs. Not everyone’s insurance steps up to the plate when it comes to increasing costs on the birthing table, and a C-section can run an average of $20,000, whereas a vaginal birth runs $4,000 to $5,000.
Townsend offers home-birth services for only $600 to $850.
Before COVID-19 had its dirty way with us, doulas and midwives were able to travel with expectant mothers to the hospital to coach them through childbirth and to provide emotional support and a familiar face in an environment filled with sterility and strangers. Those days are largely over now, as COVID-leery hospitals embrace a new policy of only allowing one visitor to accompany the mother, or sometimes no visitor at all.
Townsend said she agrees with the policy, to a point. She now prefers to avoid hospitals herself these days, in order to keep herself infection-free for her homebirth clients. She says homebirth options are still a problem for young mothers whose partners are stationed offshore either by their jobs or through the military, however.
No one is looking for an upside to the mass-tragedy of the recent coronavirus outbreak, but if you just have to find some sort of silver lining in all this, Townsend said it would probably be the uptick in safer, more comfortable home birth requests among mothers.
“Unfortunately, it took a pandemic to get people to look at out-of-hospital (childbirth),” Townsend said. “I’m getting an influx of new clients trying to avoid hospital rooms. … I can say my schedule is, like, maybe 30 percent (busier) than it was before.”
Ralph said the new world of COVID offers an excellent chance for women to reconsider how they spend one of the most memorable events of their lives.
“My advice for a time like this: Do your research—from the minute you pee on a stick and see two lines,” she said. “For many women, it’s a foregone conclusion that they will birth in a hospital, but they never explore the why of that. Do that research early and don’t be afraid to sit with yourself and wonder what you want this birth experience to look like. You will never, ever forget your birth. My grandmother is 96 years-old and she has some dementia, and she forgets my name regularly, but she remembers exactly what took place at my mother’s birth, 60-odd years ago, with clarity. A woman never forgets her birth, so it is important for her to have a memory that she wants to remember.”