What it's really like being a first-time parent in a pandemic
The pregnancy and childbirth book that first-time mom Courtney Rogener really needed when she got pregnant this year hasn’t been written: "What to Expect When You’re Expecting … During a Pandemic."
If the East Northport first grade teacher had found such a guide it might have offered this advice for Long Islanders: how to regain your composure after bursting into tears because the baby's father had to stay in the car during a milestone sonogram and couldn’t hear the heartbeat, how to explain to extended family and friends that they can't hold your newborn, and even how to stay calm when your 2-month-old tests positive for COVID-19.
"It’s difficult for moms to be pregnant during the pandemic because they are not able to have that village of support that they may have had in prior times," says Jacqueline Aiello, 34, of Lindenhurst, co-founder of a Farmingdale wellness center for expecting and new parents called The Nesting Place. She knows how vastly different expecting and parenting a newborn is right now — her older son, Roark, is 2, but she and her husband, Brian, who runs a delivery service, also had a second son, Max, in July.
What other topics do new parents wish a self-help book covered during this unusual era?
"It was the best day of my life when we found out we were pregnant," Rogener says of the February day she and her husband, Charly, 34, a technology teacher, learned they were expecting. "Then March happened."
Courtney says she was "petrified" to go anywhere or see anyone; nobody yet fully understands how a pregnant woman contracting the virus might affect the fetus. (Stay tuned for a later chapter — despite their vigilant efforts, the Rogeners' baby contracts COVID when she’s 2 months old.)
Everything I expected when I got pregnant in December basically didn’t happen.
Lauren Majikas, 37, of Merrick, a training manager at the Bronx Zoo, lamented not being able to share her pregnancy with family, co-workers and friends. "You think you’re going to have to tell people not to touch your belly … you think you’ll have a shower with you family and friends. Everything I expected when I got pregnant in December basically didn’t happen."
Extended family most likely won't be in and out to help with tasks like decorating the nursery. "If my mom was here, I know she’d have this room organized in an hour," says Brittany Mullings, 31, who works in human resources for the NBA and lives in West Islip. All the baby’s clothes would likely be hung in size order, she says. But her parents live in Florida, and traveling has been a no-go. On the bright side, Mullings says, she didn’t commute 90 minutes to Manhattan throughout her pregnancy.
Some couples chose to get pregnant during the pandemic. Samantha and Phillip Hammond of Rockville Centre said they didn’t want to put it off because of their ages. Samantha, 39, owns a travel agency, and Phillip, 38, is a producer and media buyer. When Phillip’s barber, who also owns a health food store, urged them to add Jamaican purple sea moss to smoothies to help with the effort, they complied; the Hammonds are due in March of 2021. "I’m a homebody, so it’s not a big deal," says Samantha of having to lay low.
Having to go to appointments alone when doctors restrict the number of people in their offices could be harrowing for both the moms- and dads-to-be. When doctors were concerned about a potential problem with the Majikas fetus, Lauren had to go for the follow-up sonogram by herself.
"My husband was just in the car waiting for the news, if everything was OK," she says. It was.
Says dad-to-be Mike, a personal trainer: "I kind of felt a little more out of the picture." (But stay tuned for chapter 5: Due to COVID-19, Mike will be hurled into the picture as he unexpectedly becomes a stay-at-home dad.)
Mullings says she lost it at her 20-week appointment, when her fiancee, Marcus Buffaloe, 38, a medical device salesperson, wasn’t allowed to hear the baby’s heartbeat and see the sonogram. "I was crying. The poor technician, I should probably call her and apologize," Mullings says.
The unpredictability of protocols for how many people can be in doctor's appointments and even attend a birth is a big source of stress for new parents, says Marissa Sherov, director of mental health services at The Nesting Place. Extreme restrictions had been in place at the beginning of the pandemic to control the spread of infection, and the rules were and are still evolving, Sherov says. "A lot of them had let up over the summer and now they're tightening up again. That's part of the unknown and uncertainty that we're all facing."
The moms-to-be say their worst source of anticipatory anxiety was that their partner wouldn’t be allowed in the hospital for the delivery. Some were afraid to go to a hospital at all, fearing exposure to the coronavirus.
Michele Meglio, 33, of Massapequa, who works in technology sales, and her husband Joseph, 33, an accountant, went so far as looking into having a home birth, but Michele says she couldn’t find anybody with openings in June. "I felt like I was trying to win the lottery," she says.
At the hospital, each delivering woman had to first be tested for COVID-19, and they were expected to labor while wearing a mask.
Courtney Rogener jokes that it was unfair that while having painful contractions, she had to also have a swab stuck up her nose while her husband was untouched. She says she asked the nurses at Stony Brook University Hospital: "Can you please just test him so he can have a little bit of pain right now?"
Almost every woman interviewed says the fact that the hospital prohibited visitors after the birth was an unexpected silver lining. Kristen Keller, 34, a hair stylist from Hicksville, and her husband, Niko Papavasilopoulos, 33, who owns the Plainview Diner, had a challenging birth experience; the baby’s heart rate dropped and spiked and Keller had an emergency C-section to deliver their son, Giannis, on Nov. 4. It would have been stressful to also have visitors arriving, she says.
"It turned out to be a blessing in disguise," agrees Chloe Murphy, 32, of Mineola, who works for KPMG and is married to Steve, 33, who works for Con Ed. They had a baby girl named Fiona. "Me and my husband alone, it wasn’t overwhelming."
Charles Keller, 59, a winemaker in California, didn't see his daughter Kristen through her entire pregnancy and has yet to meet his new grandson. He had tickets to fly out for the birth in November but canceled due to the rising numbers and restrictions. Then he planned to come for Christmas, but he’s canceled that trip, too.
"It’s driving me crazy of course," he says. Kristen Keller’s mother, who lives in New Jersey, had planned to help after the birth, but because she had to use up vacation time to quarantine for 14 days before coming, she could only stay for a week, Keller says.
Courtney Rogener says her parents and in-laws met Skylar, born in October, for the first time on FaceTime, and she called it heartbreaking to watch. "I just pictured my whole family getting together, both sides. Having a party together," she says.
Yet some family members will never meet their new grandchild because of COVID-19.
Christina Ortega’s father died of the virus in April, the same week that Ortega’s gender reveal showed she and boyfriend Jose Pimentel, 40, a landscaper, were pregnant with twin boys. Ortega's father was 74 and lived in Brentwood with his younger sister, who also died. "It was crazy. Two funerals," says Ortega, who is a parent counselor for the Child Care Council of Suffolk and lives in Huntington. The twins were born in September; the older twin is named Zander Jose and the younger twin is named Zayden Bertilio, in honor of Ortega’s father.
"My dad was the oldest of many siblings," Ortega says. Her aunts and uncles want to show her support, but they can’t yet. "It’s hard to not be able to show off my babies. You want to be able to say, ‘Look at my boys,’ because they’re gorgeous."
It can also be awkward grilling people before letting them near your baby, Rogener says. Now she has to ask, "’Where have you been? Have you been at work? Who have you been in contact with?’ You’re petrified the whole time, even though it’s supposed to be the happiest time of your life."
New moms can feel isolated caring for the baby all day, and the virus precautions may make them feel even more so.
"I gained more weight than I would have liked to because I wasn’t moving," Murphy says. "It’s still hard now. It’s cold, and I’m only seven weeks postpartum."
But the moms say they are reaching out to others.
Lauren Majikas goes to The Nesting Place, where she did a six-week Fourth Trimester Support Group in person with five other new moms. The Nesting Place is fairly new itself; though it launched out of a West Islip yoga studio in late 2019, it went completely virtual in March but then reopened in its own space in Farmingdale in October, offering virtual and in person classes including prenatal yoga, perinatal mood and anxiety disorder support groups, Tummy Time for parents and babies, the new parent support group and more.
Lacey Puleo, 35, who works in sales support, lives in Selden with her fiance, Dennis Divanian, who works in construction, and their daughter, Scarlett, born in November. She started a Facebook Group called Moms Group Long Island N.Y. because she felt isolated and also guilty, and it now has 600 members. She says her guilt comes from the financial demands of trying to keep her job, the desire to keep her apartment clean, and fulfilling the needs of the baby while her fiance, an essential worker, is on the job.
For moms lucky enough to have partners working at home during their maternity leave, it’s a perk that their partner can help tackling baby’s demands. Mike Majikas is even unexpectedly taking on the role of primary caregiver when his wife starts back to full-time work in January, relieving the couple of the agita of deciding whether to bring a nanny into their home when they can’t control who the nanny is exposed to on her own time.
"I’m all about it," Mike says of being the full-time caregiver for Bodhi, born in August. "For now, I’m happy to at least have this as an option. I’ll have a whole new respect for stay-at-home moms after this I’m sure. I just took him to his little Tummy Time class today."
Several parents interviewed have already had scares regarding their babies being exposed to the coronavirus, and one of their babies has tested positive.
Steve Murphy was sent home from his job as a Con Ed worker when he looked exhausted. He got a COVID test and the results took three days, during which he isolated in the bedroom of the couple’s one-bedroom apartment while Chloe and baby Fiona stayed in the living room. The test came back negative. "I think he was actually the most tired he’s ever been in his life from the baby," Chloe says.
The Meglios had a fright in November when Michele’s father tested positive a day after they’d had seen each other, wearing masks. "Freaking out isn’t even the word for how I reacted. I was hysterical crying," Michele says. She couldn’t stay away from the baby because she was breastfeeding. "My face is in his face all the time," she says. "We went to get tested and held our breath. It was very scary." Fortunately, they didn’t get infected and Michele’s father recovered.
The Rogeners were not quite so lucky.
After Courtney took 2-month-old Skylar to a dinner with close family members — wearing masks the whole time except for the 15 minutes when they ate — all of the adults contracted COVID. Courtney’s husband then got it, and, a few days later, Skylar woke up in the middle of the night screaming and crying with a low fever. "I was so distraught about her having to get tested. It was my worst nightmare," Courtney says. "I said to my husband, ‘I think she has it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.' It was the worst week of my life. The guilt that I had inside of me, feeling like I failed her."
Courtney thought Skylar would have to go to the hospital because she is so young, but the baby recovered at home. But her quarantine period caused the family to have to spend Skylar's first Christmas alone with her. Now the Rogeners have the additional concern of whether having the virus as a baby might affect Skylar later.
"It’s such a new virus, nobody knows what the side effects hold. Is she going to have asthma in the future? No one really knows yet. We just pray that everything is OK."