I was one of the pregnant women you have been hearing about during this pandemic, restricted to bringing only one birth partner to the hospital. Before covid-19, I planned for my mother and a doula to help me bring my second child into the world. As my due date approached and the pandemic metastasized, the prospect of bringing my 69-year-old asthmatic mother into a hospital became unthinkable. Then, days before my planned induction, my doula called to say she may have been exposed to covid-19.
I packed three peanut butter sandwiches and went to the hospital alone. My birth plan, previously a one-page list about bonding with the baby and minimal intervention, shrunk to a single-item request: Get me and my baby out of the hospital as fast as you can.
Because I am 42, I was advised to stick with the hospital over a home birth and induce labor before my due date. Whereas previously I was terrified of catching the virus before I gave birth and being separated from my newborn, now I feared my newborn and I might catch the virus from the hospital. I decided to deliver without pain medication or intervention that might lengthen my stay. My focus on preventing infection almost made me forget my fear about doing it alone.
To my surprise, my delivery was not lonely or alienating. Instead, it felt like the most communal experience of individual accomplishment I have ever pulled off.
While I labored for hours by myself, text and voice messages, pictures and videos flooded my phone from the moment I alerted friends and family I was going to the hospital. When the pain grew too intense for me to look at my phone, I put in my ear buds and called my doula, who stayed in my ear until I pushed my son out that night.
Later, in my hospital recovery room, I clutched his tiny soft body to my chest with one hand and held my phone in the other. I alternated between looking at his face and at the dozens of joyful messages spooling out in response to the announcement I had emailed to a pre-drafted list of as many people as I could think of.
Being a single mother by choice has taught me how to do things alone, together.
Solutions through social connection also come from my job as a psychology researcher, in which I study social networks and how to promote better behaviors in those networks. At home and at work, I am interested in ways our communities support and normalize parts of our lives that, at the outset, are not necessarily normal at all.
Covid-19 social distancing does not mean social isolation. Staying in touch with my networks helped the people I love influence me from afar.
Since my delivery was an induction, I was hooked up to an IV Pitocin drip to start my contractions. During these hours I was physically by myself for stretches of 30 minutes at a time. I found myself most comfortable standing next to my hospital bed, marking hearts on the video and text messages. “You are not alone, we are all here thinking of you” a friend texted from Israel. “I will stay up tonight and write every half hour — save energy and don’t respond, I can see the check marks turn blue!” (Meaning I had read her WhatsApp message.)
Another friend sent me a video of herself in sunglasses and a fedora in her quarantine kitchen, playing a guitar version of my 4-year-old son’s obsession, Super Mario Brothers. I laughed to myself at the thought of having this earworm during labor and forwarded the video to my parents at my home with my son. They sent pictures of his delighted face.
A friend who had previously undergone an unmedicated birth sent me voice recordings, telling me what I might feel. When I sent questions, she passed along a video of her laboring just as her son’s head crowned. I was moved by this intimate act of sharing and struck by her low, bestial groans that seemed foreign compared to my previous birth with an epidural.
Some people reached out to connect as a result of covid, not knowing I was in labor. A friend messaged: “I’ve been trying to pick a few people from my circle each day to send ‘You’re awesome’ notes to. Today is day three and you’re it. You’re … awesome.”
I also learned how important it is to reach for and accept help from experts in my community. At first I thought I wouldn’t need my doula. I did not have a doula for the birth of my first son, and I feared it would be pointless, awkward, or even indulgent to have her call in. But when the pressure grew, I surprised myself by turning off the music and calling my doula. She listened carefully to me, trying to understand the scene around me. “Is anyone there? What is the room temperature like? What does the monitor say about your contractions?” My doula seemed to understand exactly where I was in my labor from the pitch of my moaning and the pace of my breath. “Try deeper,” she counseled, at the end of a particularly high-pitched wail. I heard myself making the low noises of my friend in her birth video. This seemed to send my son further down into my pelvis. I was amazed — a few words of counsel had progressed my labor.
In all, I spent nine hours laboring and four hours on the phone in intense labor with my doula constantly in my ear. The midwife came in halfway through my active labor and sat quietly in the corner, observing me, and then physically positioning me for birth. She caught my son at 8:28 p.m. on the first day of spring in a pandemic. As I shuddered and stared at him in wonder, the beaming midwife offered me the scissors to cut my own cord.
A single mother knows the importance of community, of seeking emotional support from people beyond her immediate family. My experience giving birth alone, but with a virtual community lighting up the airwaves, reinforced this lesson in a concentrated surge.
As a researcher, I understand the importance of community in a different way. Communities help us understand our reality. Through stories and examples, our communities tell us whether something is okay, unhappy or inspiring. During my birth, my virtual community normalized the experience for me and also vaunted it. “You’re doing what so many women have done before you” and “You are doing something brave and amazing.” Their messages helped me when the pain was strong and the room noticeably quiet.
Before I became a parent, I had self-centered ideas about how to support friends with a new baby. Clearly, they will want a two-hour visit full of entertaining stories from moi! Other people had to teach me, through their example, that new parents needed a ton of practical help and that my visits should be short and sweet.
During this pandemic, we are teaching each other variations on these lessons. As I type this one-handed, a neighbor is dropping off a meal at my door; she knocks softly and takes off. Another friend texts tips on where to order flour and how to use cloth diapers. Homemade videos with lullabies and wild proclamations that my two boys are the most beautiful, smartest brothers on earth balance out the other wildly bad news on my phone. My rabbi helped me organize a baby naming ceremony over Zoom that allowed family and friends to play music, offer blessings and crazily clap and sway and sing siman tov umazal tov together in real time from our various shelters around the globe.
I text with my pregnant friends and tell them they can do this. I tell them to find their expert — if not a doula, perhaps a friend who has done this before. I tell them to charge their phone, and that I’ll be on the line if or when they want it.
I type this story for you because I believe in the importance of stories to help create a new reality. In my case, a story of a meaningful and happy birth when we labor alone but together.
Elizabeth Levy Paluck is a professor of Psychology and Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and Deputy Director of the Kahneman Treisman Center for Behavioral Science and Public Policy.