A week into lockdown, I discovered I was pregnant. I sat there listening to the NHS phone line ringing as no one picked up, the test stick’s defiant pink line still in my hand. Would anyone ever be able to talk to me? What if something went wrong? I knew staff must be overrun with more urgent queries, but pregnancy is overwhelming at the best of times. A global pandemic doesn’t help.
Luckily the NHS did get back, my school has continued to pay me as I teach from home and a loving partner means I’ve felt supported at this strange time. But it got me thinking about other women’s experiences through lockdown, so I called some maternity charities and new mums to find out more. I’ve combined their stories (changing some personal details and names), but each of them are based on London mothers’ real lived experiences and interviews with professionals.
Imagine Abi. She’s excited about giving birth, but anxious about doing it alone. Although most hospitals are now allowing a birth partner to be present during labour, in Lewisham, where Abi lives, you can only bring someone if you live with them. The difficulty this creates for Abi is that the future dad moved out after threatening her, and the best friend she wanted to have with her doesn’t live in the same household. When she imagines no one there holding her hand, she closes her eyes.
Now imagine Clare, who lives in a neighbouring borough. She’s already got two lovely kids who have been clumsily helping her in the cramped and sweltering hostel room where they have been living for months, but she’s worried about her husband. He works informally, so there is no furlough and he doesn’t know when work will start again. A food bank has been plugging some gaps, but not all of them. Unlike me, she doesn’t have a garden in which to exercise privately and the local park doesn’t feel safe when she’s shielding. With no family in the country to talk to, anxiety grows with her swelling belly.
Finally imagine Sylvia. She’s heard on the news that 56 per cent of pregnant women with Covid-19 are from black and ethnic minority communities. She’s tried to raise these issues with her midwife in the past – she already knew that BAME women were five times more likely to die in childbirth – but her requests for extra consultancy help didn’t seem to be heard. She’s wondering if she can afford to go private, or whether to ask her aunt to help her to give birth alone. We’ve all been told to stay home because that saves lives, so it’s no surprise some women are choosing to give birth without medical support.
Birthrights, NCT, Maternity Action and other great charities are all reporting huge increases in demand for help from women like these. Adapting in days to grow new online services and communities for women, they deserve huge credit.
But these community heroes, and those working tirelessly in the NHS, cannot fix all of the inequalities illustrated in these stories. Housing, income, health, education and discrimination all combine to make pregnancy a fundamentally unjust experience for women across our country. And that’s before we get to the fact that lockdown has separated us from friends and family that would normally be there to help.
It’s commonly accepted that every child is born of equal worth. But our experiences of pregnancy and birth have always been unequal and coronavirus has made that worse. This isn’t a reason for guilt among those of us who have beautiful or more easy experiences, but it is a reason to question and challenge why all mothers and their babies don’t get the same.
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