Giving birth in a pandemic: Four women tell their stories 

Four women tell Joyce Fegan of being pregnant, giving birth and the postpartum period during the Covid-19 pandemic. From being unable to shower after labour to going home from hospital to face homeschooling with a newborn in tow, and returning to Direct Provision with your newborn baby — these are the women's stories.
Giving birth in a pandemic: Four women tell their stories 

Catherine Allman and little Amelia.

Four women tell Joyce Fegan of being pregnant, giving birth and the postpartum period during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

From being unable to shower after labour to going home from hospital to face homeschooling with a newborn in tow, and returning to direct provision with your newborn baby — these are the women's stories.

Social distance birthing was so difficult

Catherine Allman gave birth to her first baby last November after 25 hours of labour and following nine months of navigating the maternity system alone in a pandemic because of the restrictions on partners.

“Aaron (her partner) came to the GP with me to confirm our pregnancy but no other visits, it was awful basically, it was our first baby, our first experience of going through this, and you feel like they’re missing out. 

"I was nervous because of Covid and going into hospital every few weeks on my own.

“In the beginning, I agreed with them — the Government, the HSE, then it came to the point where I am right up close with a technician, then I'm going home to see Aaron? How did that make sense?” said Catherine.

Catherine also has the experience of two maternity hospitals, as she and her partner moved from Dublin to Killarney during the pandemic, to save on extortionate rents in the capital when they were working from home anyway.

“I had my 20-week scan in the Merrion Clinic in Dublin and I am very lucky, they let me film it, where elsewhere they just won't let you. I also got tonnes of pictures to give to Aaron – in Dublin I got 13 pictures, and in Cork, I got four, it was just so different,” explains Catherine.

As Catherine’s pregnancy progressed she grew more and more frustrated at the restrictions.

“I started to get really frustrated when you saw people could go to a pub, but the man I was sharing a home with, the father of my child, couldn’t come into a room with me with a mask on?

“I live in Killarney and the town was heaving with people, I could go for dinner with my friends if I wanted but I couldn’t go into a room in the hospital with Aaron,” says Catherine.

Catherine transferred from Holles to Cork University Maternity Hospital (CUMH) for the remainder of her pregnancy.

“I gave birth in CUMH and Aaron couldn’t visit me at all after delivery — it seemed to depend on where you were in the country, the rules were different, there was no rhyme or reason, it doesn’t make sense to you. And I had a really hard labour," says Catherine.

She arrived at the hospital and was 4cm dilated but everything slowed down after that. 

There was no birthing suite ready for Catherine and she didn’t want to labour alone in a ward so she chose to go outside to Aaron while a room was being prepared.

“We walked around the car park in the middle of the night trying to get things going. So now, after everything, here I am out in November in a car park walking around in the night.

“Then an emergency came in and my suite was gone understandably, we went into the car for a while and listened to music, then just after 6am and two paracetamol later the suite was ready,” says Catherine.

She had a long and intervention-filled labour which included the use of oxytocin to accelerate things and four doses of epidural which did not take effect resulting in the use of an additional anaesthetic.

“It was incredibly difficult and exhausting," says Catherine.

Two hours later Aaron was sent home.

 Catherine Allman with her partner Aaron Leonard and new arrival baby Amelia.
 Catherine Allman with her partner Aaron Leonard and new arrival baby Amelia.

“I remember being on the ward, it wasn't a packed room but there were three others, and wondering why can't I be with Aaron in my cubicle? 

"The next day I couldn't take a shower because the ward was so busy — I felt I had mild shock from the labour and I did not feel I could go for a shower because there was no one there to take care of Amelia.

"My mum rang me and I didn't have it in me to call her back, I would have just broken down. I would have just loved if she could have taken my baby so I could shower and rest," explains Catherine.

Then, just as Catherine thought she was homeward bound, Amelia developed a temperature.

"Amelia had to be taken to NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) on the day we were hoping to leave as she spiked a temperature, I did not know what was happening. 

"I was alone and had to wheel my baby down. Aaron was able to come and see Amelia but we couldn’t see her at the same time or see each other.

"I had to go out to the car park again to tell him what was happening, then he went and sat and held his baby for the second time while I went to my ward. 

"When he was leaving we hugged at the lifts, said our goodbyes and I went back into Amelia. We were lucky, she regulated her temperature and tests came back clear. 

"Yet another thing I couldn’t understand though was that we could be in the same hospital, hold the same baby but couldn’t technically be in the same room," says Catherine.

Overall, she feels that the restrictions imposed on the maternity system during the pandemic were both unfair and added unnecessary stressors in an already difficult time. 

While she credits the care given by staff on the frontline, it was the system and restrictions that created challenges.

"I can't tell you how horrible it was for me and expectant mums when everything opened up. We got people back into pubs and restaurants, but I couldn't get my partner into a room with PPE — we couldn't sort that out?" adds Catherine.

Giving birth while in direct provision

At 36 weeks pregnant, Tumi Gaonwe took the usual bus from her direct provision centre in Carrick-on-Suir to Waterford for a routine maternity check-up  — something she had done the whole way through the pandemic. 

It was a Friday morning in August and she had to leave her two young children behind because of the restrictions. 

She expected to be home that evening, but her baby had other plans.

"As I was walking to the bus stop I felt a small sharp pain, I kept going, I got into this other bus and got to the hospital. 

"I was checked by nurses but the last person to see me was the doctor. When the doctor was about to see me, I said I felt a sharp pain, he said just in case let's check.

"After he checked me, he said: 'Oh my god, you are not going home, you are 2cm [dilated].' 

"I was 36 weeks pregnant — I haven't packed my bag, I haven't done anything. I was packing slowly but surely, but nothing was ready for the baby as of yet, I was just not expecting a baby at that time. It was a Friday morning," explains Tumi.

Tumi had already had a very challenging pregnancy with difficulty breathing at times.

"It was a bit scary because I didn't know what was next, there was an outbreak of Covid here and I'm pregnant and most of the time I have to travel on a bus to the hospital," said Tumi.

When she eventually started labour, her birth partner Fiona travelled from Bray to wait outside the hospital until Tumi was ready to deliver. 

In the meantime, Tumi had to contact a friend from her centre to bring her maternity bag to the hospital. 

The woman had to take the bus from Tipperary to Waterford to drop the bag at the hospital door.

Tumi Gaonwe and baby Kasimobi with birth partner Fiona Carey (left).
Tumi Gaonwe and baby Kasimobi with birth partner Fiona Carey (left).

Tumi eventually gave birth to her baby boy Kasimobi, meaning "my comforter" on Sunday night, after a very long labour.

"I felt so relieved when I saw the baby on my chest, they weighed the baby, Fiona took pictures and she cut the cord. They had to take me to the ward and Fiona had to go home," says Tumi.

Because Kasimobi was born four weeks early, he was kept in for monitoring. 

Tumi left hospital the following Thursday, meaning she was away from her other two children for nearly a week, because of the restrictions.

"It was lonely but because I was with my new baby I comforted myself with that - at least he's here. I showered with the door open so I could hear him if he cried," explains Tumi.

Tumi then had to face into the postpartum period alone with no support or resources, waking in the middle of the night to make bottles in a shared kitchen down the hall from her family's small apartment.

Then come January, she was faced with homeschooling two children while caring for a five-month-old baby too.

"It's not easy, you have a baby who needs your attention, and there is this homeschooling and these kids need your attention too. 

"By the time I go to bed I am tired, I am exhausted, I literally do everything. I have to go outside my room to do the dishes and to wash the baby bottles, like in the middle of the night," says Tumi.

She is over two years in the direct provision system and has completed interviews for her asylum application. She is still waiting to hear the outcome.

She has nothing but thanks and praise for all medical staff she met, including a midwife named Mary who organised clothes and food for her and the baby.

However, the system of direct provision needs to be abolished and with the support of the Irish people, says Tumi.

"If the Irish people can work with us to understand where we are coming from, to encourage the abolishing of direct provision — it's demoralising us, we don't have anyone, we don't have anyone around us, no families to come and see us.

"If Irish people can plead on our behalf, the system is killing us," she says

Homebirth was like a fairytale

April Geraghty is someone well acquainted with medical emergencies, she’s a manager in a busy A&E. 

Pregnant with her fourth child, after previous hospital births, she decided to have this baby at home during the pandemic.

She describes her recent homebirth as a “fairytale”.

“On all my births, even from the first pregnancy, I wanted minimal intervention and to stay at home as long as possible. I was induced on Fiadh as they thought she was large and with the twins, there wasn't an option for a home birth.

April discovered she was pregnant last June, having experienced a pregnancy loss in May 2020, during the first lockdown.

“I asked myself if it was Covid because we had so much Covid coming into us, and as a nurse you're like ‘it's grand’, you don’t want to cause a fuss.

“In January 2021, when the numbers were really high if you were pregnant and high risk, the HSE said you can't have patient contact and you can work from home, but what could I do from home? So I worked until 32 weeks, I had a lot of pelvic pain. 

April Geraghty and baby Fiadh
April Geraghty and baby Fiadh

"I'm only 5 foot 2 inches and each pregnancy takes its toll — you're going all the time and then home for dinner and bedtime," explains April about working through the pandemic while pregnant.

As she had not had the "most straightforward pregnancies" she contacted Private Midwives Ireland, as opposed to HSE midwives, to see if she would be a contender for a homebirth. Her health insurance, Irish Life, covered most of the €4,500 cost of having a homebirth privately. She ended up getting Liz Halliday.

"Normally they'd come to your house chat and you see how you get on, but we were on the phone. Whatever concerns you had, Liz provided so much information, she never gave her opinion, you then made your own informed decision. 

"She started coming to us at the end of December, then she came every week, she'd take my blood pressure, test my urine and measure your bump. We all looked forward to her coming so much," says April.

However, as the due date approached things got slightly complicated. The baby's head was in April's hip and she went into hospital to have a scan. 

By this stage, after lots of "spinning babies" exercises the baby had moved, however, the hospital informed April that the baby was "looking big". An induction was on the cards.

"I was really upset about it. We went through all the risks and benefits of the induction and the only argument for induction was that she was big but the fluid was fine, my blood pressure was fine, so I decided to stay at home for now," says April.

As it turned out she started labour naturally at home at the weekend, just before she was due to have a planned induction on Monday, March 22. April was 40 weeks and 6 days into her pregnancy.

She contacted her midwife Liz and her doula Lorraine Lozano. The birthing pool was prepared, candles were lit and April's written-out affirmations for labour were hung up around her home.

By midnight on Sunday, the contractions started to ramp up and April got in the pool.

"The pool helped, it was like a warm hug all over you, and the monitor is waterproof. It ramped up very steadily, they (her husband Mark, doula and midwife) were all quiet, and she came at 3.30am," says April, of the arrival of baby Aoibhín.

Weighing 10 pounds and 10 ounces, there wasn't a single tear for April.

Baby Fiadh yawns at all the fuss.
Baby Fiadh yawns at all the fuss.

"I delivered her in the water, I was on another planet, I turned around and there she was and I just scooped her up into my hands, it was just disbelief. There wasn't this big fuss around me, it was peaceful and we could just enjoy each other," says April.

"Mark cut the cord which he hadn't done on the others and he had skin to skin, then they checked me and there was not a tear and no blood in the pool, and I just thought: 'this is just like a fairytale'.

"I went upstairs and had a shower and then the two of us were just in the bed and it was just us and her, it was surreal, and people were just so good to us and food just kept coming to the door. Everything was just perfect," she adds.

April says that the experience of giving birth changed her as a person, in terms of trusting her body and what it can do.

"I think the majority of women can do it, I think we need to trust a bit more," says April.

Postpartum lockdown was the hardest time in my life

Cara O'Loughlin welcomed her third baby, Finn, into the world last October. 

While she feels her labour was not impacted by the pandemic, her postpartum period was, as she was juggling homeschooling with the challenges of caring for a newborn, with no access to the usual supports.

"My due date on Finn was October 8, and like his sisters, I was overdue by two weeks. At that stage, I was so ready for him to come. I felt uncomfortable and was nervous of the school midterm coming up as I knew I would have all three kids home so I was urging him to come earlier," explains Cara.

"I was well prepared for labour, I had tried everything to nudge him out being a prenatal yoga teacher and it being our third — I was excited for labour. The day Finn was born, October 21, the country went back into Level 5 lockdown. We went with the dominos scheme in Holles Street and they were amazing," adds Cara.

Her waters eventually broke in Aldi in Greystones — about 30km from Holles Street. When they arrived at hospital, Cara realised that her husband Shane was not allowed into admissions with her.

"Being our third, I was fine going in myself but I had to wait alone in the antenatal ward until things kicked off. Finn was in distress so the team felt my labour had to happen as soon as possible so Shane was allowed back in for delivery and we were in our own room at that stage which was great.

"For us, Covid didn't impact the delivery as such as we had the space to be on our own with our midwife, and I had the space to do my thing. However, if it was our first baby, it would have been really hard and had a bigger impact," believes Cara.

Cara O'Loughlin and her third baby Finn, who arrived last October.
Cara O'Loughlin and her third baby Finn, who arrived last October.

Shane was allowed to visit Cara in the postnatal ward, for up to two hours, while she was in hospital.

Due to the pandemic and social distancing, the lack of visitors suited Cara in the immediate period after delivery, so she could recover from labour and bond with her baby.

"I got more time with just Finn, no visitors which worked for us this time around. However, it was really hard for me that our families couldn't get to see him or hug him or even for my dad to hug me.

"I feel like they have all missed out on him as a baby and that makes me sad, especially since he's the only grandson on my husband's side," explains Cara.

Her postpartum period was affected by the shutting down of society — she describes it as the "hardest time" in her life.

"Having a third child for me, in lockdown while the kids were home from school and we were to homeschool was the hardest time in my life. I felt pulled in so many different directions while trying to breastfeed and live off minimal sleep. I couldn't ask anyone for help, particularly as lockdown continued for so long," says Cara.

There were some silver linings in the fact that her husband's job allowed him to work from home and she received tremendous support from friends.

"I did get to know our baby more and get to take the early days slow and not be out trying to meet people. I also had amazing friends and my sister drop meals and snacks over and help with picking up the girls from school. I'm so grateful for those people and for the fact that my husband has been working from home. It has made the last few months easier in some ways," says Cara.

Cara has documented her postpartum experience on Instagram ""@yogawitcara""

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