Once upon a time, when there was no pandemic, freshly-minted grandparents who patiently waited to meet the family’s new baby got plenty of satisfaction. They came to the hospital, visited the home, and often set up camp in a spare bedroom or nearby hotel for a few weeks to help out. Those days are gone—at least for the moment. Of course babies are still being born every day and relatives are still anxious to see them. But states have issued different guidelines about infants’ susceptibility to Covid-19, so there’s no one authoritative source on the matter; and even when families members do agree on which expert to listen to, their interpretations of those opinions vary. So, the only thing that is clear is this: Bickering about who gets to see the new baby and under what conditions is now extremely common and intense.
Before the pandemic some pediatricians in the area advised parents not to go anywhere with their newborns until they had received their two-month vaccinations. Mothers fretted over a trip to the grocery store with their babies or stopping to get coffee while strolling them around the neighborhood. They understood that a neonate (zero to four weeks) lacks immune maturity even if breastfed, so any errant germ passed by a random stranger at Starbucks could lead to illness, fever, even a hospital visit where a spinal tap is routinely administered to rule out bacterial meningitis. Though this is quite uncommon, it doesn’t matter to a new mom if the odds are very low: She is blind to the probability and swayed by the possibility. What she hears and how she behaves is driven by a fierce need to protect.
In my prenatal classes I tell parents that the prevailing instinct most parents feel is protection more than love. Biologically we are wired to protect. For this reason, new moms are extra cautious about everything concerning their babies’ health. They are nervous about feeding, sleeping, diaper rash, swaddling, wobbly necks, pacifiers, the cranial soft spot, SIDS, choking, spit-up, and getting sick. It has never been unusual for new parents to restrict visitors or have specific rules about who gets to hold the baby and for how long; but recently parents have also started asking their own parents not to kiss their newborns. This no kissing rule is fairly new and comes from recent studies that show that the herpes simplex virus, which can be dangerous to newborns, exists in a large part of the population. Yet another thing to fret over.
Take all of these concerns and magnify them by a thousand: The result is a level of fear that is both unprecedented and debilitating for many new parents. One might think that friends and family members would respect and understand this, but the opposite is often the case.
“My mother made many passive aggressive statements about her experience being robbed from her,” says Kendra, a first-time mom. But grandparents aren’t alone in their loss. New mothers’ experiences are being hijacked, too: They can’t see friends and family easily, and they might not be able to have that baby nurse or lactation consultant they were counting on. Their entire postpartum experiences are not what they expected.
Still, some relatives are throwing caution to the wind.
“Basically, my dad is just overwhelmed with longing to see his grandchild and keeps wanting to visit, not understanding that he needs to do some very stringent isolation or a Covid test to make sure he isn’t bringing asymptomatic Covid into our house. He pocket-dialed me from the DMV, which is not where he should be just days away from visiting us. This is obviously very concerning,” says Sarah, a local mom.
Trying to negotiate these different interpretations of safety is near impossible to do politely. Relatives may have a much more relaxed view than you do and misinterpret that as a rejection.
“I don’t know how to get him to understand that he simply will not be able to see her as much as he would like. It’s not me trying to keep him from her,” continues Sarah. “On the contrary, I would much prefer that he were able to visit, so I could share her with him and have some more free time. That goes for all visitors! It is really sad that I can’t share our kiddo with all of my friends, take her for swimming lessons, music class, etc.”
And it’s not just the different generations that are fighting each another. Spouses and partners are spatting within households, too.
Tensions can become heated between the new father and mother if one sides with his or her relatives. “My husband told me that he had had enough of being strict and that our family should be able to see the baby. We set boundaries and told our family members that they could see the baby, but they would need to sit outside, keep six feet away, and wear masks. After hearing our boundaries, the family members refused to visit altogether. They did not want to be told what to do,” explains Molly, another new mom. “At this point my husband had reached his limit and told me that I now have to let our family members hold the baby. We have been strict long enough, and he thinks we need to loosen up. I tried to explain that I am not willing to put our baby at risk. This started causing daily fights between us.”
If your partner feels you are being overprotective, sometimes hearing an official position from a family doctor can help. But not always. “Our pediatrician and our primary care doctor advised us that if we chose to let anyone hold our baby, that person should wear a mask,” adds Molly. “I thought that would settle the disagreement, but my husband felt we can make our own decisions however we want. He did not feel comfortable asking his family members to wear a mask. His family members feel that because they had Covid-19 already, they cannot get it again, and they cannot transmit it to anyone else.”
This is when families get into an emotional tug of war over the baby. No one can agree, doctors’ opinions are ignored, and relatives understandably feel unwelcome. At the root of all of this is the nervous mother.
In “Ordinary Insanity” author Sarah Menkedick explores the many layers of maternal anxiety today, citing studies about risk and probability. If a risk carries some emotional resonance, it is likely to stir up stronger feelings, causing people to become “probability blind.”
Psychology professor and renowned risk researcher Paul Slovic assesses risk with an 18-point ranking system. The points include how unfamiliar a risk is, how catastrophic it can be, even how much media attention it receives. The pandemic involves virtually every one of these factors triggering a new mother’s protective impulses, yet this response is not often experienced by immediate family. Vishwa, a new mom observes, “It’s been very bizarre to see how many people make your kid about them. I’m suffering through very bad postpartum anxiety, and everyone is too uncomfortable to talk about that. Yet they want to see my baby on their terms.”
Therein lies the root of the problem. New mothers should get to set the parameters about visitation and touching during the pandemic because pressuring them to relinquish this control could be traumatic. Ideally their partners will support them. As Menkedick eloquently states: “Becoming a mother is an experience charged with uncertainty and a terrifying lack of control. In this emotionally saturated context, in a risk society that is safer than ever and tormented by the possibility of a rare catastrophe, mothers are bound to drown in risk.”
Names have been changed to protect parents’ privacy.
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