Motherhood is never easy. It's amazing and miraculous and stressful and sometimes all at the same time. Being a mother this past year forced many to rethink their careers, their schedules and their dependence on one another to make it all work.
While the pandemic's effect upon the family and the workplace is still being written, those who gave birth over the long months of the pandemic already know they faced new challenges others had not.
That is, as they proceeded with their pregnancies, as they brought their babies home, they tried to show those babies that the world was wide and wonderful and full of people who loved them but could not touch them.
For them, it has made for months of isolation and perseverance. For them, this Mother's Day brings a special kind of celebration.
‘What is motherhood? It’s just love.’ Moms of Cincinnati find joy amid COVID-19 pandemic
Love, beautiful- chaos and challenging are just some of the words these Cincinnati moms used to describe their experience with motherhood. Warning: Cute baby alert!
Meg Vogel and Amanda Rossmann, Cincinnati Enquirer
Mom to Rosie, 16 months
Michelle Hopkins’ learning curve was steep. And multi-layered.
Last year, she had to learn how to be a first-time mom, how to be a mom of a baby with a disability, and how to do it during a pandemic.
It all came pretty fast. When she had her 20-week ultrasound, she learned her baby daughter had major anatomical concerns and defects, including a major hole through her heart. Because of the pregnancy being high-risk, Hopkins spent the last trimester in a hospital bed.
"There were days we thought she might not make it, and we might not ever get to meet her," said Hopkins.
Still, defying the odds, Rosie entered the world via an emergency cesarean section on Christmas Eve 2019. The newborn spent months in the hospital before finally coming home. A week later, the world shut down.
Children with Down syndrome are at a higher risk of having certain health issues. Rosie just happened to get all of them. She has had open-heart surgery, spinal surgery and two airway surgeries. Rosie relies on a gastrointestinal tube for food and, until recently, was connected to oxygen around the clock.
"I never, ever imagined having to fight so hard for my child right out of the gate," said Hopkins, who quickly learned how to be Rosie's advocate. It is now her full-time job.
"There are times where I think I lost who I was before," says Hopkins, "but I think who I am now is a whole lot richer and a whole lot better."
While Hopkins spent last year in and out of hospitals, she dreamed of a playroom for Rosie. A room full of toys, a pink castle in the corner and space. A space for her daughter to play and dream. A space away from monitors and tubes. Now Rosie sits next to her mom on the floor of that playroom, surrounded by colorful blocks.
"That she is her and she is here is phenomenal. It's unbelievable,” said the new mom. “I mean, the statistics, you just can't even believe that she exists. And we just think of ourselves as, like, what luck that we landed her."
Mom to Zylon, 1
Zylon Abernathy looks up at his mom, Infinity, as she holds him tight. She kisses the one-year-old on the forehead, and he reacts with a big toothy grin. Infinity smiles, too. She says her heart has grown more this year than she could ever imagine.
Abernathy was in high school when she learned she was pregnant. She didn't know if she could be a mom. It wasn't something she saw in her future.
"When I had him, I was like, oh, I actually like this. This is nice. Having a baby in my arms all day, breastfeeding, taking care of him and smiles all day, and just having someone up under you is,” she pauses, “lovely."
Shortly after giving birth, Abernathy graduated high school. She thought about taking a year off before starting college, but her mentor encouraged her to keep going. Abernathy applied and received a place at the Scholar House, an organization that provides housing for single parents and support and resources to complete post-secondary education. She currently works as a home health aide and is pursuing a nursing degree through the University of Cincinnati Blue Ash.
There are moments when the juggling of school, work and single parenting feels overwhelming. But when she looks at him and he gives her that grin, she melts. "I love everything about him.”
Mom to Jah'Heem, 5, and Jon'Qezz, 6
Emily Erdman was all set to adopt her two foster children on April 7, 2020. Erdman and her two boys, Jon'Qezz and Jah'Heem, had been looking forward to this day for over a year, the day they received their new last name.
Then the courts shut down due to COVID-19, and the ceremony was postponed.
Shortly after she received an email asking if they would be OK with a Zoom ceremony. On April 14, the boys dressed in their matching gray and black suits. Erdman placed a nice tablecloth on their kitchen table with flowers from a friend and hung a 'Zooming into Adoption' banner on the wall.
While the three prepared for the ceremony, Erdman's sisters surprised them by placing homemade signs and balloons in their front yard welcoming the boys to their family. It was not the ceremony she wanted but she would take it. The family logged in to watch. They would be the first virtual adoption ceremony in Hamilton County.
Erdman had been fostering the brothers since 2017. When reunification with their birth mother was no longer an option, Erdman decided to file for adoption in 2019, even if she would be a single mom. This would be different. As a foster mom, she say she built up this wall because you want to treat them like your own, but they're not.
“You want to always to protect your heart but when they came, I couldn't help myself."
After the adoption ceremony, Erdman's family drove by to honk and cheer. They took photos from a distance. The newly minted mother wrapped her arms tightly around her sons for their first picture together as a family. When she went to bed that night, everything felt different, she said.
"They were finally home."
Mom to Lucy, 3, and pregnant with daughter, Hope
For months, Mandy Geyman had been quarantined with her husband and daughter. They didn't see friends or family, so when she had to call them with news, it was hard to explain it all. "We hadn't told them that I was pregnant," Geyman said. "It's a very awkward conversation when we were, like, OK, well, now we got to tell people, like, I'm pregnant, and I have breast cancer, you know?"
That was January. She was 17 weeks pregnant. Her thoughts immediately went to the baby. "In my mind, I was convinced it was either keep the baby or receive treatment. I was very nervous about having to make that choice."
Her team of doctors told her she didn't have to make a choice. There were two people affected in this case, and they were going to treat them both.
This was a relief. But there was something else on Geyman’s mind. After months of working from home, both she and her husband had noticed some of their daughter’s behaviors. She was set to be evaluated to see if she was on the autism spectrum.
First things first. Within 24 hours of being told she had cancer, Geyman met her oncologist and surgeon. A week later, she was getting chemotherapy and worrying about both of her children.
Geyman didn't have time to dwell. She had been told she was lucky, in a way. "If it's too early (in the pregnancy), they can't do much because the baby's still developing. But if it's too late, you're going to give birth soon, and they don't want to have you be on chemo.”
News about Lucy came in the spring. It had been a nerve-wracking process but the delay had given the family a chance to process and research on their own.
A purple scarf wrapped around her head, Geyman, now in her third trimester, blows bubbles in the front yard with Lucy. A wooden pink ribbon adorns her yard: "Fighting for Two," it reads. As Lucy hugs her mom's belly, she says hello to her baby sister, Hope. Lucy helped pick the name.
"She is our hope,” said Geyman. “She's my motivation to keep going, to keep fighting, to not just stay in bed and cry, which I definitely would love to do some days."
Mom to Reno, 6; Kelila, 3; Khalil, 2 and Khari, 4 months
Early in the pandemic, Kayla Brooks was laid off from her job at a mental health facility. Pregnant with her fourth child, and with daycare no longer an option for the other three, Brooks stayed at home and worried.
Constantly calculating risk, she did all she could to keep her family healthy. Brooks didn't go to the grocery store or spend time with her extended family.
Despite her best efforts, she “was afraid the whole time."
Brooks gave birth to a baby girl, Khari, in December, with only the baby’s father on hand to help. She had to spend a few days in the hospital, the longest time she’d ever spent away from her other children. She spoke with them virtually but she wanted them to meet their sister, share her joy.
Being a quarantine baby, Khari hasn't had many visitors. She still hasn't met some of her grandparents.
Brooks says she has spent the year learning about her children, and herself. "I already knew that I was super strong. What I had to learn to do was manage my own mental health. This year taught me that I have to be able to take care of myself, in order to take care of them."
Mom to Logan, 9 months
Hanna Garbellini jokes with her husband that the babies on the diaper boxes are her baby’s only playdates. Then the new mother stops and says, "If we think about that too much, it makes us want to cry.”
Garbellini found out she was pregnant while finishing graduate school. She and her husband were excited for their first child. They saw their baby for the first time together on an ultrasound. She was the size of an olive.
But that was the only appointment Garbellini's husband could attend beside his wife. Then the pandemic intruded.
During the pandemic, she went to all her appointments alone. Ultrasound technicians would FaceTime her husband to narrate the growing images on the fuzzy screen. When Garbellini would ask her midwife questions, there seemed to be no clear answers. Everything was unknown.
It was not the pregnancy she envisioned, she said. Friends and family didn't get to see her pregnant. There was no baby shower. "I felt guilty in the beginning,” said Garbellini. “So many other people have lost so much through COVID. I shouldn't be complaining about this. But then I realized, no, this is still something that I need to grieve and process."
Garbellini’s mother had died when she was in high school. The fresh realization that her mother was not going to help her and see this important step in her life just brought a new kind of grief.
Garbellini's sister, Claire, stepped up. She dropped everything when Garbellini went into labor. She got tested, quarantined and moved in for a week to clean, cook and support her sister.
"No one in life is meant to do anything alone, but especially not motherhood," said Garbellini. So her friends have tried to share not just the good stuff but the hard stuff with her. Not just the highlights, but the lowlights, too.
The greatest tradeoff is, of course, Logan. And that Garbellini says she has the great fortune of being Logan’s mother.
Mom to Camden, 4; Chase, 2; Eloise, 5 months
For three days, Melissa Long and her husband Alex constantly refreshed the app that would tell his COVID-19 results. Alex felt tired and had a fever. Melissa was on a high alert. She was scheduled that week to have her third child via C-section. Melissa moved downstairs with her two sons while Alex isolated upstairs.
The date of her delivery was moved a few days. A day after the originally planned surgery, Alex went to the top of the stairs to share the results. He was positive.
She was mad.
She was going to have this baby without her husband. Melissa started making calls. Her parents would take her boys. Her sister would fill in for her husband. The next day she stood with tears in her eyes saying goodbye to Alex. He stood at the top of the stairs, also crying. "We just needed a hug, and we couldn't hug each other."
When she arrived at the hospital, she nervously notified everyone of her husband's diagnosis. They immediately put her at ease. She took a COVID test. And they called Alex on FaceTime. An anesthesiologist held the phone. Alex was in Melissa's ear, encouraging her. Before the delivery, the doctor said, "Dad, get ready!" And then Eloise came into the world with a wail.
Alex met his daughter four days later as he looked through the window in their living room. Melissa stood on the other side of the glass, outside on the front porch with Eloise in her car set atop a table. "It will forever be burned into my brain. He just stared out the window and cried." Melissa and Alex talked to each other on the phone. Alex made faces at Eloise and said, "Hi, I'm your dad. I'm your dad, Eloise."
Melissa moved in with her parents while her husband finished his quarantine. Alex finally got to hold his daughter when she was six days old. "He squeezed her. He hugged us. We all snuggled up on the couch.” The family was happy to be back together.
Mom to A.J. 2, and Finn, 7 months
Brittany Wilcox was pregnant with her second child. She knew what to expect. As a nurse in the Mother and Baby Unit at TriHealth's Good Samaritan Hospital, she has helped countless women as they became mothers.
But just as she was ending her first trimester in March 2020, caring for others became potentially very dangerous. All those she worked with knew what she was thinking. She wanted to be a good nurse and she wanted to be a good mother and she wanted to protect her unborn, all at the same time. They could help.
That is, they could create a shield around her, making sure she only attended those who were free from COVID-19 symptoms. She would not be unnecessarily exposed.
Wilcox, relating to her patients, was able to calm the fears of those in labor. "You're with people at a vulnerable time,“ Wilcox said, “but also the happiest time of their life. You're trying to educate them, help them be new parents, and help dads change their first diapers."
When it came time for Wilcox to deliver her son, she felt lucky. All her colleagues were by her side. It felt familiar. It felt safe. It felt like family.
Mom to Lundon, 10, Jayden, 1
Fear has been a constant feeling for Tasha Walker since right before the birth of her second daughter at the end of March 2020. Her last doctor’s visit had been virtual. Jayden was born with fluid on her lungs and had to spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit. Jayden recovered quickly and Walker got to bring her daughter home a few days later.
“The first day I felt like I wasn't myself, I actually wasn't. It wasn't like that when I had Lundon. For some reason, I was just terrified. I don't know why, but I felt like it was my first child,” Walker says.
The new mother of two prayed a lot during that time. Her boyfriend was working long hours outside of the home and she had a lot to juggle with her newborn baby and trying to navigate virtual school for her oldest. It wouldn’t be long before she would have her own work schedule to add to the mix.
All she knew was that she was overwhelmed.
Walker was drawn back to her Bible. And she began to repeat Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
“You have to love your babies no matter what you're going through, even if you're down and don't want to get out of bed. You don't want them to see you down. I never want my girls to see me down."
But worry remains.
Ten years ago, when Walker took Lunden out, she loved it. Recently, Walker took Jayden to a store for the first time and she was terrified.
Since that day, Walker has been afraid to put too much on her young daughter too quickly. Just because so much of the world has opened up, doesn’t mean that Jayden is ready.
Mom to Tristan, 13; Sara, 10; Hayden, 9; Jeremy, 9; Owen, 5 months
Nicole Zistler, a mother of four, figured the universe must be joking. It was April 1, 5 a.m., the pregnancy test showed a pink line.
After years of infertility struggles, Zistler and her husband started fostering. The couple adopted four children. Then nine years later, this.
The middle school French teacher had to adjust to a hybrid schedule for herself and four children who attended multiple schools. She had help. "My husband – God love him – is a stay-at-home dad. But he was running ragged, trying to figure out who's in art class and who's supposed to be doing reading,” said Zistler.
The pregnancy felt inordinately long, thought Zistler. Her other children had given her a few hours' notice to prepare for their landing in her home. She found that she actually needed that extra time, to prepare her other children for the changes coming for their family.
She should not have worried. "In this year of so much sadness and loneliness, (new baby Owen) is the most precious, happy baby and I think that has been a beacon of joy for our family."
Mom to Everett, 7 months
Sallee Ann Harrison tweeted on March 29, 2020, that she was pregnant with her first child. The social media manager at The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote, "It's been *wild* being pregnant during all this. At the same time a world is growing inside me, the real world keeps getting smaller and smaller."
Working from home, she didn't get to commiserate with co-workers in the newsroom about her worries, pain and sleepless nights. Harrison said, "Everything started shutting down right as we were gearing up for the biggest new adventure ahead of us." She would log off work in the afternoon, lay in bed and try not to worry.
Toward the end of her pregnancy, Harrison found out that her son would be born with dwarfism. There was a 50/50 chance of this. Harrison, who has the same kind of dwarfism, had a lot of emotions to process.
She felt guilty. Harrison knew what his journey would look like, the struggles and trials. The doctor asked her if anyone else in her family had dwarfism. Harrison was the only one. The doctor told her that her son was really lucky to have her as a mom. And he said, "This might be nice for you, too, to have someone else who gets you."
Harrison gave birth to Everett at the end of September. She and her husband, J.T., call him Rett. "I've never doubted my love for my son. It was instant, and it grows every day."
Harrison has tried to maintain the facade that she is balancing everything, but she has struggled. "There were some really dark times for me afterward. I do have bouts with postpartum depression, just with being so overwhelmed by everything. And isolation does not help with the pandemic."
Rett's pediatrician encouraged her to get help. She said having somebody beyond her bubble see her and flag that things were not OK made a difference.
Rett, now seven months old, fills Harrison's Twitter feed. He makes guest appearances during Zoom meetings and is just feet away from Harrison as she continues to work from home. "I do not feel like I've missed anything," said Harrison. "When he starts crawling, I'm going to be right there." Harrison feels less lonely these days.
As Rett grows, so does Harrison. She is starting to accept who she is as a mother and person. "Really seeing my son and how perfect and wonderful that he is just the way he is, and I wouldn't dare think a negative thing about him, that's made me a little kinder to myself."
If you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression two weeks after giving birth, reach out to your health care provider and talk to them about what’s going on.
Postpartum Depression and Anxiety Facebook group, A Lighter Shade of Blue, currently meeting via Zoom
“Good Moms Have Scary Thoughts: A Healing Guide to the Secret Fears of New Mothers,” by Karen Kleiman, variable pricing online
Support available every day, 24 hours: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration national helpline, 1-800-662-4357.