Giving Birth in a Pandemic

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Michael Hebbeler, M.A., Director, Discernment and Advocacy Education, Center for Social Concerns, May 2020

When I asked my pregnant wife what she thought our twin babies were teaching us as we passed the due date with no signs of imminent delivery, Carolina replied, Kairos.

“They move with the time of the harvest,” she explained, “not the clock." 

That seemed a fitting response, for time has been one of the more disorienting aspects of reality for most of us during this pandemic. Days of the week have lost significance, and not much has distinguished March from April or May. Carolina and I never could have anticipated that a winter of bustling preparation and planning with friends and family would give way to a strangely isolating and anxious season of waiting. 

When COVID-19 began to be taken seriously here in the U.S., a friend sent a news story entitled Love in the Time of Coronavirus. I thought this headline was witty, until I came across several other articles, ranging from economic forecasts to medical reports, each with that same title. My wife’s favorite novel is in fact Love in the Time of Cholera. She owns a dozen translations, collected over the years on trips to various parts of the world. The book is written by her country’s most celebrated author, Gabriel García Márquez, and though cholera as a disease plays a role in the story, its greater significance lies metaphorically in the lovesickness of the main character, Florentino Ariza. More than a title for catchy pandemic headlines, perhaps the novel might instruct us to consider the greater story currently at hand—the sickness of our society—out of which coronavirus has arisen. Pope Francis called attention to this reality in his widely watched Urbi et Orbi address in late March. Reflecting on the disciples imploring Jesus’ help amid a storm at sea, Francis offered his own contrition for a world in turbulence:

[W]e have gone ahead at breakneck speed, feeling powerful and able to do anything. Greedy for profit, we let ourselves get caught up in things, and lured away by haste. We did not stop at your reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick.

Carolina and I listened to the Pope’s words as the curve was beginning to rise in Indiana, and while we wondered if there could be a worse time to be bringing babies into the world, we recognized that perhaps there was never a good time in a world that operates according to Chronos—a time of calculation and control, of division and exploitation. We nonetheless tried to prepare, keeping an eye on delivery room protocols as we heard about hospitals prohibiting any guests from accompanying expectant mothers. We also encouraged Carolina’s parents to move up their travel plans by a month, and on March 19,  amid confusion, panic and tears, they caught what would be the very last flight allowed from Colombia to the US. 

That day was the feast of St. Joseph. I had been keeping an eye on feast days, hoping the babies’ birthday might fall on the feast of a great saint. The following night, after several tele-med calls, I was ordered to the ER given the symptoms I had been enduring for weeks, most worrisome being a constricted chest. My heart and lungs ended up checking out okay, though I never was tested for COVID-19 given that I did not have a fever or cough at the time, nor was I considered to be in the vulnerable population.

We were grateful to have Carolina’s parents with whom, after two weeks of self-quarantine in an Airbnb across the street, we enjoyed meals, games, and daily walks along the river. They were our community as our social interactions became reduced to friends dropping off bread on our porch, neighbors taping artwork to our windows, and our recently unemployed housemate painting positivity signs in the front yard. As we approached the 35 week mark (the average length of a twin pregnancy), my wife decreed during a walk that the appearance of the blue heron would signal the arrival of the babies. So each day we scouted the river banks for the first spring sighting of that mysterious bird, but it did not show itself and neither did the twins. When Holy Week arrived, we were excited about the prospect of Easter babies, if not the poetry of a Good Friday delivery. Neither occurred, and a week later at full term our doctor said she’d be willing to go a maximum of six more days before the babies had to come out, given the risk at this stage. So we scheduled a caesarean surgery for that Friday, as not only would we be out of time but our baby girl was breech for the entire pregnancy and remained so. On that Wednesday we put up wall hooks in our nursery and officially finished a renovation project that our incredibly generous friend had been working on since before Thanksgiving. It was also the day our baby girl flipped in the womb. The next morning we awoke to Carolina’s water breaking—twice—and labor had begun.

We moved with direction but calm that morning, April 23, watering house plants and eating breakfast. We read from Give Us This Day and were joyfully surprised to see a feature on Cesar Chavez on the anniversary of his death (which would be his feast day if/when canonized). Chavez knew something about the time of the harvest in a world that was sick, and his grassroots efforts with migrant farmworkers fighting nonviolently for their rights has inspired our own local organizing work with Faith in Indiana. The excerpt also included Chavez’s devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, which moved me to place my finger on Carolina’s medal of Guadalupe that I had fastened around my neck that morning. (She would have been wearing it if not for delivery room restrictions.) We packed the car and my father-in-law wished us luck as he shook my hand. Something unexpectedly hit me in that moment, and before letting go I realized that it had been several weeks since either of us had felt the human contact of a handshake.

I was not allowed entrance to the hospital until it had been established that Carolina was in active labor, so I paced the parking garage alerting family and friends of the occasion. Texts poured in, including pictures of candles lit by loved ones down the street, across the country, and overseas. After about 18 hours of intense labor, Carolina failed to progress and the doctor called for a caesarean surgery after all. In the wee hours of the morning we had to “wait our turn” as the anesthesiologist was caught up tending to a trauma patient (we would later learn of a gunshot victim), and then in what seemed like a blinding flash of white lights, beeping machines, and scurrying medical personnel, Lucía Magdalena and Maximiliano José arrived on the scene. We named our girl after the famous Magdalena River in Colombia, the setting of the conclusion of Love in the Time of Cholera, where after calculating the exact number of years, months and days of sickness endured, Florentino Ariza’s health is restored upon the prospect of traveling up and down the river forever with his lover. Not to leave Max hanging, we gave him the middle name José,  the Spanish version of the name for the mighty local river with a “south bend” in it.  

Carolina was heroic throughout, as were our health workers. They showed great care and affection for our babies, counseled us as new parents, and made us feel like champions as we prepared to enter the world as a family of four. Our only regret was not being able to get to know any of their faces, as masks covered all but eyes and foreheads of everyone we encountered.

During our four day stay, we followed the prescribed schedule of feeding our babies every three hours for a total of eight times a day, until that plan unraveled shortly after it began. Consistent with their instructiveness during the pregnancy, the newborns require us to be present to their needs, not the clock. That is how we have spent each day since they arrived, attentive to those little faces and bodies before us. “Moments” is another way to understand the notion of Kairos, and birth stories are a continual stream of the here and now. As the babies slept and the sun began to dip during our final evening in the Mother/Baby Unit, we discussed what the next morning’s transition into a shutdown world might look like. That’s when Caro pointed with delight over my shoulder. Outside the window above the eastern edge of the hospital a blue heron was in flight. 

 

Comments

So beautifully and thoughtfully written.
Lucia and Max are the luckiest babies, thank you, Mike., for such an uplifting story.

Thanks, Mike, this was lovely and made me tear up. That's welcome in this Covid world, which for me seems turned down in volume and half tinted. I need more unselfish emotion and herons! Kiss those babies for me, please. And give Carolina my best. She is such a wonder.

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