Helen Simmons, a 28-year-old film producer from London, went into labour with her second child on the evening of 30 March – exactly a week after Boris Johnson announced a nationwide lockdown. “It felt like a 1960s-style birth,” she jokes.
She arrived at the Royal Free hospital with her husband, Charles, at 5.30am the following day. “We were hoping for the best,” Simmons says. Instead, Charles was sent home because of new visitor restrictions brought about by the outbreak, and Simmons was sent to a labour ward on her own. She was hungry – she hadn’t brought enough food with her – so Charles dropped some off and stayed with her for a few hours before being ordered to leave again.
For the next 10 hours, Simmons was in labour alone and Charles was relegated to a waiting room outside, like a Mad Men-era husband. It was tough. “The hardest bit of labour isn’t the pushing,” Simmons says. “It’s the contractions. And doing that alone … you don’t realise you need your partner so much, emotionally and physically, until you can’t have that person there with you.”
After a 30-hour labour, the majority of that time spent alone, their daughter, Isla, was born on 1 April at 4.40am. Charles was allowed in to watch Isla being born before being ushered out. It certainly wasn’t the birth they had hoped for or planned. Yet Simmons feels the experience meant she discovered an inner strength she hadn’t known she had. “It gave me a newfound respect for women through history,” she says.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues, pregnant women across the country will be wondering how it will affect them. “It’s an anxious time for pregnant women,” says Maria Booker of the charity Birthrights. “They are concerned about whether their partner can stay with them or what the birth will be like.”
At the moment, according to official guidance, no British woman should have to give birth alone. “Visiting is restricted to help stop the spread of coronavirus,” says NHS England, “but our guidance is absolutely clear that a specific exception should be made for birthing partners when a woman is in labour.” The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) guidelines state that partners may not be able to accompany women during their induction and the early stages of labour because of physical distancing guidelines. But it adds: “At the point you go into active labour, you will be moved to your own room and your birth partner will be able to join you.” Provided, of course, they are not showing any signs of illness. No visitors are allowed post-birth.
But there is a degree of confusion about how the rules are being enforced by different trusts. Simmons spent most of her labour alone, but others have partners with them throughout. A business owner from London, Naomi Edmondson, 29, gave birth to a baby boy at St Mary’s hospital in Paddington on 31 March. Her husband, Ally, was allowed to stay with her throughout her planned C-section.
What may be noticeable to mothers giving birth, however, is that hospitals seem emptier. A recent survey by the RCM found that 20% of midwife roles are currently unfilled because of self-isolation, coronavirus or existing staff shortages. Last week, Lynsay Coventry, 54, died at the Princess Alexandra hospital in Harlow, Essex. She was the first midwife to die of Covid-19, showing the risks healthcare professionals are taking when carrying out their jobs.
Emily Botelho, a 30-year-old artist from Manchester, delivered a baby boy safely on 30 March. Her partner, Richard, was allowed to be by her side. But afterwards, she overheard the midwives on her hospital ward discussing the staff shortages. “There was a bit of chatter about one of the maternity wards possibly having to close, as the staff were off sick and self-isolating,” she says.
Many trusts are cancelling home and water births because they require more staff. However, Booker says: “We’d ask that trusts think carefully before pulling their home birth services.” She urges them to think creatively about how to work around staff shortages; some trusts are using private ambulances to serve their home birth teams, to take the pressure off NHS ambulance crews.
Martha San, a 30-year-old personal assistant from London, found out through Facebook that her planned home birth had been cancelled because of a shortage of ambulances. Her midwife had planned to call her, but the news broke online first. San had postnatal depression after her first pregnancy, and had planned a home birth to minimise the chances of her mental health deteriorating. “The idea was to have the baby in an environment I felt comfortable in,” she says.
When it came to it, “the birth was great”, says San. Her husband, Jamie, was by her side and baby River arrived safely on 29 March at Lewisham hospital in south London. “The fact I was not at home didn’t matter.” But doctors wanted to keep River in for tests and so San had to spend two nights in hospital alone because Jamie had been sent home. Her ward was noisy, and she couldn’t sleep. At 2am on the second night, San broke down. “I started shouting at the midwives and crying,” San says. “I said that I wasn’t meant to be there, this hadn’t been the plan, I shouldn’t be left alone with the baby and I wasn’t coping.”
A midwife moved San to an empty ward so she could get some sleep, and looked after River for a few hours. They were discharged the next morning. But having to spend two nights in hospital alone with a newborn baby was distressing. “It just felt really wrong,” San says. “After the birth, I needed someone there and I didn’t have anyone.”
Coronavirus also threw Rachael Collier-Thomas’s birth plans out of the window. The 38-year-old mother from Hertfordshire had planned to have a water birth, but it was cancelled. “When they told me I couldn’t have my water birth, I joked that I’d rather give birth to the baby at home than in a labour ward,” Collier-Thomas says. “But I didn’t actually expect that to happen.”
When her waters broke on 24 March, the contractions were so mild that she carried on pottering at home. “I thought I could be like that for days.” A few hours later, Collier-Thomas felt an urge to push. “I thought: it can’t be the baby – it’s too early,” she says. “I haven’t even called the hospital.”
Collier-Thomas delivered her daughter, Lottie, on her (formerly) white sofa, with the help of a local doula who had raced around. She is adamant that she didn’t seriously plan to have her daughter at home. “I know that home births can be dangerous,” Collier-Thomas says. “But maybe, subconsciously, I thought: ‘I really don’t want to have my baby on the labour ward.’” Collier-Thomas is not alone: as a result of the coronavirus lockdown, other British women are turning to freebirthing, giving birth without any medical support. Some are concerned about the risk of contracting coronavirus in hospital; others have had their planned home births cancelled, and prefer to go it alone, without even midwives on hand. But having your baby at home, without medical supervision, can lead to a greater risk of complications.
All the women I spoke to understand the pressures the NHS is under – and are not bitter that their births didn’t go as planned. “It’s hard to be upset,” says Simmons, when your own birth does not go to plan “because there’s so much going on. I totally get it.” Even though San’s hospital stay was upsetting, she has nothing but praise for the midwives doing their best under such difficult circumstances. “They were doing an incredible job,” she says. “But they can’t play the role of midwife and birth partner to every woman on the ward.”
The strangeness of giving birth during a pandemic doesn’t end when you get home, though. Given the lockdown, many families won’t meet newborn arrivals for weeks, if not months. Helena (not her real name), a 25-year-old teacher from Edinburgh, gave birth to her first child at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary on 24 March. “The staff were brilliant,” she says. “Calm and supportive.” But not being able to rely on family or friends for childcare is tough. “We’re first-time parents trying to figure it out, without family for support,” she adds. “It’s stressful and overwhelming.”
For some, coronavirus has cast a shadow over a joyful time. “It’s really tainted everything,” says Chloe Goodman, 38, a solicitor from Macclesfield. She gave birth to her daughter, Clara, on 20 March. Goodman describes the care she received at Macclesfield district general hospital as “brilliant”. But she feels upset Clara won’t meet her grandparents for months. “They’re only tiny for such a short period of time,” Goodman says. “They change so quickly.” Helena is also finding things strange. “I should be showing my baby off and going out and seeing people. But, instead, I’m sitting at home, feeling scared.”
Many expectant mothers may be contemplating their births with trepidation. And the whisper networks of expecting-mum WhatsApp and Facebook groups can be frightening. “I’d been freaking out before the birth and imagining the worst,” says Edmondson. “But actually being in the hospital was the least worrying part of it all.”
Edmondson urges women to ignore the rumour mill, and trust the NHS. “In the hospital, it’s not as bad as everyone says,” she adds. “For me, it was calm, and when you have your baby you’re in this lovely bubble. You’re not paying attention to all the scary stuff people are posting on social media.”