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An astonishing cruelty

As the NHS lifts strict regulations banning partners from attending maternity appointments, Hannah Fearn reveals the realities of giving birth alone during the pandemic

The second night, alone again, was even more brutal

It’s taken 10 long months, but the NHS has finally realised that this crisis can go on no longer. I’m not talking about the pressure of treating coronavirus, but the devastating effect that the pandemic has had on the care of pregnant women and new mothers.

Until last Wednesday, hospitals were free to make their own rules around how they handled women during pregnancy, in labour and in the hours and days after birth. Most chose to ban the presence of birth partners for all but the hours of active labour (the bit that really hurts) – an astonishing cruelty which has finally, thankfully, been ended.

The NHS has now instructed all trusts that partners must now be allowed to accompany women at all stages of their care – so long as they are tested for coronavirus and follow social distancing guidelines.

But for thousands of women who had children in 2020, those moments of vulnerable isolation have left their mark. And so it was for me, just nine weeks ago.

As I braced myself against early labour pains in an almost empty hospital ward, I picked up my mobile phone, opened Twitter and sent out a message into the dark: “For those interested, still no baby and husband has now been hoofed out under Covid rules. Just had a little cry about that. Wish me and my TENS machine luck for the night…” It wasn’t a self-centred attempt to grab attention; it was a cry for help. All I wanted, at that moment, was to feel less alone.

Earlier that day I had been admitted to hospital for induction of labour. I knew from the very start of my pregnancy that it would end like this, a week before my official due date, because I had developed gestational diabetes. What I didn’t know then was that I’d end up spending much of that process reliant only on the kindness of social media strangers to get me through.

Giving birth alone can be a difficult experience (Getty)

It was hard to believe I’d ended up here. The decision to have a second child had not been an easy one. Our first daughter, Martha, was born in 2017. The first year of her life was tough. I had suffered a long and difficult birth which left me with dangerously high blood pressure and my baby separated from me on the special care baby unit. We spent much of her first month of life in hospital, returning home only as my husband was due back at his desk.

Whether it was down to the endless antibiotics she needed or just pure bad luck, Martha then went on to develop multiple food allergies, asthma and eczema. Though she screamed in pain for hours every day, my pleas for help and advice were fobbed off by medical professionals as the groundless anxieties of an inexperienced first-time mum. It took months to get a diagnosis. I simply didn’t know if I could face it all again.

But eventually, we found our balance. She was happy and healthy, and my own mental health had improved too. A sibling – even one with similar health issues – started to feel like a surmountable hurdle. And six months later, just as my work days began to be dominated by coverage of the coronavirus outbreak, I got a positive pregnancy test. Things would surely be different this time; maybe we’d even enjoy those early months?

We had no idea what was coming next.

By the time Boris Johnson had announced the first national lockdown on 23 March, I had already been quarantined at home for three weeks suffering extreme morning sickness. When I left my office one evening in February, none of my colleagues were aware that I was expecting. I haven’t been back since.

Far from being a special time, this pregnancy began to feel like a terrible decision. Unable to call on family for support, we did our best to share the load of family life between us. Yet the burden of care for our forthcoming arrival now fell solely on me. Though he’d managed to attend my first midwife appointment at eight weeks, my husband was shut out of all future tests, scans and appointments – and as my pregnancy was considered high risk, there were a lot of them.

Staggeringly, despite the fact that my blood pressure and blood sugars needed careful monitoring, in the first two trimesters most of my appointments were now carried out on the telephone. At least this wasn’t my first rodeo, I thought. How much more terrifying this must have been for the first-timers?

My husband admitted to feeling detached from the pregnancy. The first time he heard our second daughter’s heartbeat was the moment the induction of her birth began

As spring turned to summer and the country began to open up, nothing changed for pregnant women like me, and my anger at the situation increased. How could it be possible that I’d been through nine months of crucial appointments without support, and was still facing the prospect of labouring by myself, while friends were posting Instagram updates of their summer jaunts to the Med and my husband was free to meet six random friends from different households at the pub?

It seemed a particularly personal cruelty towards women on the part of our government – especially for those who suffered the pain of being told bad news alone, and who then had to do the terrible job of telling their partners themselves.

Meanwhile, these inexplicably draconian rules weren’t just having an effect on women’s mental health. Men were suffering too. My husband admitted to feeling detached from the pregnancy. He’d never seen our new baby wriggling and writhing at a scan, and he’d been unable to accompany me to appointments in which key decisions about our baby were made. The first time he heard our second daughter’s heartbeat was the moment the induction of her birth began.

On 12 October, when I was admitted to hospital for induction, Covid infections were already rising sharply and a second lockdown was a serious prospect. Our hospital had relaxed its rules slightly to allow birth partners to accompany women on the morning of their induction, but my husband still couldn’t stay with me throughout the whole process. In the first hours, when he was by my side, nothing happened. Then, at 6pm, the familiar roller coaster of early contractions began. By 8pm, when a midwife toured the ward with a bell literally ringing out the visitors, I was contracting every five minutes and the pain required management. I clumsily put on a TENS machine by myself and bedded down for the night.

With the help of a few paracetamol, I later managed some sleep and woke at 5am to discover contractions had almost stopped. My body was protecting me too: my husband was due to return at 10am the next day. By 9am, I was in full blown labour, and shortly after his appearance we were transferred to a private room and my waters were broken.

First-time mums have had to cope in isolation (Getty)

Our daughter, Esther Beatrix, arrived quickly with only the aid of gas and air – a welcome relief after my fears of another long and risky birth. But the sense of isolation only continued after birth.

Unlike my first delivery, during which partners could stay with mothers and their newborns around the clock, once 8pm rolled around the bell tolled once again and I was left alone with Esther.

On that first night, though she slept well, I could not: due to my gestational diabetes, Esther had been born with low blood sugars and I had to hand express my colostrum to syringe-feed every hour, as well as breastfeed as often as possible, to help regulate her blood glucose levels.

The second night, alone again, was even more brutal: I was in sole charge of the baby, though by now I had only slept for a handful of hours in four days. And, as anyone who has breastfed can tell you, night two is the real low point. She was latched continually, refusing to be put down. There was nobody to give me respite, and I spent the night pacing the floor to prevent myself from falling asleep with her in my arms.

Two months on, I’m physically well healed but the feeling of being abandoned has only continued: health visitors are now only accessible over Zoom, and newborn checks at the GP were a rushed affair, with no attempts to ask about my own wellbeing.

I feel very lucky that, being a second-time mother, I have some experience and already-honed instincts to draw upon. The first-time mums of 2020 have had an altogether more difficult experience: psychiatrists are already warning about a second pandemic of post-natal mental health issues. Sadly, this is another area in which our government has failed to keep up with the cost of coronavirus.

Thankfully, those entering the strange new world of motherhood in 2021 will have an altogether more compassionate experience. But it shouldn’t have taken so long, and for 2020’s mothers, the realisation has come far too late.