When the UK locked down on 23rd March 2020, we were instructed to stay at home. With one address from the Prime Minister, our way of life changed in an instant. We were told only to leave the house for ‘essential’ reasons. Pubs and restaurants closed. It was a time of deep uncertainty. But for many pregnant people, lockdown was just the tip of the iceberg. Being pregnant in a pandemic? Confusing, isolating and at times, incredibly unjust. Because the government were making recovery plans for the economy, announcing the rule of six and reopening pubs, #ButNotMaternity never seemed to be considered.
Following the launch of #ButNotMaternity, thousands of people took to various social media platforms to share devastating stories of what it has been like to be pregnant and give birth during the pandemic. Because for many, it has been far from straight forward. Services have been affected at every turn. Once lockdowns restrictions began to lift, there were rarely, if any, mentions of maternity. Pregnant people faced birth and its associated appointments alone, often bewildered by the restrictions placed on them. People were allowed to meet in pubs, go to gyms and have their hair cut. But those trying to have babies were hearing that they had miscarried alone. Other parents were missing the early moments of their child’s lives. Mothers were facing difficult labours or the first weeks and months of parenthood without the support of their loved ones. #ButNotMaternity. Maternity was being forgotten.
#ButNotMaternity gained real traction throughout the pandemic with women and men sharing their stories. Recently, when reports broke of the Prime Minister’s principal secretary Martin Reynolds inviting 100 employees to a ‘Bring Your Own Booze’ party at a time when social mixing was banned, social media was once again flooded with the hashtag as people shared their experiences.
Every aspect of pregnancy and perinatal care has been, and, in some cases continues to be, affected by Covid-19 restrictions. For Claire Baldock, one half of blogging duo Twin Perspectives, even confirming she was pregnant was tricky as a result of the pandemic: “We both found out we were pregnant in May 2020; around 3 weeks apart. From the very start, Covid restrictions affected our experience of maternity services. I couldn’t see the GP to confirm that I was pregnant. I spoke to a GP on the phone who said ‘I presume you are. You’ll need to make an online referral to see a midwife’. That appointment then didn’t come for 12 weeks”. That appointment and others that followed were impacted too. Scans and midwife appointments were limited to only her being allowed to attend. It’s an experience countless other women will recognise.
Claire added: “My baby didn’t move for over 24 hours and so I was sent into hospital for monitoring. My partner wasn’t allowed in – so I had to go in alone. I cried throughout, even though the baby was fine”. Not only did Claire have to face these appointments alone, but during a scan it was flagged that her baby was ‘big’. Due to Covid, she wasn’t able to get a Glucose Intolerance test to see if she had gestational diabetes.
She explains: “They therefore said they’d ‘assume I had it’ and booked me in for induction at 38 weeks. This was all based on ‘guess work’. I had to fight tooth and nail to get a blood testing kit to monitor my own blood sugar levels at home. It turned out I didn’t have gestational diabetes at all, and so I was allowed to progress past 38 weeks. It was incredibly stressful.”
Nobody was around
Laura Jopson’s (the other half of Twin Perspectives) birth experience was hugely impacted by Covid restrictions. The biggest impact was the time limits placed on visitors and birth partners. After starting contractions on Monday but not being in active labour, she wasn’t admitted into the hospital until Thursday when monitoring found the baby had a low and erratic heartbeat. She was admitted but her husband was sent home. It wasn’t until she was rushed in for an emergency C-section that her husband was allowed to join her in hospital.
After a long lead-up to the C-section, she was exhausted “I managed to keep my eyes open to see my baby come out, then passed out. My partner was sent home before I was out of recovery. They said he had been there for 2 hours in total, and could no longer be in the hospital. I woke up 4 hours later on a ward, alone, with a baby I’d never met, next to me. Nobody was around and I had no idea what to do.”
She added: “I was then told off for not feeding my baby or keeping him warm – I couldn’t move from my neck down. I still feel so guilty about that and sad. But I was so delirious I almost hadn’t thought I needed to feed or hold him. I really needed someone there to help me and guide me.”
Impact on partners
Both women’s partners were affected by the situation they found themselves in too. Laura’s husband Mike was ‘traumatised’ by his experience immediately after the birth: “I was still very medicated and in a blur of newborn life in hospital. He had to sit at home, waiting in an empty house for news on when we might come home & news on how Henry’s sepsis was. I think he found that time very difficult to manage. There should be support for men to process missing out on a large chunk of their baby’s birth and first few days of life.”
Claire’s husband was in hospital but for an entirely different reason: “My husband is a doctor and had been redeployed to work in A&E during the pandemic. He found it incredibly upsetting that he was free to work in a hospital but wasn’t allowed to visit me or see his newborn daughter.”
Left feeling traumatised
Joeli Brearley of Pregnant then Screwed agrees that the pandemic has seen the needs of pregnant women and mothers largely ignored: “As if the stress of being pregnant whilst a deadly virus swept across the world wasn’t enough, pregnant women had to attend scans and endure early labour on their own, without the support of their partner to advocate for them. Imagine being told the devastating news that you had lost your baby without your partner there to grieve with you. Imagine the hours, sometimes days, of painful labour surrounded by strangers as your partner is forced to wait outside in the cold. What’s more, we know that the outcomes for mother and baby are better when she is supported by a partner. These experiences undoubtedly impacted the mental health of new mums, some were left feeling traumatised, others struggled to bond with their new baby. But with fewer health checks and visits, postnatal depression has been allowed to flourish, with almost half (47.5%) of new mums meeting the criteria for postnatal depression according to a study by UCL.”
Positions of power
For Laura and Claire, and many of the people sharing their stories on #ButNotMaternity, midwives are rarely to blame. Laura said: “Ultimately, I think the restrictions were hardest on the midwives. We don’t blame them at all for the vacuum in support – they were so busy. The responsibility lies with those at the top and males largely making decisions regarding women’s care.”
It’s a pertinent point and one that’s backed up by data. The Fawcett Society’s Sex and Power Index recently revealed that women are outnumbered by men 2:1 in positions of power. In Parliament, only 34% of MP’s are female.
As CEO of the Fawcett Society Jemima Olchawski explains: “The pandemic has laid bare the deep-rooted inequalities across the UK. Yet it is women who have borne the brunt and often largely invisible from debate and excluded from decision-making. Women of colour, disabled women, young women and mothers have been at the sharpest end. At the height of the pandemic only two out of 56 Government press briefings were led by a female politician and women were underrepresented across all covid-19 advisory groups. It begs the question then, what if more women were at the table and making key decisions, would women across our society have felt the impact of political decisions throughout the pandemic so severely?”
Restrictions may have lifted but pregnant people still face challenges. Despite a two year campaign for #ButNotMaternity, confusion still reigns. NHS guidance at the time of writing says if your birth partner contracts Covid then they will need to follow government guidance and isolate. This means it’s unlikely they can attend the birth, but you can request the attendance of another birth partner as long as they are Covid free. While far from ideal, if there’s someone else who can advocate for you during labour, you can ask for them. If you contract Covid, you should still be allowed a birth partner.
In the long run though, systemic change is needed to make sure the needs of pregnant people are a priority and not an afterthought. Things may be going back to ‘normal’ but the impacts of the restrictions felt by those affected by #ButNotMaternity are wide felt and will be long lasting.
We’ll be sharing a few voices around the theme of #NotMaternity in the coming weeks. Keep an eye on Happy Mum Happy Baby for updates and check out our first person piece from Charlene Littlefair here.