How I'm Managing as a First-Time New Mom and ICU Nurse During COVID-19
If a picture is worth a thousand words, this picture would be the one I choose to sum up my experience as a brand new mom and ICU nurse during a pandemic. A mom who struggled to get her baby to sleep. A mom whose baby struggles to gain weight. A mom who couldn’t get the latch right. A mom who cried through most feedings. A mom who cried as the sun set out of fear of the nighttime. A mom who couldn’t soothe her baby, logging hours bouncing on this ball. A mom who followed strict stay at home orders six days after giving birth and denied visitors. I had groceries delivered and begged people on my neighborhood Facebook group for toilet paper and Clorox wipes. I contemplated the need to quit my job.
I am a nurse in the ICU and on March 15, I became a covid ICU nurse, an essential frontline worker. I was nearly 38 weeks pregnant. I gave birth in that same hospital two days later with my partner and doula by my side because no other visitors were allowed. I watched out of my hospital room window as negative pressure ventilation was being installed in the other rooms, clear plastic tarps flapping in the wind, waiting to house more covid 19 patients.
After 17 hours of labor, I became the most essential worker in my own home, Mom. A small three letter word that carries such a beautifully heavy burden. My husband and I spent my maternity leave in a bubble. The uninterrupted time we spent together during those months is priceless. However, stay at home orders during a pandemic contradicted all of the “accept help” advice I was given during my pregnancy.
My expertise and confidence in my new role changed often moment to moment - if the sun was still high in the sky, if I had given myself time to shower, or if the last feeding left me fearful of re-latching my baby. Oftentimes, my brain felt like a pressure cooker; pressure to breastfeed, for him to fall asleep independently while he was “drowsy but still awake”, for him to sleep through the night. All of the “baby essentials”. Breastfeed but only for so long, because if he gets too old, then it’s weird. Don’t hold him too much. Make sure he sleeps in his own room or I’d never get it back. There were no Mommy and Me groups to commiserate, no in person lactation consultant visits to adjust the painful feedings, no friends to hold my baby so I could sleep. I was desperate to fit my baby into the mold that the instagram influencer PDFs sold and promised, so I bought those. They didn’t work. I cried in my pediatrician’s office asking about the safety of grandparent visits. He replied sincerely, “Do you want them to see the baby now, or to still be around watching him play T-ball in five years?”
I started breaking rules I had always vowed I wouldn’t and as time went on, things became easier. Breastfeeding finally became less painful. We started co-sleeping and side-lying feeding. I rocked and fed my baby to sleep. I fed on demand and stopped worrying about a schedule. Meanwhile, I was becoming a “hero” and “essential frontline worker” against my will in the other main arena of my life, my career.
As my time on maternity leave dwindled, I was bombarded with anxiety about returning to work. I questioned whether it was responsible of me to care for covid patients with a brand new baby at home. How could I continue breastfeeding in such an environment. Will my supply drop? How am I going to work with my nipples still hurting? As I battled the reality that I couldn’t afford to quit my job, I was being patronized by others about my return to work. “Aren’t you worried you’ll bring it home?” “I guess it’s your choice”. “I assume you’ll be careful, right”. These jabs compounded the pressure cooker; to be a mom whose baby sleeps all night, breastfeeds, but not for too long, a boss babe charging her career, to have a tidy house, and have a successful Avon business on the side, right? Well, after crunching the numbers, I went back to work.
My first day back, I took a rapid response patient from the floor in distress and they needed support from a ventilator. Since covid, it is protocol to get in full PPE to intubate someone and I hadn’t been properly fitted for a mask since I had been on maternity leave. I was pushed aside as my co-workers took over and helped my patient. I stood outside of the glass doors of the room, the nurses station holding me up, crying and feeling helpless. I have spent eight years as a nurse, something I consider myself proficient at, and suddenly was reduced to crying at the nurses station like I was fresh out of nursing school. The first wave of covid patients was a small splash compared to the tidal wave we are experiencing now. Out of concern for having secure PPE during the surge, I purchased my own 3M respirator.
Second after giving birth, the most surreal moment of my life was a few weeks ago as I sat in my living room, trying on my respirator as I watched Kamala Harris give her vice president elect speech. There are many days where I feel inadequate and ill prepared to fulfill these new essential roles in my life. Other days, I am killing it and am assured that I can, in fact, do hard things. I am still learning what things are truly “essential” and what things I need to change or sacrifice for the health of myself and my family.
Working in the covid ICU is ruthless - the true definition of a burden both mentally and physically. I pump as I drive to work in silence, vibing to the sound of my trusty Spectra. Arriving, carrying in my work bag, lunch bag, pumping bag, the respirator I bought for myself, and purse. I wear hospital scrubs, shoe covers, a respirator designed for workers in industrial jobs, a plastic gown, wrap my hair up in a surgical cap, and cover it with a face shield. Thirteen hours in and out of this “heroes” cape; barely bobbing my head above water as I struggle to stay ahead of the tasks and make time to pump milk for my baby who, yes, is still breast-feeding. The stress of watching so much death and playing phone tag to update helpless family members has taken a toll on my supply and my well being. I leave the building with far more baggage than I carried in. Driving home in silence, I pump in my car again on the way home. I wipe down my car with Clorox wipes, enter through my back door, strip down, wash my clothes, and shower before being able to fall into the arms of my husband or kiss my sweet baby.
At work, I am desperate to be home - at home grappling with anxiety about work, a sentiment depicted in this photo.
The hardest lessons I have learned as a new mom is that my baby’s stats are not a reflection of my abilities as a mother. My life‘s worthiness was never meant to be valued through the lens of someone else doing their own work. The perception of my own hard was never meant to be squandered or magnified through the comparison of somebody else’s. It is my own. Everyone has their own burden to bear during this time. I am a new mom and frontline essential worker—it is heavy. I am determined to find the balance.
Mandi Tuhro is a mother and ICU nurse living in Webster Groves, Missouri. She gave birth to her son during the pandemic and has since returned to work as a frontline healthcare worker.