I remember it, clear as day. On July 11th, 2019, I was up early for a work call. I live in Lithuania and was preparing to speak with a colleague in California. My early morning was her late evening the previous day.
Before the call, I decided to do another one, another test, just to be sure. The result was the same. Positive. Pregnant.
I’d sat on this news for 24 hours already, keeping it to myself until I was able to double check. My husband was sleeping soundly as I pottered about bleary eyed. 6am was a time that didn’t normally exist in our home.
I took the work call and answered emails. 7:30. 7:45. 7:55.
At 8am, I walked into the bedroom, my heart racing. I climbed into bed as his alarm clock began to chirp and vibrate. I lay next to my husband and looked into his eyes. I didn’t know what to say, or how to say it.
“I’m pregnant.” Direct. My default.
He stared at me, still sleepy and soft. He was quiet. Then, he hugged me.
This pregnancy, my first, was challenging to my mental health. I struggled to accept my changing body after a lifetime of body image issues. I despaired as the fatigue and exhaustion of the first trimester was something I couldn’t just power through. I felt such anxiety about everything that could go wrong — miscarriage, pre-eclampsia, thrombosis, listeria. I became hyper vigilant, every twinge in my abdomen a harbinger of doom.
Often, I felt hopeless and alone. The loss of control — over my body, over fetal viability, over what my life would look like once the baby arrived — brought with it a fierce depression. I wondered if it was worth it to live.
Thankfully, this wasn’t my first rodeo. My mind has gone to places deep and dark before. I noticed I was suffering and I did what needed to be done:
I asked for help. I planned for what I could control.
I found a doula here in Lithuania who spoke English. I toured hospitals with my husband and asked questions about their labor & delivery processes. We went to childbirth classes and rehearsed comfort measures.
I asked my mom if she would come to Lithuania from the United States, where I was born and raised, and stay with us for a month. She agreed and made the arrangements to fly over with my sister.
My doula and my husband would be my physical and linguistic support team during the birth. Lithuanian is not my native language, and I knew during birth I would have less energy for translating.
My mother and my sister would be my support team once we were home with the baby. They would help clean and cook, and keep me company. My mom would help answer my questions about the baby and reassure me I was doing the right things.
I would get to see them hold my baby, and it would ease my sadness at being away from my family during one of the most important and transformative moments of my life.
My friends would come by, they were eager to help — many had volunteered to mop floors or bring a casserole, so that my husband and I could have support during this season of little sleep.
And then COVID-19 happened.
It seemed to happen so fast.
In late February and those first days of March, we were seeing reports from Italy. Tragic. Panic. Escalating case numbers. Overwhelmed hospitals.
But it still seemed so distant. We’d seen these before — SARS, MERS, H1N1, Ebola, Zika. Scary diseases. But, far away. Remote. Terrible, but contained. Seemingly over quickly.
My mom and sister arrived in Lithuania on March 10th. Looking back, that seems crazy. Dangerous. We didn’t know then what we know now. We went to a restaurant, me carrying my heavy bump, to celebrate their arrival. My family met my in laws for the first time. We ate pancakes.
My due date was March 14th. Prodromal labor started around then. My contractions would start, pick up steam and then just… stop. I noticed whenever I was with my mom and my sister, my contractions would start up again. They say the most important part about labor is relaxation and to relax, you need to feel safe.
I felt safe when my mom and sister were near. They would leave, and the fear would return.
How could it not, given the news? New cases. New countries reporting COVID has arrived on their shores. The dead piling up in Italy.
My due date came and went. Two days later, on March 16th, Lithuania declared universal quarantine.
And, before my eyes, every plan I had made for self-care and mental health support crumbled, one by one.
A provision of quarantine in Lithuania, in addition to closing non-essential shops, gyms, theaters and sheltering-in-place, was forbidding visitors in hospitals and healthcare institutions.
Labor support people were considered visitors.
Neither my doula nor my husband would be allowed to be there. Just me, alone in a hospital in a country where I only had intermediate command of the language.
Anger. Fear. Anxiety. Panic. Resentment… on and on. More than anything, I felt helpless — there was nothing I could do.
Then, almost overnight, countries around the world began closing their borders. We realized my mom and sister needed to get out and get home ASAP or they’d wind up stuck here for who knows how long. My mother sat at her laptop for hours searching for a way back to the United States, as airline after airline cancelled their scheduled services.
At last, after a lot of frustration and worry, she found a way back home through Ireland departing early March 22nd.
I said goodbye to them on March 21st. My mom and my sister came over to my apartment in the morning and sat with me, drinking coffee and talking. When it was time for them to leave, I hesitated as they buttoned their coats and dressed their feet.
Even though I didn’t know if I should, I hugged them fiercely. In that moment, I understood that it was unsure when I would next see them. I cried, burying my face in my sister’s shoulder and telling them both how much I love them. I watched them walk out of my apartment and closed the door.
I fell apart. I sobbed and wailed, grief breaking open in me, flooding me.
After a while, I dried my eyes and gathered my resolve. Buoyed by their love, I knew now was the time to take the next step.
My husband packed the hospital bags in the car and drove us to the maternity hospital. I was 41 weeks + 1 day.
It was a weird and dystopian handover at the hospital. The nurses spoke to us from behind a locked door. They wore masks and their voices were fearful.
They confirmed only I could come in. I hugged my husband and went inside.
They checked my temperature and sent me to triage. We did a nonstress test (NST) and a doctor checked my cervix — 1.5cm dilated, not enough to start an induction yet. They explained I’d be kept in for observation for 2–3 days to see if I dilated enough on my own.
I’d thought the induction would happen the same day. Instead, I’d be kept inside, sharing a room with a stranger. I called my husband, we talked, and decided I would do it. This way, they could keep an eye on baby and make sure he was ok.
I was hugely pregnant, uncomfortable, alone, and it was my first time staying overnight in hospital. Luckily, my roommate was an angel. She spoke a little English, but we mainly talked in Lithuanian. She was kind to me, and helped me to make sense when nurses came by and were talking very fast.
On this ward, it was urine and blood tests, and twice daily NSTs. Food four times a day. Doctors doing rounds each morning.
Or, well, my roommates doctor came each morning. I had no idea who my doctor was. I finally asked on the morning of March 23rd what was going to happen with me. My roommate’s doctor said she wasn’t my doctor so couldn’t help, but that my doctor would come see me after finishing a surgery.
Given there was more indeterminate waiting, I decided to take a shower. I felt human for the first time since getting into hospital. As I was walking back to my room from the shower, two doctors flagged me down and asked me to sit on a sofa. My hair was warm and wet, wrapped up on top of my head in a towel.
One of them was my doctor and the other was a doctor that spoke English, there to translate. My doctor was dismissive and difficult to understand. The other doctor was nice — smiley and friendly.
They wanted to do a cervical check and I agreed. I was at 3cm and they could start an induction by breaking my water at 1pm.
I said hell yes — anything to get closer to getting out of there. I was given an hour to pack up and eat something small — no lunch, but I could eat cake and it would be nothing but water after that.
I scarfed down my cake, packed up, and the nice doctor met me at 1pm to go to the labor & delivery (L&D) floor. She said she would be my doctor in L&D until 8pm, the end of her shift.
Labor & Delivery
As we arrived to L&D, I asked if Room 6 was available. I’d toured this hospital before the world went all to hell and Room 6 was my favorite. It wasn’t available, but Room 7 was. Room 7 was a good-enough room with space to walk around.
I had to change into an ugly, grey sack gown. I’d brought my own clothes to labor in but was told that wasn’t allowed.
This minor disappointment was the beginning of most of my birth wishes getting tossed out the window.
I talked to the doctor, and while I’d written up birth wishes in English and Lithuanian, I decided to share just the two most important to me:
- I did not want an episiotomy unless it was an emergency
- I wanted to be able to move as much as possible during labor
She was cool — she didn’t do routine episiotomies, so I felt some relief. A nurse placed an IV in my wrist. I’d hoped to do this later on, but, again, this was the rule.
Then I hopped up onto the hospital bed. The doctor showed me the long hook she would use to break my water and reassured me it would be held between her fingers the whole time. It hurt as she broke my water. There was a gush of fluid.
The party was starting.
Only after breaking my water, the doctor informed that, because this was an induction, I would be required to have continuous fetal monitoring. They could bring a birthing ball for me to bounce on next to the bed, but the wireless monitors were already being used by someone else. The only option were wired fetal monitors, which would keep me tethered in place.
In an instant, one of my main coping strategies, movement, was severely limited. What’s more, my stuff was in different places in the room and I had no support person to fetch things. I had to think quickly and bring the most essential things over to the bed.
Next, the doctor wanted to give me pitocin, a synthetic oxytocin used to speed up contractions. I asked if we could wait and see if I progress on my own. She agreed to wait one hour and see. I bounced on the ball, watched my contractions on the monitor, and sent messages to a friend.
She came back and it was back onto the bed for yet another cervical check. I had dilated to 4cm. This was good progress and I was left to continue laboring. What’s more, she agreed to give me 30 minutes off the monitors to walk around.
Freedom. I was happy. I had a Bluetooth speaker and my phone and I listened to music.
An hour passed. Bed. A hand inside me. I was still at 4cm. At this point, she strongly recommended pitocin to make my contractions “more efficient”. I agreed, even though I didn’t want pitocin.
She started a low dose. I was still bouncing on the ball, but now I was hooked up to an active IV as well as the monitor cables. I was stuck in place and there was no call button in the room.
For long stretches of time I was left completely alone.
With the pitocin things moved faster. Bed, hand, cervical check. The doctor said I responded well — the dose was low but things were moving. I was at 5cm.
As I was getting back out of bed, my IV came out.
Blood spurted from my wrist in time with my pulse. The floor dropped out of my stomach and I felt a well of panic rise up into my throat. Pressing a wad of gauze into my hand, the doctor instructed me to apply pressure. Next, we had to change my bloodied grey sack gown.
I started to cry. The nurse came to place a new IV on my other arm, this time in my forearm. She really taped that sucker in place.
Perhaps because of the tears, the doctor gave me another 30 minutes to walk around before hooking me back up to the pitocin drip. While I was happy for the chance to move, my contractions were getting intense, even without the pitocin. It was like thunder rolling through me, huge and uncontrollable, a force beyond my comprehension.
And then… everyone left and I was alone.
No one was there to coach me or rub my back or squeeze my hips or hold my hand. It was just me, alone, grabbing a countertop, bending over and mooing my way through contractions.
When the doctor came back, she recommended an epidural. I agreed. I was struggling to regain control over my panic and pain relief sounded too good to refuse. I did not want an epidural, but it was pragmatic.
The anesthesiologist came quickly and told me to sit up on the edge of the bed. Without warning, she sprayed my back. It was cold. It shocked me and panic washed over me again.
A nurse stepped in front of me and placed a hand on my head. She gently pulled me down to curve my spine. The touch was comforting. It hurt when placing the epidural but the anesthesiologist got it on the first go.
With that, I was stuck on my back in a bed, which I also didn’t want.
The doctor came back. Hands, cervical check. I was at 6cm. She told me it would take 20 minutes for the epidural to really kick in but I already felt relief. She jacked up the pitocin.
It was around 7pm, and I remembered her shift was due to end at 8. I asked her who would be relieving her. She said their names and my heart sank— both were men. What’s more, no one on that next shift spoke English. I asked if there was any way she would consider staying until my baby was born… and she said yes, informing me there was a fee.
At that point, I would have paid any money within my means for her not to leave me. I thanked her over and over. She had to leave then, to check on other patients.
Alone, on my back in that bed unable to move, I tried to focus on my music. I was scared — of the pain, the loneliness, of what if something went wrong and I couldn’t get their attention.
I wanted, more than anything, for someone to hold my hand and tell me everything would be okay, that I could do this.
At some point, the doctor came back. Hands. Cervical check. I was at 7cm. Her shift had ended, so now she was just with me. She cranked up the pitocin some more. It hurt. She said I shouldn’t be in that much pain anymore, and maybe something was wrong with the epidural.
The anesthesiologist came back and made some adjustments, which helped for the pain I felt on one side of my pelvis but not the other.
The doctor started encouraging me to poop — if I felt the need, to relax and let it slide.
I did. At this point, fuck it.
I was exhausted and what I wanted or how I felt clearly didn’t matter and hadn’t for most of this process.
More pitocin and suddenly it was midnight. The baby would be born on March 24th, my brother’s birthday. Hands. Cervical check. 8cm. Each minute felt like forever. I wasn’t breathing well. While the doctor tried to coach me, half of my pelvis was screaming in pain. Rest or relaxation between contractions was impossible, they were coming every minute.
The doctor looked me in the eye and said I must relax, that I was tensing up in anticipation of the next contraction. It shouldn’t hurt… maybe I was just sensitive, she said. They couldn’t crank the epidural more because I wouldn’t be able to push. As if to make her point, the doctor guided me to do a practice push through a contraction — that felt so much better!
With the practice push finished, she told me I need to breathe through the next 3 contractions. I was upset and in so much pain, more than I should’ve been, apparently. I got to 9cm quickly.
And then… I got stuck at 9cm for 90 minutes.
Somewhere in the haze I lost my fucking mind. I just wanted to hold someone’s hand. I kept reaching out to people in a half stupor — to nurses, to the doctor, to all these strangers to-ing and fro-ing.
No one took my hand except the doctor, once. She let me squeeze it.
I was screaming and mooing and panicking and it was a mess. I called out for God and Jesus, even though I’m not religious. I called out for my mother.
The doctor checked to see if she could see hair and went quiet. She called in a colleague. They spoke in Lithuanian before she turned to me and said they recommend a C-section because my baby wasn’t descending and there wasn’t enough pressure on my cervix to dilate the last centimeter.
“Fuck yes!” I screamed, “ let’s do this.”
I did not want a C-section, but everything was fucked.
A nurse shaved me and then it was off to theatre. The anesthesiologist cranked up the epidural, the pitocin was switched off. Then, they gave me anti-anxiety meds via IV, straight into my blood.
That was the best moment of my labor experience — the drug worked instantly. In the blink of an eye, I was totally calm.
I gave a fuck about nothing. For the first time in months. It was heaven.
As they cut open my abdomen and pushed and pulled, I feel happy.
At 2:25am on March 24th, my son was lifted out of me. There was a sheet in the way, so I couldn’t see him. But I heard him cry, big and loud and strong. I burst into tears, joyful ones. He was here.
They took him to an adjacent room while the doctors repaired me. They talked to themselves in Lithuanian while my whole body began to shake.
All of a sudden, a nurse brought my son and put him on my chest for skin to skin. He looked at me with big eyes and I talked to him. I decided immediately that I liked him.
He was taken to the nursery while I was wheeled to post op and ordered to sleep. For 3 hours, I did. At 6:30am, they brought my son to breastfeed. As soon as they walked in with him, I was grinning like an idiot. I liked him very much indeed.
After I fed my baby, they said he and I could rest there together and we’d move to a postpartum room at 9:30am. I cradled the little one, warm and squirmy. No matter what shit happened next, I wasn’t alone. I couldn’t stop gazing at him.
They came to transfer us and I had to maneuver from the bed to the gurney. My legs were still numb, but I could use them. My son went in a bassinet to be transported separately. I asked if he would stay with me and they told me yes.
I was wheeled to the postpartum suite and had to move over to a new bed. I got set up there, my son was handed to me, and everyone left. It was me and this little baby on the bed. I felt weak and he was mostly hungry. It was a blessing that he had no problem latching.
All day there was a flurry of people in and out. Thankfully, I had a call button this time and I didn’t hesitate to use it because my mobility was limited. Nurses came and went, food came and went and I finally ate something at lunch time, 24 hours after I last had food.
After lunch, I was still hungry. Ravenous, even. I’d packed lots of chocolate and decided I was going to have some. I got up. My back screamed out in pain but I kept going. A chocolate binge was had. Sometimes, it’s the little things that lift our spirits.
As the day wore on, I got up more and tried to keep moving. Tired and in pain, I negotiated with the nurses — about how sleep would work that night, about when my catheter would come out, about holding off on pain medicine as long as I could. I stumbled over my words, speaking Lithuanian as best I could.
Night came, and they took my son to the nursery, to give me a chance to sleep and heal. For the first time in months, I slept well. They brought him back to me at 5:30am to be fed. I fed him and they took my catheter out. It hurt.
Everything hurt. My back, my arms, my pelvis, my belly, my ribs.
I held off on pain medicine until noon when I finally asked for whatever they were offering to inject. My son needed to be changed and it hurt too much to stand otherwise.
All day people were in and out — paperwork, doctors, nurses. Some speaking English, some speaking Lithuanian, some who started barking at me in Russian when I didn’t respond right away.
At one point, a doctor came to look at my son. She undressed him, performed an exam, and then the nurse hollered at me to “get up and dress your baby”.
I’d never dressed a baby before.
They left and I was on my own, my back hurt, and son was squalling like a banshee. He was cold. I broke down and stood there crying, bent over and bracing my back, touching this delicate, small human. By some miracle, I got him dressed.
It was a day of ups and downs. There were angel nurses who would speak slowly and clearly and answer my questions. There were some real old Soviet assholes whose nastiness made me cry.
That night, my son began cluster feeding. It was relentless — he was only lasting 20 minutes between feedings.
The next day, Thursday, I asked the maternal care doctor when I could go home. I needed an end date. To my surprise, she said, if everything looked good with my baby, I could leave that same day.
Zen got some vaccinations and the all clear. They brought me some baby box gifts, more forms, food. I had to pack everything, which was slow going. I was exhausted and my baby still wouldn’t stop demanding food.
A Soviet era nurse came in while I was feeding him and told me I needed to go downstairs to pay for the private room and the fee for the doctor staying late. We weren’t allowed to bring babies outside of the room, so I would need to leave my son behind. I was frustrated — I knew that, if I left him, he was going to go bananas.
But, needs must, and I was going to get out of the hospital that day if it was the last thing I did. I finished feeding him, put him down, and raced downstairs to pay. On my way back, I was crying in the elevator. A nurse asked why, and after I explained, she apologized — they had no way to take payment in the rooms.
When I got back upstairs, I could hear my son screaming. The door to my room was open and Soviet nurse was there comforting him. She looked up and scolded me — I should have finished feeding him before going!
Still on the brink of tears, I explained I did, he had been eating like this all night and morning, and I did warn her. She starts laying into me about something else and I started crying again. I had nothing left in the tank at this point. The nurse from the elevator came in and asked what was going on. They spoke to each other in hurried voices.
By this point, it was 1pm and my husband had already arrived and was waiting. The mean nurse started up again, scolding me for what I was wearing and saying I would be too cold. I told her I can wear whatever I want and to just let me leave. At this point, I called my husband, sobbing, and passed the phone to the nurse because I didn’t have the mental energy to speak Lithuanian any more.
It turned out she meant to say that the baby needed warmer clothes which my husband had brought. The nice nurse offered to go get them and the car seat. My son continued to scream. My nipples were blistered, so the nice nurse suggested topping up the little one with a bit of formula for the car ride home. I was given the discharge papers to sign while the nurses packed my son into the car seat.
Then, at long last, we rode the elevator down to reception. The nice nurse walked me into an isolation hallway and handed the car seat to my husband. I thanked her and, with that, we walked outside.
A lot had changed in one week. A weird dystopian pall hung in the air. Any people we could see were wearing masks and walking quickly, nervously. On the drive home the city was quiet.
Even so, I felt immense relief to be out of that place.
The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has taken something from everyone.
Some have lost jobs, others have lost daycare for their kids. Some live alone and so haven’t been in person with another human being for months. Students have lost graduations, communities have lost local businesses, single people have lost dating.
Some have lost afternoon coffee with friends and hair cuts. Others have lost minor operations and dental work.
Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives. The friends and loved ones of the fallen, numbering hundreds of thousands more, have lost someone who is never coming back.
Survivors have lost their health, suffering from lingering lung damage or the neurological decline brought on by stints on ventilators.
Vulnerable people quarantined to violent households have lost their visibility.
All of us have lost our sense of normalcy.
The pandemic took my birth experience. My husband didn’t get to be there when our son was born, our first child. My mother didn’t get to hold her first grandchild. As I became a mother for the first time, there was no one to hold my hand and reassure me. Alone in that delivery room, there was no one to advocate for me. I will never give birth to my first child again.
Now, two months later, the pandemic continues to take. No one has held my son apart from my husband, doctors, and I. The pandemic has taken those moments of sharing him with our closest family, and he will never be this small again.
No one has come to help us cook or clean or to watch the baby so that we can take a nap. Every interaction my son has had with the extended network of people who love him and are eager to welcome him to the world has been mediated by a screen.
However, I have found meaning within my grief and loss.
I suffered so that all of us in the maternity hospital were kept safe as this new, dangerous illness was sweeping through Lithuania. To date, there has not been a single COVID case to come out of that hospital, unlike every other hospital in Vilnius.
I suffered because Lithuania locked down early and locked down hard, which has saved thousands of lives.
In my suffering, I discovered a strength I doubted existed in me. I did not think I could do this and yet, somehow, I did.
Through my suffering, I discovered a compassion and empathy for pregnant people. I feel driven to do what I can to improve the birth experience — in Lithuania and the wider world — and to take concrete action for pregnant people far more vulnerable than I.
Despite my suffering, I feel gratitude that Lithuania has both single payer healthcare and generous maternity, paternity, and childcare leave provisions.
And, despite the isolation from loved ones, be they across town or on the other side of the Atlantic, I feel gratitude that during these first months of my son’s life, he has both my husband and I at home with him every day.
While my normal is gone, and I don’t know what will take it’s place, my son’s normal is that he is surrounded by love each and every day.