Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.
The thing about being home with a newborn, people tell you, is that time stops making sense. Days are nights are days again, and you can only see ahead as far as the next hour, the next feed, the next stretch of broken sleep. Anything further away feels equally absurd to contemplate, whether it’s next week, next year, or when he goes to college, so you laugh it off and get used to living in your endless now.
It turns out it’s also rather like being stuck at home during a pandemic.
I gave birth to my son, Felix, three weeks ago. Back then, the coronavirus threat in the U.S. still felt distant and diffuse. People cared passionately about the primaries and shared Leap Day memes, kids were still in school, and spring was still coming. Over the course of those three weeks, we’ve watched as our strange, enforced domestic bubble, made of anxiety and disbelief and wonder and stir-craziness, has stretched out to encompass everyone.
Before Felix arrived, I was prepared, in an abstract sort of way, for the isolation of new parenthood. I was prepared to be home with my husband, awake at all hours, watching the world go on without us, envious and perhaps a little relieved about all the social events we’d miss. We reassured ourselves by knowing we had support, family and friends who would drop by with food and gifts and arms wide to hold the baby. I had a list of local meetups for new parents and recommendations from friends of lactation consultants who could come to the house to help me figure out how to get a squirmy, rigidly protesting infant to latch.
Gradually, after a week or two of visitors, that support has gone behind a phone screen. It’s up to us now. When the baby gets red in the face and hot to the touch and screams and screams, we have to calm each other: It’s not a fever, it’s not a fever, it’s not a fever. Instead of scrolling Twitter while I’m feeding Felix, I’m downloading sweet, escapist, romantic novels from the library to read on my phone. We’re watching old French movies and YouTube tutorials on how to swaddle babies and tuck them into slings. We’re taking walks while we still can, making wide circles around other people, breathing in the fresh air.
For all the worry about caring for a creature so tiny and vulnerable, I’m more relieved than anything that he’s here, even though he wasn’t officially due until Sunday, that he’s healthy and we’re home. I’m grateful to him every day for his foresight, his impatience, or whatever it was that kick-started labor at 36½ weeks, so I’m not still lumbering around the apartment, freaking out about the safety of the hospital, the availability of staff and beds. The midtown Manhattan hospital where I delivered was unusually busy, we kept being told, and now looking back I can’t help thinking about the contagion: the packed waiting room, the packed labor and delivery rooms, the packed postpartum recovery rooms. I think about how much stuff everyone brought in, bags and suitcases of it, all the visitors in their street clothes, hands unwashed, the bustle and the airlessness and the endless touching. I think about the boxes of blue sterile gloves in their holder on the wall by my bed, and I wonder now whether the stocks are running low. Three weeks ago, I just assumed that they would be endlessly, magically replenished. Three weeks ago, I took it all for granted: supply chains and human contact and the normal world going on until we were ready to rejoin it.
Some days I think this is a great story we’ll tell our son, about the strange weeks (let’s go with weeks) when society shut down for its own survival. I waver between optimistic and terrible versions: how we saved ourselves or didn’t, how this was a one-off cataclysm or became the new reality.
In the meantime, the baby stays where we put him, and his needs, while constant and vocal, are blessedly simple. So we wait, looking for patience and faith in something, even if it’s just the dirty diapers that, we’re assured, mean he’s growing. We hunker down and live like he does, meal to meal and sleep to sleep, and can only hope we’re growing too.