2020 has been a year like no other, as we all know. For me it was to have been a very special year as, in my 70s, I was finally to become a grandmother for the first time.
After watching my peers become grandmothers whose grandchildren have graduated, I was so excited at the beginning of the year when told that my son and his partner were expecting a baby in August. And then, four months into the pregnancy, coronavirus took over all our lives.
Covid-19 resulted in a very different ante- and postnatal experience for this year’s new parents and, as a former midwife, I take a professional as well as personal interest. Expectant mums are not allowed company on any obstetric appointments or scans, thus reducing involvement by fathers antenatally. My son was only permitted to be with his partner when labour was well established and that took three days and several hospital visits. Both were terrified in the preceding days that a positive Covid-19 test would force a C-section or prevent my son from being at the hospital at all.
The compensation provided by modern communication was a photo of my granddaughter within minutes of her birth! And more followed. Two days later, she came home with her dazed parents in the somewhat dubious care of the community midwife, whose visits were sporadic and few. We were able, as lockdown had eased, to visit the new family three days later and I was able to hold my five day old granddaughter in my arms for the first time. It was overwhelming. She is just perfect.
But there was to be only one more personal visit before the virus regulations took over again. That was three months ago. As visits became impossible, modern communication became essential again. To see my granddaughter progress and develop, I have to rely on photos, videos and video calls. I have watched her grow, doubling her birthweight, and to start verbalizing, but I have yet to change her nappy! I can talk to her so she hears my voice. It is wonderful to see her at bath-time, enjoying the water and bubbles. This virtual contact does help compensate for the lack of physical contact and the chance to take her out for a walk in her pram to give her parents a short break to catch up on sleep or chores.
This is not how I imagined being a grandmother. I grew up as part of a very close-knit extended family with whom I spent a lot of time right from birth as we lived physically close. And although I was born during the dreadful winter of 1947 with an excess of snow, there was no virus to disrupt aunts and cousins immediately surrounding me. I knew that it would be different for me as my granddaughter lives 50 miles away so no popping in just for a coffee and ending up doing the hoovering/ironing to help out!
However, I have had plenty of time to reflect on the changes in midwifery and antenatal care and parenting. When I trained as a midwife in the early 1970s, fathers were just becoming more involved in all aspects such as being present at the birth. Today most fathers are much more involved with childcare and the entitlement to paternity leave helps them bond with their new offspring and support the new mother. I have been very impressed and proud watching my son’s hands-on care of his baby daughter – so critical as he and his partner have only each other to rely on.
Then, there were no scans for prospective parents to see their baby before birth, as is the norm now. But because of the virus, the fathers of 2020 have not been able to attend antenatal scans and there have been distressing cases of a mother receiving bad news while her partner is sitting in the car park. Back in the 1970s mothers stayed in hospital for around a week after a first baby, while for home births we midwives visited every day for the first ten days to support the mother and check all was well. Not so this year. The midwife only came four times and the Health Visitor ‘called’ literally on her mobile.
Covid-19 is certainly a factor but there is a crisis in midwifery: a Royal College of Midwives’ report in 2018 stated England has a 3,500 staffing shortfall, while existing midwives are dealing with many more complex cases as a consequence of an increase in the number of overweight or older first time mothers. Young inexperienced mothers need a lot of support in those early days after delivery, especially those who live far from their family, and I do wonder how that is achieved today. I realise many use their mobile phone and Google, but technology is scant substitute for human presence, advice and touch.
The Duchess of Cambridge is campaigning for better care and education of the next generation. Hers is a welcome intervention but while coronavirus has been an impediment in 2020, there are ongoing structural problems which require the government to really commit to fixing and funding.
Meanwhile, we newbie grandmas soldier on as best we can until everyone is vaccinated, tiers disappear, and life gets back to normal. Then I shall finally be able to have more interaction with my beautiful granddaughter.
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