They became parents during the pandemic — but can't show their new babies the world

“It’s like life is on hold — everything is on hold,” one new mother said.
Jamal Gathers Sr., seen with his son Henry, has weekly Zoom sessions with his therapist to cope with the challenges of having a newborn in a pandemic. "Bourbon helps, too," Gathers joked.
Jamal Gathers Sr., seen with his son Henry, has weekly Zoom sessions with his therapist to cope with the challenges of having a newborn in a pandemic. "Bourbon helps, too," Gathers joked.Sarah Cohan
/ Source: NBC News
By Elizabeth Chuck

When Emily LaCosse gave birth to twins, she knew her world had changed. What she didn’t expect was that at the same time, the coronavirus pandemic would alter everyone else’s, too.

LaCosse, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, had her babies March 9. When she went to the hospital to deliver them, the coronavirus still felt like a vague threat: A nurse downplayed the health risks of it, and her hospital had no restrictions on visitors.

But during the five days that LaCosse and her newborns were in the hospital, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency to fight the growing outbreak. Schools shuttered and grocery stores began running low on essentials.

Soon, there was a statewide lockdown, too.

When Emily LaCosse went into the hospital to deliver her twins, Cecelia and Theo, few people were wearing face masks. When she left five days later, "it was like night and day," LaCosse said.Emily LaCosse

"We went into the hospital while everything was normal. When we got home, everything changed: No toilet paper, no visitors, no help,” LaCosse said. “All of our plans went out the window.”

Bringing home a newborn is always an adjustment. But the pandemic has made it unusually complex, and has new parents wondering when they can safely introduce their babies to family, friends and life beyond their own four walls.

LaCosse was one of 14 parents who spoke to NBC News about the challenges of welcoming a baby during the coronavirus crisis. For most, it has been bittersweet: Their joy has been tinged with the sadness of not being able to share their excitement with others in person.

While there have been some benefits, including unexpected time with both parents home in many households, the pandemic has complicated even the most routine activities — which can already feel intimidating for sleep-deprived mothers and fathers.

“I want to take him to the park. I want him to smell things, I want him to hear the birds and feel the sun,” said Jamal Gathers Sr., of Newton, Massachusetts, whose second son, Henry, was born March 14. “With social distancing, it’s just not the same. I stand at the patio door with him and we just peer outside like a sad puppy, waiting for our owner to come home.”

"I stand at the patio door with him and we just peer outside like a sad puppy, waiting for our owner to come home.”

Even errands and appointments, instead of being an excuse to get out of the house, feel risky.

“I had all these plans to take my child everywhere, and you can’t take her anywhere,” said Farrah Kokkosis, of Ronkonkoma, New York, whose daughter, Ridley, was born March 4. “Now, it’s like life is on hold — everything is on hold.”

A lot of unknowns — and a lot of anxiety

While children, including infants, generally appear to have more mild symptoms of the coronavirus, there have been severe or fatal pediatric cases. Researchers do not have a clear answer why.

With so many unknowns and no vaccine or cure, some parents of newborns are wrestling with depression and anxiety — even if they did not experience that after prior pregnancies.

Kristen, a mother of three in the Tacoma, Washington, area who asked that her last name not be used to protect her family's privacy, was diagnosed with the coronavirus in March, three weeks after she had her son, Valentine.

She isolated in her bedroom with the baby, wearing a mask whenever she breastfed him, while her husband took care of their two older children. When Kristen's fever spiked, she panicked.

“Oh man, am I going to be around for my kids? Is Valentine going to catch this? Is he going to have to be hospitalized, are we going to be separated?” she recalled thinking.

She recovered and no other family members got sick. But the experience, plus other difficulties such as not being able to meet up with close friends during the pandemic, prompted her to start antidepressants.

“It’s been hard to pinpoint: Is it postpartum depression? Or is it just because everything is insane right now?” she said.

She is far from the only mom asking herself that question.

In the first two weeks after Brittany Culbertson of Beaufort, South Carolina, had her daughter, Gwen, she found herself crying often.

"We made it through a baby shower; I know a lot of women are now not able to do that," said Brittany Culbertson, seen with her husband, Craig, and daughter, Gwen.Brittany Culbertson

While filling out a postpartum depression screening from Gwen’s pediatrician, she said she was stumped by a question that asked whether she had been “anxious or worried for no reason.”

“I was like, well, I have been extremely anxious, but I don’t know that it’s for no reason. I think it’s heightened because of the very real fear of coronavirus,” Culbertson, who gave birth on March 27, said.

While the pandemic could have mental health ramifications for anyone, experts say exhausted new parents may be particularly vulnerable to depression and anxiety, especially with no one around to give them a break.

“If you are anxious for a very good reason, you are still in distress.”

“If you are anxious for a very good reason, you are still in distress.”

Dr. Kimberly Yonkers, a professor of psychiatry, epidemiology and obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the Yale School of Medicine, urged overwhelmed parents to find help through virtual therapy, online support groups or medication. She said overpowering anxiety or depression — whether it’s for seemingly no reason or because of the pandemic — is a reason to get support.

“If you are anxious for a very good reason, you are still in distress,” she said.

Some second-time parents say life with a newborn now has highlighted how easy they had it the first time around, even if it did not feel that way then.

Andrea Foran, of Long Island, New York, has a 2-year-old and an infant, born March 3. Her husband is an officer with the New York City Police Department who has been self-isolating in a hotel since mid-April to avoid bringing home the virus, should he get exposed through work. Her mother is helping out with the kids, but Foran said it is hard not having her husband home.

“With the first one, I had a lot of anxiety because it was my first time, and now, thinking back, I’m like, ‘Wow, you idiot! Everything was fine, you worried about nothing,’” she said. “We had visitors. We had people who could help. I wish I savored the peacefulness of the first time now.”

Leann Svoboda, of Nashville, Tennessee, has the same mindset. She used to take her first child, now 6, to playdates with other new moms and to baby exercise classes. Now, with her daughter Violet, who was born March 6, even a walk down the street feels frightening.

Atticus Svoboda holds his sister, Violet. "It's been hard splitting my time and making sure that's he's okay with the new baby and not being able to go and do anything," Leann Svoboda said.Leann Svoboda

“We’re holed up, waiting for it to pass,” she said. “I just don’t trust other people to stay away from me. It’s terrifying for me.”

The doctor is in (via telemedicine in some cases)

Sometimes, going out with a newborn is unavoidable.

Visits to the pediatrician have been the only outings that Mariel Prince of Sellersburg, Indiana, has made since she came home after giving birth to her son, Declan, on March 20.

The appointments are anything but ordinary: Instead of going into the waiting room, she checks in at a drive-through out front, then waits with Declan in her car until the pediatrician’s office calls her on her cellphone. Newborns are only seen in the morning, and every single person’s temperature is taken at the door, she said.

“There’s so many more steps involved in everything now, and all the steps involved in taking him anywhere — it’s a lot,” she said. “I joked with my husband, if we do decide to have a second, we’re kind of prepared for everything at this point.”

Mariel and Josh Prince with their son, Declan. Josh's father personally delivers roses whenever there is a new baby in the family, a tradition started by his father; because of social distancing, he could not do that to welcome Declan, and had to order some from a local florist instead.Mariel Prince

Prince’s husband, Josh, said besides not being able to have his parents meet his son, his biggest issue since Declan arrived has been trying to help his wife cope with cabin fever.

“She was planning on going to a zoo and all these other things where she could go out,” he said. “But those places are all closed, or she just doesn’t feel safe going.”

Elsewhere, parents are being told to stay at home, even for some doctor appointments.

Lindsay Preseau lives in Cincinnati and gave birth to her son, Ludo, on March 16. Right after Ludo was born, she took him to the pediatrician twice to check if he was gaining enough weight. But his one-month well-visit was canceled to avoid unnecessarily exposing him to any illnesses, and the pediatrician’s office said the two-month one might be, too.

Lindsay Preseau with her husband, Ritwik Banerji, and son, Ludo. When she went into labor, lockdowns and other measures were being implemented. "By the time I had the baby, it was like end-of-the-world panic."Lindsay Preseau

“I wasn’t upset about the one-month visit because I know not much happens, but I’m nervous about the two-month, because I want him to get the vaccinations,” she said.

In Cleveland, Sierra Heiskell had a virtual pediatrician visit for her daughter, Gianna, who was born April 10. A nurse came to her house to weigh Gianna a few days before and then Heiskell did a telemedicine consultation with the pediatrician for the rest of the appointment. While the doctor watched through the phone, Heiskell did things the pediatrician normally would — like pressing on Gianna’s belly to make sure it felt soft.

Sierra Heiskell had hoped to have her partner, her mother and a close friend with her when she gave birth to Gianna. But hospital restrictions put into place due to COVID-19 meant she could only have one person, Gianna's father, there.Sierra Heiskell

Heiskell was also told by her obstetrician-gynecologist that her own six-week postpartum follow-up appointment will be virtual. Such appointments typically involve a physical exam to see how a woman is healing after birth and a discussion of how she is feeling, physically and mentally. Others who have had their OB-GYN follow-ups via telemedicine said the virtual meetings omitted exams and just consisted of questions.

“I have no idea how that’s going to go,” Heiskell said. “I don’t like it.”

‘Great that we all got stuck together’

Despite the obstacles, new parents say there have been some unexpected silver linings.

Gathers’ wife, Sarah Cohan, was excited to be a part of a new mom support group. The group can’t meet face-to-face, so it meets over Zoom. While it’s not the same as sitting in a room with other new moms, Cohan found another member whom she could relate with, and the two exchanged numbers so they could text one-on-one.

Between that and a couple mom groups on Facebook, including one of about 400 women who were all due in March, Cohan has found a community — even if it’s not the one she pictured.

"There was all this excitement — and now she can’t hold the babies, hold her grandchildren.”

“It’s been so nice to have a bunch of women from across the world who can commiserate, and post funny things, and who I can ask for recommendations,” she said.

LaCosse, the Michigan mother of twins, has figured out a way to have relatives see the babies, even though she does not feel comfortable having visitors over. Family comes — but only as far as her front porch. Her in-laws have stopped by a few times to say hi to the twins from the safety of outside, gazing at the twins through the living room window.

Randy LaCosse normally would be back at work now. Because of the lockdowns, he is working from home and able to see his twins much more -- an unexpected silver lining.Emily LaCosse

“Their reaction is, I think, bittersweet,” LaCosse said, adding that because it was hard for her to get pregnant, relatives, especially her mother-in-law, were extra eager to spend time with the twins. “There was all this excitement — and now she can’t hold the babies, hold her grandchildren.”

On the other hand, LaCosse’s husband, Randy, is getting much more time with the babies: Had the pandemic not happened, he would have been in his office, working up to 12-hour days as a project manager. With shelter-in-place orders, he is working from home instead.

“It’s kind of great that we all got stuck together,” LaCosse said. “We’re spending time together like we never have before, and he gets to have an insane amount of time with them.”