Emily found out she was pregnant in a very 2020 way — at home in the middle of a work video conference. Her phone rang, and on the other end of the line was her doctor telling her: “Congratulations!”
“I just remember saying, ‘Oh my god, are you serious?!’ And I got a text from a colleague saying, ‘You’re not on mute,’” she recalled. Emily, 32, ran into the next room of her small apartment in Arlington, Virginia, with the phone still by her ear, and locked eyes with her husband, Diego. He knew instantly. “He came over and hugged me,” she said, “and we both started crying.”
Finding out about a pregnancy both partners planned for is the sort of blissful moment that couples have shared since time immemorial, but it was even more joyous for Diego and Emily, who has polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a common hormonal disorder that can make conceiving more difficult. After months of tests, doctors confirmed Emily’s PCOS in March and laid out a plan for the couple to conceive. The couple asked not to use their last names in this story to maintain their privacy.
Then the pandemic struck. Crowded hospitals canceled elective surgeries as the virus rippled across the nation with alarming speed. Medical centers around the country, including Emily’s fertility clinic, shut down.
When it finally reopened, patients sat in the waiting room alone, wearing masks and keeping their distance from one another. Patients’ partners were barred from accompanying them. “It felt like we were all diseased,” said Emily.
But just weeks after starting treatment, when she got that call from her doctor on June 9, the exhilaration momentarily overshadowed the horrors of the world.
“The world is literally falling apart. What the hell did we just do?”
“I just had this moment of, Oh my god, this is amazing, we got everything that we wanted,” she recalled. “And then it hit, like, crap, what are we going to do? The world is literally falling apart. What the hell did we just do?”
No longer does it feel like an exaggeration to say that the world, or at least this country, is falling apart. Since March, when federal and state officials began scrambling to contain a virus that had already spread far wider than they knew, more than 7 million people in the United States have been infected with the coronavirus, and more than 220,000 people have died. The country is also facing historic unemployment numbers, an eviction crisis that is poised to get worse, the continued scourge of police killings of Black people, massive wildfires that are wiping out entire towns, leaders who cannot rise to the occasion, and a presidential election where it feels like everything is on the line.
Yet in a year of unprecedented sorrow, life, quite literally, still goes on. Six women — two of whom are a couple — who have decided to become pregnant during the pandemic spoke to BuzzFeed News about how the state of the world has informed their desire to start or grow their family. They talked about their fears of bringing a child into a world that feels like it’s teetering on the edge of collapse, how the pandemic has forced them to rethink their health and safety, and, ultimately, why they chose to pursue this remarkably, mortally hopeful act in a time of such despair.
“I think part of why we didn’t want to wait was because — even now — there’s no clarity on when [or] what we’re waiting until,” said Jess Cohen-Nosenzo, who is expecting her second child with her wife Charissa Nosenzo in March, about the pandemic. “This could go on for another year and a half.”
The New Jersey couple had already planned to do an embryo transfer this year, which can be a difficult and lengthy process, especially since Nosenzo, a kindergarten teacher, would have to take time off work. So when schools were ordered to close because of the pandemic, they decided to go for it.
They were also aware that the success rate for an embryo transfer declines with each passing year — Nosenzo, who is carrying, is 33, and Cohen-Nosenzo is 32 — and they had already seen friends go through traumatic fertility experiences.
“If we try to wait until the end of COVID, we delay our timeline by a year or maybe even two years. What if it doesn’t work then? Then all of a sudden we’re in our later thirties, where a lot of the success rates start to go down,” Cohen-Nosenzo said.
“Even though it feels like we have a lot of time,” she continued, “at the same time it felt like we don’t have a lot of time, and we didn’t want to lose it.”
Nosenzo’s mom wasn’t totally on board at first. “When I first told my mom that we were going to do this, she was like, ‘Do you know what’s happening right now? Are you sure? Are you watching the news?’” Nosenzo said.
Some prospective parents are also second-guessing themselves about trying to conceive at this time, including 30-year-old Lili O., who’s been trying to become pregnant since getting married in August. (She did not want to share her last name for this story to maintain her privacy.) Lili, a loan officer who lives in El Paso, Texas, with her husband, wondered if it was self-centered to keep trying to conceive when the risk of falling ill with COVID-19, a serious disease, was so high.
“Am I being selfish because my baby could get sick?” she wondered.
And although Nosenzo felt confident in her decision to go through in vitro fertilization, she said she would still occasionally be struck terrified by the few studies she had seen about the effects of COVID-19 on pregnant people and their babies.
“There were definitely times when you see those articles and I'm thinking in my head like, What the hell am I thinking right now, doing this?” Nosenzo said. “I try to be conscious of the numbers, and the likelihood of it happening is relatively low as long as we actively try to be super safe.”
And her mom, who was initially skeptical of their timing, had a change of heart once Nosenzo got pregnant after a successful embryo transfer in June.
“She’s hopeful for next year, when she’ll be able to see the baby and to come and stay,” she said. “It’s giving us lots of things to look forward to.”
It took several beats for Michelle Williams to feel the full weight of excitement over her pregnancy. At first, she couldn’t quite believe that the pregnancy stick test was showing a positive result. She can’t remember why she took the test that morning in May, except that it had almost become a monthly routine in the two to three years that she and her husband, Robert Dukes, had been trying to conceive.
“I just remember thinking, Let’s just take it, and then that way we can move into whatever other discussions we wanted to have about adoption or whatever,” Williams, 39, recalled. “We were very, very close to that point of saying, with me getting closer to 40, let’s stop doing this every month, because it can be tiring.”
After the first positive test, she took five more that day — just in case. They all came back positive.
“There was definitely some disbelief, and like, Is it OK for us to be happy about this yet? kind of feeling,” said Williams.
She described it as a “rolling sense of happiness,” one that came gradually rather than in a burst, because of her concerns about her age (“My pregnancy is — they call it very eloquently — a geriatric pregnancy,” she said, laughing) and the couple’s decision to keep the news to themselves in the early days.
When the pandemic first hit and their work as real estate lawyers in Atlanta changed drastically, the couple questioned whether it was a good time to keep trying to start a family. Those questions became more urgent once Williams got pregnant, and then even more so when Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the country.
“Is now the best time to be raising a Black child?” she wondered. The frequency of police brutality against Black people, coupled with the sudden lifestyle changes in a pandemic that has disproportionately affected Black and brown communities, was stressful. “Especially knowing that the foreseeable future, maybe until the first two years of his life, he could be pretty isolated from other kids, which is another layer of difficulty.”
Some of the women who spoke to BuzzFeed News said the tumult of this summer, on top of everything else that was going on, heightened their anxiety about bringing a child into the world. “It’s not even just the pandemic,” Nosenzo said. “It just feels like the world is on fire. It literally is on fire.”
When George Floyd’s brutal killing in Minneapolis galvanized protests against police brutality and systemic anti-Black racism, Rose Escalante and her husband, Adam, were torn between joining the protests right outside their apartment in Brooklyn and risking their health and safety. Hundreds of people were still dying of the coronavirus in New York City each day, and police were violently cracking down on protesters.
The couple, who are both 32 and work in corporate healthcare, found other ways to support the movement but were frustrated that they couldn’t join protests. “It’s been a really difficult adjustment to accept the fact that there’s a lot more risk involved with anything that we’re doing these days because I am pregnant,” Escalante said.
Emily said she was in a space of two extremes: She’s excited to be a parent to a little boy and start her own family, but she has also questioned her decision to have a baby during this time. Recent events have not helped. Emily said she pays attention to the news but has found it hard to keep up.
“There was a moment when Biden nominated Kamala, it was like, OK, that felt like a little bit of hope — could our child be born into a world where that’s the leadership that we have in our country, and how amazing would that be?” she recalled. “But then RBG dies, and you think that there could be a Supreme Court that basically screws us for the majority of his life."
It’s also on the minds of those who are still trying to conceive. Lili said that while she remains optimistic, she nonetheless thinks it’s a scary world to bring a child into. But she takes the long view on starting a family. “This is my opportunity to bring in somebody [into the world] and instill in them good morals,” she said.
Pregnancy isn’t easy, regardless of what’s happening in the world. Williams, the lawyer in Atlanta, suffered such severe morning sickness in the first few months that water, Gatorade, and peanut butter crackers were the only things she could keep down — and even then with difficulty. She had headaches and dehydration. And, frustratingly, her doctors initially brushed it off as regular pregnancy symptoms.
“As a first-time mom, the doctors kind of treat me with this attitude — ‘this is your first time, so you don’t really know,’” Williams said. “It was discouraging to keep setting up OB visits, the video visits, calling in to say, ‘Hey, I can’t eat, I have headaches, I can’t have water.’ And basically just getting the response of ‘Oh, well, that’s just pregnancy.’”
Williams was given medication to treat nausea, and then another prescription to treat the side effects of her nausea meds. At one point, she ended up in an urgent care center in the middle of the night because she feared she had the coronavirus.
They eventually figured out that prenatal vitamins were making Williams sick, and she stopped taking them. But for the first three months or so, she had to fight hard to keep herself and her baby hydrated and nourished — without much medical advice from her doctors.
“It was very frustrating and it was very lonely,” she said. “I think sometimes they feel like a patient is overexaggerating their symptoms.”
Williams is not wrong. Medical professionals have historically dismissed or disregarded concerns from women about their pain and health issues — and even more so if the patient is a Black woman. In 2018, when Serena Williams spoke out about how medical professionals ignored her concerns about a life-threatening birth complication, droves of Black women came forward about their own struggles with getting doctors to listen to them.
These are not just anecdotes; there are real-life consequences to doctors dismissing women’s pain, as seen in the country’s maternal mortality rate. About 700 women in the US die of pregnancy-related complications each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — the highest rate among developed countries. Black women, in particular, die from maternal causes at far higher rates than women from other racial groups. A majority of those deaths are preventable.
Williams, who can keep food down now — she ate the beignets that her husband got for her 39th birthday in September — said she’s had to be her own biggest advocate throughout all this, and it’s something she’s been working on with her therapist.
“At this point, the only advocate that my child has is myself, and the only advocate that I have is myself. So I have to go in there [to the doctor’s] and not be afraid of being seen as dramatic or hysterical but just keep pressing for what I need,” she said.
Pandemic-era safety measures, which have rendered so many facets of society unrecognizable, have exacerbated that loneliness she feels. Williams, like all the other pregnant women BuzzFeed News spoke to, has gone alone to every checkup in the early months of her pregnancy. Partners barred from being inside the building sit and wait in their cars outside.
Being alone is especially frightening for Williams, who tends to pass out when she gets blood drawn. “I just kind of have to have a very strong attitude,” she said. “I’m probably going to pass out, but it’s OK. It can be very scary.”
Gone, too, are the little milestones that couples would normally expect to share with each other. The exhilaration of watching the sonographer glide the ultrasound probe over their growing belly and point out each tiny development on the little bean of a human is now experienced alone, or on FaceTime, like it was for the Escalantes.
Escalante said her husband Adam FaceTimes in for her more “exciting appointments” in the first few months. Infection rates in New York City have hovered around 1% for a few months — a stunning feat for a city that was once the epicenter of the virus in the country, though early October saw a slight but troubling increase in test positivity rate. As Escalante moved into her third trimester, the couple were finally allowed to go to an appointment together.
“I was still in the throes of adjusting to pandemic life, which meant like, drinking every night, trying to do Zoom happy hours — and by the middle of April, we knew we got pregnant.”
Like many others, their 2020 plans were disrupted by the pandemic. They spent six months planning a trip to Vietnam for April, a sort of last hurrah before they tried to start a family. But by February, as horrific reports continued about the coronavirus bringing entire regions around the world to a halt, and the first cases of the virus were reported in Washington state, they canceled their trip.
When Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered New Yorkers to stay at home and nonessential businesses to close in March, and the Escalantes were told they were going to work from home for the foreseeable future, they decided to move up their baby timeline.
“I was still in the throes of adjusting to pandemic life, which meant like, drinking every night, trying to do Zoom happy hours — and by the middle of April, we knew we got pregnant,” Escalante recalled. “And then it got really real.”
The couple did not expect to conceive that quickly, and thought that they’d have a 2021 baby. Escalante, who is due on Christmas Eve, said she felt “complete shock at the realization that the baby is happening this year.”
As it’s Escalante’s first child and she has no prior experience to compare the pregnancy to, she’s not particularly upset by some restrictions, like Adam not being able to go to her appointments with her.
But Emily — the woman in Virginia, who has also had to FaceTime her husband Diego during appointments — said she feels like she’s missing out on some of those sweet moments together.
“I’m not much for the woe is me, but sometimes this is like when you sit back and realize all the things that would normally happen [are] kind of off the table right now. That’s a bummer,” she said. “But I try not to think too much about it.”
All of them, however, did say that their greatest immediate hope is that their partner will be allowed to be with them during the birth — which several healthcare systems in New York banned at one point during the pandemic, and which hospitals in other states were considering — and that they won’t have to wear a mask while pushing out a baby.
The pandemic adds a clear risk factor for pregnant people, who already have an increased focus on their health. As cities and states began to open up — some more cautiously than others — and people calculated different degrees of risk they were willing to take, some of the expectant parents said they had maintained stricter safety precautions than they would have if they weren’t pregnant.
Williams has been less willing to go outside, leaving her house only to go to doctors’ appointments, the grocery store, and the bank. In her home state of Georgia — where businesses reopened as early as April and whose governor sued local Atlanta lawmakers for mandating face coverings in public — there have been more than 340,000 coronavirus cases and more than 7,650 deaths.
Escalante said she and her husband have had to think harder about accepting an invite to something as casual as getting together with friends at an outdoor bar.
“Everybody’s having a horrible, shit year, and the fact that we’re gonna have a little baby in our group of friends and in our family is making everyone’s year a little bit hopeful and excited.”
“Because I am pregnant, I start to second-guess that and think a little deeper about the situation. Like, one of my friends has recently traveled, or is a practicing physician … and suddenly it doesn’t sound like such a good idea anymore,” she said. “It’s a little bit disappointing because we’ve definitely felt more isolated, even as things start to open up a little bit more.”
No one pregnancy is the same as another — but all the women agreed, regardless of their fears about the future and the hardships they’ve faced during the pandemic, that having a baby gives them perspective and a sense of hope during this time.
Cohen-Nosenzo pointed out that although having a baby is typically something to celebrate, she said, “I feel like this one is different. Everyone is like, I need this to happen. I need something good to happen right now.”
It’s also brought Escalante’s group of friends closer, she said. “Everybody’s having a horrible, shit year, and the fact that we’re gonna have a little baby in our group of friends and in our family is making everyone’s year a little bit hopeful and excited.”
Emily, who is due in early 2021, called it “a distraction in the most positive of ways.”
“This year has been an absolute mess, but I hope this will allow us to kind of look back with a little bit of a smile,” she said. “It is a glimmer in all of this, and it’s getting us through some of the more challenging days, to say the least.” ●