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'Fear of the unknown’: Expectant mothers in Alaska adjust to new realities during coronavirus pandemic

Chelsea Smith is concerned about giving birth during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tuesday, April 7, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Chelsea Smith’s first pregnancy is different from what she imagined.

Smith, 28, was placed on unpaid administrative leave from her job as an office assistant three weeks ago due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

She recently moved into a new Anchorage apartment with her boyfriend and was eager to buy furniture and decorate her son’s bedroom. Instead, she’s worried about how to pay bills and buy diapers.

She’s also nervous that she won’t have her mother holding her hand and supporting her when she gives birth in a few weeks, as they had originally planned.

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Like Smith, many expectant mothers are adapting to new realities amid the pandemic. Visitation policies at hospitals have reduced family support during delivery, and travel limitations and quarantines are preventing family members from meeting newborns in person.

Most hospitals in the Anchorage area stopped allowing visitors except in life-or-death situations. Most hospitals allow pregnant women to have one person with them for support during delivery.

Other patients are turning to technology to receive support from loved ones while they’re hospitalized. Providence Alaska Medical Center is loaning iPads to patients who don’t have camera-equipped devices so they can FaceTime friends and family during their stay.

Some birthing centers are less rigid about visitor policies, but Bethel Belisle, a midwife at Haven Midwifery and Birth Center in Anchorage, said the center is reminding women to be careful about who they expose their babies to.

For Smith, this means her parents will not fly in from Bethel to meet their grandson. As a first-time mother, she was looking forward to having her mother beside her in the delivery room but knows that’s no longer a possibility.

Smith said she’s thankful she will have her boyfriend by her side, and she’ll likely have to wait to introduce her son to her parents or video-call them.

Belisle said the center is visiting with patients by phone or video if possible to limit in-person contact. Birthing classes have also gone digital.

She said the pandemic has multiplied her clients’ stress levels.

“I think it’s just the fear of the unknown," she said. "... Women who are pregnant in particular desire community — we want support, we want our friends and family around, and all of a sudden, ‘I’m sorry, Dad, you can’t come for dinner.’ Or I can’t see my best friend. I think there’s some grief involved as well as fear.

“This should be the happiest time of women’s lives and instead we’re isolated and separate and, for a lot of women, scared.”

Seward resident Marissa Amor-Hegna said she’s been looking forward to having her 2-year-old son, Jude, meet his sister, Tula, when she’s born.

“I’ve been showing him videos of kids meeting their baby siblings so he’d know what’s going on, and he was kind of excited for that. But I guess it’s going to look a little different now,” said Amor-Hegna, 26.

Marissa Amor-Hegna smiles with her son, Jude. Amor-Hegna is expecting her second child in a few months. (Photo by Marissa Amor-Hegna)

During the delivery of her firstborn, Amor-Hegna was lucky to have her mother and grandmother beside her. Although she wishes she could have them as a support system this time, she’s viewing her upcoming delivery as a way for her and her partner to grow even closer.

She said she’ll probably have her partner FaceTime her family so they can still be present.

Amor-Hegna plans to deliver at an Anchorage birth center, but because she lives in Seward, it’s recommended that she travel to Anchorage a month prior to giving birth. She planned to stay with family, but since she’s not due for another two months, she’s waiting to make a final plan.

“There’s really no point in trying to make a final plan right now because who knows what it’s going to look like by then?” Amor-Hegna said.

Paulina Standifer, of Tyonek, was also anxious about traveling to Anchorage in advance to give birth at Alaska Native Medical Center. With no road link to Tyonek, 28-year-old Standifer would need to board a plane to reach Anchorage.

Standifer has family in Anchorage but said she would opt to stay at a hotel because her stepmother works in the medical field.

“I’m just scared my baby could be exposed to the coronavirus,” she said.

Standifer said she hopes to instead change to a home birth. She’s not due until July 19 and said she’d feel more comfortable avoiding hospitals, where she and her baby could be in closer proximity to COVID-19 patients.

Belisle said some birthing centers in the Lower 48 saw an influx of women hoping to change their delivery plans last minute, but that has not yet happened in large numbers at Haven Midwifery. She said the women who had already been planning to deliver at the center feel thankful to avoid hospitals.

“You’re going to birth where you’re most comfortable, and if you’ve planned up until nine months to birth in the hospital, you’re going to birth best in the hospital,” she said.

Amor-Hegna said she’s seen a lot of women on Facebook weighing the decision of where they want to give birth in the Mothers Expecting During COVID-19 Support Group, which she created to help expecting mothers connect during such an isolating time.

“I think that what the best thing that it has turned out to be is a source of information,” she said. “Because a lot of these birth centers and hospitals, their protocols are changing daily and literally by the minute as they’re learning what other places are doing and what they should be doing. And they’re not mass-communicating it because it changes so rapidly.”

Amor-Hegna said she worries about the impact that COVID-19 and isolation will have on mothers after birth, and she hopes the group can provide support or connect them with resources.

“The most important thing that we need to be worried about is postpartum depression rates going up following this," she said. "It’s so common in general. And usually, I mean, even just beyond the trauma of the birth, or the potential trauma of birth — you need a village and you need support when you have a baby.”

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