Jenna and Jarrett Fletcher started the coronavirus pandemic with the news of a miscarriage in March. They were devastated.
“We went through a lot of grief from that right in the midst of COVID,” Jenna Fletcher said. “We had to be isolated from everyone, so it was a bit lonely and challenging, but we just had to trust God.”
A month later, as the world was going into lockdown, they conceived another baby. It was the end of April and they were elated.
Quarantine gave them ample opportunity to try again, the couple joked.
“We were so excited and felt so blessed, but also we were sort of anxious from the previous miscarriage,” Jenna said. “This whole process has been difficult, but also full of joy.”
The expecting parents thought COVID-19 might be over in a few weeks, but then the anxiety started to settle in as the pandemic worsened and cases spread among family members. They were also nervous.
They relied on their faith to get them through the year, just as they had done after losing their baby.
During her pregnancy, Jenna, 26, had to go her ultrasounds and prenatal appointments alone. She had to labor with a mask on, which made breathing more difficult. And she and her husband and their older son quarantined for about a month before her due date.
But on New Year’s Day, the Fletchers welcomed their baby boy, August Ray. He was the first baby born in 2021 at 12:13 a.m. at UNC REX Hospital.
“August is such a blessing to us and it’s so sweet to be able to be on the other side and holding him in our arms now after the miscarriage,” Jenna said on a call with reporters from their hospital room Friday.
“It has been a difficult year,” she said. “But this is such a sweet gift.”
For Jarrett Fletcher, this baby was a “physical glimmer of hope” throughout 2020.
A COVID-19 baby boom — or bust?
The Fletchers are two of many parents who conceived a baby during the pandemic and had a January due date. They’re at the beginning of the quarantine baby boom that many people predicted last spring.
Typically, hospitals and birthing centers go into a lull in the winter months, but the number of expecting mothers at UNC REX Healthcare is higher this year.
“There definitely seems to be an uptick,” said April Lalumiere, Director of Women’s and Children’s Services at UNC REX.
In early December, the hospital had a major surge in its newborn intensive care unit, or NICU, with premature babies being born, Lalumiere said. So, they’re expecting a similar uptick in January for babies conceived at the beginning of the pandemic when people across the state went into quarantine.
“Anytime there’s something that makes people stay at home we always think and talk about it,” Lalumiere said. “A snow storm … a pandemic … we’re going to see a surge and let’s be prepared.”
But it’s still wait and see if that really happens, she said.
National annual birth statistics are typically released in May of the following year and hospitals in North Carolina are still gathering the numbers from obstetrician offices for these winter months.
Doulas are busier during pandemic baby boom
It’s been a busy year for the doula agency Doulas of Raleigh, which had to hire new staff members to keep up with the demand.
“Right now we’re definitely seeing a baby boom,” co-owner Kelly Rutan said. “I think those are the early April conception dates that are starting to hit now.”
Doulas are hired by the family to provide support during labor and to help the family transition after the baby arrives. Throughout the pandemic, the company has also offered online classes and virtual support, particularly when doulas couldn’t visit with patients and weren’t allowed in the hospitals.
Doulas of Raleigh has been inundated with calls recently and they are completely full for January and February due dates. The team has been referring expecting moms to other local doula agencies and getting referrals from those other agencies too. They’re expecting March and April to be just as busy.
Researchers have also predicted a “COVID baby bust,” as some parents are hesitant to get pregnant because of the devastating and uncertain financial impact of the pandemic, the Washington Post reported.
And for some parents who struggle with infertility or do in vitro fertilization, a lot of those plans had to be put on hold this year. Others worried about how COVID-19 exposure might impact them or their babies’ health long term.
Getting pregnant during quarantine
Whether there was a true baby boom — or bust — these moms have experienced pregnancy unlike most, and each have a light that’s guided them through a tumultuous 2020.
Rachel Vetterl, 27, and her husband Eric were planning on trying to get pregnant this year and both started working from home when the pandemic hit. They had a few trips planned, including one to Napa Valley in California, but when those were canceled they decided it was a good time to try.
“Quarantine sped it up,” Vetterl said.
They got pregnant right away, but had no idea the experience would be so isolating, she said.
“It’s definitely kind of scary, just not knowing when things will go back to normal,” Vetterl said.
Vetterl isn’t from Raleigh so she hasn’t seen her parents and sister in over a year, and because of the pandemic, they won’t get to meet her baby until he’s older.
She said it’s been hard not to see her family while she’s been pregnant with her first child. But, the privacy and alone time with her husband has been nice, allowing them time to focus on their own little family.
“Time stopped and my husband and I got to put our all into this pregnancy,” Vetterl said. “It gave me more time to read and really process what we want life to be like once he arrives.”
Kelcy Walker-Pope, 37, said her pregnancy wasn’t a shock.
She and her husband, Jonas, a sports reporter at The News & Observer, are newlyweds and were both working from home because of COVID-19. They had their baby girl on Thursday, Jan. 14.
“This is definitely a historical time and I would definitely make sure she knows that she was conceived and birthed during a time that nobody has ever seen such a thing before,” Walker-Pope said.
This is her first pregnancy and she wishes she could be physically in a space going through breathing exercises and meeting other parents. But she’s been able to take classes at home on YouTube and uses an app that takes her through each week of her pregnancy. It also connects her with moms all over the country whenever she has questions.
“I knew of about four or five other moms who delivered recently,” Walker-Pope said. “It’s been nice to be able to reach out to other expecting moms because they’re going through the same situation.”
Pregnancies are not ‘normal’ during a pandemic
Kate DelloStritto, 28, knew she was pregnant a few weeks before COVID-19 cases started spreading in North Carolina and things started shutting down.
She was a little bit nervous about how the virus would affect pregnant moms and all the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic. DelloStritto considered postponing her prenatal appointments, fearing that it might be too dangerous to go into the office.
“The scariest time was the beginning of everything,” DelloStritto said.
She and her husband followed the state’s coronavirus guidelines and hoped that she and her baby would stay safe.
DelloStritto had a bit of an upper hand with this being her second pregnancy. She knew what to expect with checkups and ultrasounds, which she said can be really nerve-wracking for moms.
“It’s hard to be there alone,” DelloStritto said. “I was nervous going into that.”
During the pandemic, women have had to go to most of their prenatal appointments on their own.
Spouses often can’t be in the room to hear their baby’s heartbeat for the first time. Dads look at ultrasounds through FaceTime or hear about their partner’s progress and their baby’s health from texts and phone calls while waiting in the parking lot outside the hospital.
Some partners haven’t been able to bond with the doctors or midwives that will be in the delivery room and caring for their baby.
Birthing and breastfeeding classes moved to Zoom or online presentations during the pandemic. There has been no in-person prenatal yoga with other moms, no practicing breathing exercises alongside another couple with the same due date.
And parents couldn’t do the in-person tour of the hospital or birth center that helps to prepare them for the delivery day.
Some moms had virtual showers, or wore masks while waving to family and friends from their front yard for a drive-by shower.
DelloStritto said the experience hasn’t been normal, but being pregnant during this pandemic has given her an excuse to rest.
“With a toddler and being pregnant it can be stressful,” DelloStritto. “We don’t have to go out and do all of these things, we can take advantage of resting at home or doing things around the house together.”
DelloStritto, who had her baby girl in October, said it’s actually been better not to feel like she has to push herself. But she knows other moms don’t have that luxury, especially those who’ve been working on the front lines of the pandemic.
The delivery room in a pandemic
Delivery rooms at UNC Rex Hospital, which welcomed about 5,000 babies in 2020, looked much different once the pandemic hit.
Patients and visitors were tested for COVID-19, only one or two support people were allowed in the room, and everyone wore masks or face shields, including the mom.
That support person can be their partner, a doula, a friend or family member, but they can’t switch them out. Rex’s Lalumiere said they miss seeing all the kids first meeting their baby brothers and sisters.
While hospitals have changed protocols, the priority has been to keep women’s birth plans and choices as close to what they would’ve been in 2019, Lalumiere said.
“We feel very strongly that it’s critically important that that woman has her support person with her throughout the birthing experience,” Lalumiere said, even if a patient tests positive for COVID-19.
Laboring by herself was Kerri Shore’s biggest fear when she was expecting her baby in July.
She said she was afraid she would get COVID-19 close to her due date and be separated from her baby. And at the time, if her husband had symptoms, that he would not be allowed in the room.
“We were really extra cautious the weeks leading up to the due date,” Shore said.
Shore said she wished her family could’ve been there to meet the new baby right away, but they waited a couple days after she was born.
Anyone who came into their house to hold or meet Shore’s daughter wore a mask the whole time and they made sure no one had been exposed or was waiting on a test result. Since their baby was born in the summer, they also let some friends come visit outside.
“Life looked a lot different than what it would normally look like for a birth,” Shore said. “But we’ve been able to introduce her to the majority of our family, and even though it’s masks, just being able to share our joy with those around us that we love.”
A bright spot in 2020
Pregnancy looked different for each of these moms, but their babies have been a blessing in a year people couldn’t wait to see end.
And each of them said that one day they will tell their little ones about their bravery, their perfect timing and how they were the bright spot of 2020.
“God brought light out of darkness at the beginning of the year,” Jarrett Fletcher said, sitting in the hospital room with his wife and newborn son.
“Now we are sitting here, we’re still in the midst of COVID, but we can see some of the light.”