The Vulnerability of New Motherhood, Heightened by a Pandemic

Together in isolation

By Tori Ferenc

When a firstborn comes into this world, we often forget that it is not only the birth of a child but also the birth of a mother. Pregnancy and first-time parenthood are riddled with doubts and fears. Will everything be okay with the baby? How will this new role change me? When I found out I was pregnant, these feelings were only heightened by the fact that a global pandemic was underway.

I remember that moment very well. My husband, Maciek, was working from home, so I broke the news to him straightaway. We were excited but also anxious. Wanting a hypothetical child is one thing; seeing two lines on a pregnancy test and having a child is something else.

Weeks and months passed; one lockdown turned into a second one, waves of the pandemic coming and going. Because of travel restrictions, the pregnancy became an intimate experience I shared with Maciek. Limited mostly to the space of our London apartment, I focused the camera on us, documenting our lives in this transformative moment.

I gave birth to Mila in a hospital during the height of the pandemic in December 2020. Maciek and I both tested negative for the coronavirus so, luckily, we were able to go through it together — unlike some parents in the pandemic.

Initially, I struggled a lot with breastfeeding. It seems so easy and effortless when you see it represented in the mainstream media, but for us, it was a real challenge. I felt so clueless and vulnerable. I couldn’t see any lactation consultants face-to-face because of covid; the only way to speak to them was on video calls — a screaming newborn in one hand and a cellphone with service constantly breaking up in the other.

I continued documenting our lives after Mila’s arrival. Looking after a baby can be an extremely isolating experience, and there were days when I felt like the walls were closing in. Because of the extended travel restrictions, our family in Poland couldn’t visit for several months. We were on our own — inexperienced, overtired and emotional. In this photo essay, I mixed family portraits with still lifes of the mundane parental reality — sterilized bottle teats, toys scattered on the floor, takeaway meals eaten in a hurry — to echo a feeling of claustrophobia, which so many people associate with the early days of parenthood. The images depict various states of joy and anxiety to create a realistic portrayal of new motherhood during a very unusual time.

Tori Ferenc is a photographer in London.

Because of travel restrictions, this transformative time was an intimate experience photographer Tori Ferenc shared with her husband, Maciek, pictured in top photo. In the visual diary, she mixed family portraits with still lifes of the mundane parental reality — sterilized bottle teats, toys scattered on the floor, takeaway meals eaten in a hurry — to echo a feeling of claustrophobia, which so many people associate with the early days of parenthood. From top: Ferenc’s daughter, Mila, in silhouette. Mila after a messy lunch. Cabbage leaves Ferenc used to ease her mastitis. A self-portrait after a sleepless night. Ferenc experienced nosebleeds at the end of her pregnancy and after Mila’s birth. Mila reaching into the dishwasher and during bath time at sunset.

A special kind of double

By Nadiya Nacorda

There are so many things I wish I had known before getting pregnant during the pandemic. Like how terrifying and lonely it would be, how irrelevant I would feel and how my family would never see me pregnant. It completely defined my journey into motherhood, shattering every expectation I held close.

I found out I was pregnant in April 2020, just as everything was shutting down. We were aware of the severity of covid but remained so excited, imagining all that we thought we’d experience. Hospitals and doctor’s offices started to impose covid restrictions — which, for me, meant finding out I was having twins with an ultrasound tech, a stranger, while my husband waited in the car. When I saw the two little blobs that looked like Sour Patch Kids, I laughed and cried at the same time. “Oh, we’re in trouble now,” I thought to myself.

Considering the pandemic and being a Black woman in America, facing additional risks in childbirth, I wanted to give birth in the comfort of my own home with a Black midwife, but I couldn’t even find one in Virginia. There were only three birth centers in the state that would care for me because I was considered high-risk with twins. “Sorry, we only do singletons,” many providers told me.

By 27 weeks, I was bigger than most people are when they’re full term. The pain of my ever-expanding uterus and my twins squishing up into my ribs grew so intense that I could barely walk. One Monday evening, the cramping started and my husband rushed me to the hospital. Looking back, I was so clearly already in labor. Two days later — without my mom, grandmas or aunties — I gave birth to identical, premature twins, weighing only two pounds each, as my husband stood by me in a room full of strangers. I couldn’t even hold my newborn babies because they were rushed to the neonatal intensive care unit to assist their underdeveloped lungs. The day I became a mother was not joyful or celebratory; it was about survival.

Leaving the twins in the NICU and heading home was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. I would wake up having forgotten I’d given birth so early, touch my stomach and just weep. We visited our twins two times a day, every day for 79 days. And even when they came home, another challenging phase began. I was too scared to let anyone near them for fear of them getting sick and dying. My family saw them only through FaceTime for many months.

Becoming a mother of two preemies in the middle of a pandemic challenged everything I thought I knew about myself. People constantly referred to me as a superhero. I never felt like one.

Nadiya Nacorda is a Detroit-born photographer and artist whose work has appeared in Time and Essence magazines and the Guardian.

In April 2020, Nadiya Nacorda found out from an ultrasound tech that she was having twins as her husband waited in the car. At 27 weeks, she was rushed to the hospital, where they discovered she was dilated three centimeters. She gave birth to premature identical twins, weighing only two pounds each, with her husband by her side, surrounded by strangers. The newborns spent 79 days in the hospital. From top: The twins’ sonogram. Riding the train during the pandemic. Playing in the pool. Going to the bathroom with twins. Nacorda with her toddlers.

Resilience in birth and breastfeeding

By Michaela Vatcheva

I went into “expecting in quarantine” optimistic. I wouldn’t be dodging strangers reaching for my pregnant belly in public. But it was long and lonely. I yearned for a baby shower. A delivery room overflowing with flowers. Instead, I gave birth double-masked on an operating table, holding the hand of an anesthesiologist I’d met hours before.

When I went into active labor in January 2021, my husband and I arrived at the birth center we had chosen in hopes that the small, private facility would allow him to experience the birth with me. But then a midwife gave me a rapid coronavirus test in the parking garage and it came back positive.

I ended up alone and terrified in a packed San Francisco hospital during a covid-19 surge, pre-vaccines. In birth class, they had taught us it was important to feel at peace, but every fiber of my body said, “Not like this.” Twelve hours later, a team of PPE-clad doctors and nurses delivered Kai via an emergency Caesarean section. One antibody and three PCR tests later, we learned that the rapid coronavirus test — the one that had kept my husband from witnessing our son’s first day of life — had been a false positive.

My milk came in immediately; there was lots of it and it felt instinctively right. Days later, I had my first milk clog in my breast. I thought there was a stone inside my skin, and the pain was piercing. Milk travels through tiny ducts in breasts, and if it doesn’t drain completely, it thickens and creates clogs. For a couple of months, I had at minimum one new clog every day. Dissolving them — once I got good at it — took a day’s worth of nearly constant work: hot Epsom salt baths, electric toothbrush massage, supplements and medication, hand expression and other painful, costly and time-consuming methods.

I cobbled together a treatment plan from online forums and Zoom consultations with experts. Inviting a lactation consultant into our home felt like a significant risk before vaccines were available. We had to do it anyway. She couldn’t help. Texts with other moms were my life raft. These experiences bonded us, but we knew one another almost entirely as words on a screen.

I decided to solicit breast milk from neighbors and strangers on the internet to boost our supply. We had to be cautious about contracting the coronavirus while picking up a donation. Also, was it possible for the baby to get the virus from the milk? Or would it give him immunity? While experts were still gathering data, I was weighing risks blindly.

In the end, however, the additional milk was just a supplement. I continued to nurse and pump — because all the pain and inconvenience of nursing Kai was not enough to offset the instinct that was driving my need to continue producing milk for my baby.

Michaela Vatcheva is a photographer in San Francisco.

Michaela Vatcheva had son Kai in January 2021 and struggled with breastfeeding, experiencing daily milk clogs. From top: Vatcheva breastfeeding before she was released from the hospital. Vatcheva’s feeding equipment. Her husband picking up donated breast milk. Her self-made supplemental nursing system. Vatcheva pumping around the clock. A group of moms Vatcheva met online gather in a park. Kai, only a few months old, sat through a whole virtual birthday party. Vatcheva pumps as Kai is fed in the front seat on a 12-hour drive to Las Vegas to visit Kai’s grandparents.

Gaining a new identity

By Lianne Milton

Our son, Teo, was born on Feb. 16, 2020. Four weeks later, the state of Wisconsin went into lockdown. For the next four months, the three of us isolated in our 600-square-foot apartment, watching winter turn to spring from our living room windows.

I was in the second semester of graduate school for my master of fine arts degree. The university closed. Classes went online. And there we were, my husband and I, with our newborn and round-the-clock feedings. When summer came around and the coronavirus was rampant, we decided we couldn’t continue in quarantine. We packed up our apartment and drove to my parents’ home in Virginia, where we stayed for the following eight months. In January 2021, we rented a friend’s apartment in Miami Beach, breaking the winter monotony. It was then that I decided to pursue this project.

For the first time, I turned the camera on myself, documenting my own transformation. Through my gaze as a mother and as a photographer, I wanted to convey matrescence: the fundamental human experience of becoming a mother. My intention was to bring visibility to the identity shift, the burning exhaustion and the ambivalence. I also reflected on home life, our cocoon — a place of refuge from the pandemic but also of confinement.

Matrescence is far more diverse and complex than the saccharine portrayal in a patriarchal culture. I experienced how the pandemic exacerbated existing issues of becoming a mother in the United States: intense isolation, the lack of connection to other moms, the double duty of child care and work from home, and (for me) little support at an academic institution. In academia, I faced various levels of microaggressions from non-parenting professors who simply did not understand how I had to navigate and negotiate between two worlds.

Through all this, the weight of the world disappears with Teo. From the day he was born, I have sunk into every moment with him. I cheer for the milestones while secretly mourning the previous stages. Despite the daily domestic labor, there are times when I feel grounded. Other times I feel lost. And in between, I strive to get us through diaper changes emotionally unscathed. Becoming a mother is a process. And it has turned me inside out.

Lianne Milton is a photographer in Wisconsin.

Lianne Milton wanted to convey the fundamental human experience of becoming a mother through her gaze as a new parent and as a photographer. From top: Milton floating in the ocean, “allowing the water to blanket me, releasing the weight of the stress and anxiety of the pandemic.” Breastfeeding at sunrise. “As my son nurses, he digs his sharp nails into my chest,” she says. Light from a sound machine highlights Teo’s face. The family’s apartment, which became a “cocoon — a place of refuge from the pandemic but also of confinement.” Milton with newborn Teo. Milton takes self-portraits.

Striving for a family in lockdown

By Danielle Villasana

A couple of years into our marriage, my husband and I were ready to start trying to have kids — then the pandemic hit. As covid-19 spread to every corner of the world, it was a shock to my system: physically, mentally, emotionally. I was very aware that my autoimmune disorder, Hashimoto’s disease, potentially put me at a higher risk of complications.

For months, I was overcome with anxiety about not getting sick. I obsessed over hygiene and sanitation: We washed our produce, we disinfected surfaces in our apartment several times a day, and when entering from running errands I would wash my face, feet, hands and arms. In the outside world, I imagined the invisible virus floating in the air. I wore two masks and constantly checked if they were tight around my nose and mouth.

After nearly a year of trying to get pregnant, we visited the endocrinologist to adjust my thyroid medication. One month later, in March 2021, we were celebrating seeing two little lines on a pregnancy test. Though my concerns about getting the virus while pregnant were also palpable, vaccine accessibility was on the horizon in Turkey. When I got my first jab in June 2021, I told myself I could finally relax, at least a little bit. Now, looking back, I realize my debilitating fear of covid may have contributed to my difficulty conceiving that first year.

One night after sending my sisters a baby-bump selfie with the message “Y’all I’m getting so big,” my water broke — one month early. Minutes later we were climbing up the steep hills of Istanbul trying to hail a taxi. Because of a handful of circumstances, my husband and I, along with our birthing team, opted for a Caesarean section. Seeing my daughter’s little hand pop up seconds after she was pulled from my body was the happiest and most relieving moment of my life.

Though my husband couldn’t be in the operating room because of covid precautions, he was there waiting for us when they wheeled us out. Later, in the blur of time at the hospital, I asked him if he had come up with a middle name for our daughter. He’s Nigerian, and it was important for us to include a name in his tribal language, Marghi. After a few seconds of silence, he said quietly, “Hyellafiya: God preserve.”

Danielle Villasana is a photographer in Istanbul.

Danielle Villasana struggled to get pregnant during the first year of the pandemic. In March 2021, she was celebrating two lines on a pregnancy test. From top: A self-portrait before giving birth. The couple hug. A watermelon in soap; the couple washed all their produce carefully during the pandemic. Their daughter at home. Villasana’s husband holds their daughter’s hand in their Istanbul apartment. A plant is placed in the bedroom while the parents clean. Villasana’s husband holds their newborn. Villasana breastfeeding.

Photo editing by Natalia Jiménez-Stuard. Design by Marissa Vonesh.