BILLINGS — For a number of women, surviving the coronavirus pandemic also meant earning a badge of honor.
Because in 2020, the journey of motherhood not only meant keeping yourself safe but also keeping safe your most precious accomplishment.
“It's like a warrior,” said Bozeman mother Amy Breitmaier. “It’s like you can look each other in the eye and be like, I see you, we've both been through something.”
Five women from Montana recently came together virtually - amid sleepless nights, diaper changes, and sweet snuggles - to reflect on the past year navigating pregnancy and labor during COVID-19.
One of these women is a front-line nurse from Bozeman and currently working in the Seattle area while pregnant with her first child due in May.
“Being pregnant during a pandemic has been harder than I thought it would be,” said Whitney Gilkerson.
For many pregnant women, the pandemic meant loneliness. It was even documented that expecting mothers during the pandemic were more prone to depression and a dip in mental health because of hormonal changes and a lack of support as a result of social distancing.
As safety precautions were put in place and lockdowns enacted, support groups and work-life went digital.
But now, as restrictions are being lifted across the country and case numbers decrease, Gilkerson is hopeful about her delivery.
“I feel like we're kind of nearing the end of a lot of this stuff as more people are getting vaccinated and the numbers are falling and so I’m really hopeful,” she said.
Last spring, baby showers were canceled and sweet milestone moments in the doctor’s office for an ultrasound or checkup became standalone events.
“I have the most vivid memory of, you know, laying there and having the doctor tell me, 'Oh look, there are twins,' and I was there by myself and just like a single tear rolled down my cheek into my mask,” said Breitmaier.
When March of 2020 rolled around, Americans didn’t quite know what was in store. At one point last year, hospitals in some areas of the country restricted partners from delivery rooms due to a concern over the deadly virus sneaking in.
Luckily for Florence mother Tessa Lynn, who gave birth around that time, that rule never took hold in Montana.
“While I was in the hospital is when masks became mandatory for hospital workers,” said Lynn. “From the day I went in to the day I left, we went from the hospital normal and we left and the hospital on lockdown, everyone was in masks and there were temperature checks.”
Before health officials could rule on quarantine guidelines, Lynn and her husband opted to let the family meet their new baby girl through the safety of a pane of glass.
“My mom and my husband's parents didn't get to see her in person for two weeks because we didn't know to quarantine. So they did window viewings,” she said.
Eventually, a year later, we would all come to grips with a relentless virus that has claimed over half a million lives so far. But naturally, there was everything to be worried about, and little that could ease the minds of many.
“I was pregnant in April, so pretty close to the beginning of everything, and then we were so careful,” said Heidi Hayward, a Missoula native now living in Portland, Ore.
Hayward gave birth to her first child in the hospital while positive with COVID-19 but says she wasn’t allowed to tell family and friends until 11 weeks post-partum.
“My due date was Dec. 2, and on Nov. 28 I started having cold symptoms, and I was like, 'Oh, there's just no way. We've been so careful,'” she said. “And then before my due date, I got an email saying that I was positive, and I just went into shock. We're just completely in shock and panic.”
Her baby girl was welcomed into the world, and like many other newborns was met with doctors and nurses and even mom and dad all wearing masks.
“Everyone was great, but they had to completely suit up before coming in the room with us, and it just couldn't be the really nurturing experience that you would’ve wanted.”
Still, through all the scary unknowns and heartbreaking headlines, when those cherished COVID babies were born, not even the dark shade of a pandemic could dim that remarkable moment when a mother meets her child.
“It's a year that's going to be remembered for all the bad things,” said Billings mother Sami Sullivan. “But then it's the best year, too.”
For Sullivan, there was so much more on her mind than just the ever-changing COVID restrictions and guidelines. Her journey to motherhood meant staying positive that nothing would impact her long-awaited pregnancy with her son.
“I went through IVF to get pregnant, and we got in for the last cycle before everything got shut down with COVID,” said Sullivan, a former MTN reporter and anchor. “From there, I kind of had a complicated pregnancy, so for the first 20 weeks, I was on bed rest, which weirdly kind of actually worked out with the whole pandemic. We couldn't do anything anyway, so we weren't being pulled to go out to do anything,” she said.
The COVID vaccine has changed the landscape of the virus, but little research has been done on the effects on pregnant women. For the nurse, Gilkerson, the decision to get the vaccine wasn't hard.
“There's no real risk I can see about getting the vaccine,” she said. "While it's scary, I also felt super lucky to be able to have that because being a nurse, I'm just at higher risk. I feel good about it and I've been able to kind of contribute to some studies, so hopefully, there is more information out there for other moms who are considering it.”
All in all, when these five women look back at 2020 and the lives brought into a world of what could be summed up as mayhem, the same sentiment is felt. Each couldn’t picture it unfolding in any other way.
“For me, this year has been the best year of my life,” said Sullivan. “2020 brought me everything.”
There’s no doubt that moms to COVID babies indeed earned an unofficial badge of honor that COVID seemed to unwelcomingly hand out.
“Whether it's being scared at appointments by yourself or it's dealing with armfuls of kids while you're stuck at home trying to type out an email,” said Breitmaier. “You know, I felt like a superwoman when I had one kid and now, I really feel like I am.”