In the weeks after Joelle Cosmas’s son was born in May 2020, waves of friends arrived outside the duplex she shared with her husband and their newborn child in Chicago. The guests would hover outside the front gate, their smiles cloaked by masks, and set down bags filled with homemade dinners, gifts and groceries, sandwiches from a favorite Italian deli in the city. Cosmas would walk down the steps, lifting her son, Johnny, for her friends to behold — “like the Lion King,” she recalls now, laughing a little, even though those visits often made her cry.
There wasn’t time to talk — really talk — about how things were going, what it felt like to be a first-time mother at the height of a global pandemic. After a few minutes of chatter, her friends would be on their way, and Cosmas and her husband would bring the food and gifts inside, close the door and find themselves the way they’d mostly been for months: alone together again.
“My friends don’t realize how I’ve changed and grown in the past year — and not only me, but my husband as well,” says Cosmas, 33. “They missed the whole thing. And it’s sad that they don’t really know me as a mom, because it’s now my priority, and such an important part of who I am.”
New motherhood is meant to be a communal journey, in which a mother is ushered into her role by family and friends who support her, guide her and witness her. But for first-time moms like Cosmas, who were already pregnant when the pandemic was first declared, the passage into parenthood was very different from what they’d once anticipated.
Hannah Matthews, a 33-year-old children’s librarian and freelance writer in Portland, Maine, had envisioned sharing the joys and challenges of motherhood while gathering with a local new-moms support group every week. Katie Bahr, 35, who works in marketing and communications in Germantown, Md., expected to spend time with her three brothers and their families, watching her baby daughter get to know her cousins. Allison Redisch, a 37-year-old stay-at-home mom in Washington, D.C., had imagined welcoming family and friends from out of town for her son’s bris. Kyra Betts, a 32-year-old doula in St. Louis, had pictured her mom friends swooping in to make order of the postpartum chaos: cooking meals, cleaning the house, offering tips and encouragement as she learned to breastfeed her son.
Those moments never happened when their babies were newborns. And now, as many families have begun to reunite and return to a more normal life after months of isolation, these mothers face a daunting question: How do you navigate reentry when your own world and the world outside are so fundamentally changed?
For more than a year, no one had set foot in Rachel Loveridge’s home in Hagerstown, Md., except herself, her husband and their son, Owen, who was born in May 2020. But in late April, Loveridge’s vaccinated in-laws finally flew in from Utah. While her husband picked them up at the airport, Loveridge, 36, paced her house, filled with eager and anxious energy, wondering how she would welcome the first loved ones to visit — how to introduce them to her child, and to the person she had become.
Then the front door opened and they stepped inside, and the magnitude of all that had happened since she’d last seen them crashed over her.
“Hi!” she exclaimed, tears streaming down her face. “I’m a mom now!”
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Even in the best of circumstances, new motherhood is a shift that reverberates through every aspect of a woman’s life — her psychology, her emotions, her social circle, her career and finances, her political and spiritual identity, her body (for those who give birth). There is a word for this process: “matrescence,” a term coined by anthropologist Dana Raphael in the 1970s and revived in 2008 by Aurélie Athan, a clinical psychologist and professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, who has spent over a decade teaching the topic and studying its impact.
An essential element of matrescence, Athan says, is being seen and supported by loved ones as a mother forges this new part of her identity — but that has been impossible for many who became mothers in the pandemic.
“Think of how a mother holds a baby and not only gives the baby functional support — of course a baby needs to be fed and cleaned — but a baby also needs to be gazed at, mirrored, told, ‘Oh my, look at what you just did, that’s amazing!’ or ‘I see you’re struggling here, let me help you until you can do it on your own,’” Athan says. “That same parallel process is necessary for the mother, too. Who is holding the mother?”
For new moms in the pandemic, guidance and affirmation often came instead through texts and WhatsApp messages, over Zoom chats and FaceTime calls, on Reddit threads and in video appointments with lactation consultants and therapists and doulas who did the best they could through a screen.
Throughout her own pregnancy last year, Betts was focused on other soon-to-be-mothers: As a Black doula — in a country where the maternal mortality rate is disproportionately high for Black women — her virtual consultations with her majority-Black clientele often involved confronting a constellation of fears.
“My work went from telling people how to advocate for themselves in the hospital, teaching people about childbirth, to just convincing them: ‘You’re in labor, go to the hospital!’ People were terrified to go to the hospital,” she says. “When you have a different kind of job, you have time when you’re not thinking about the fact that you’re going to have a baby in a pandemic. But my job is birthing babies, so there was no escaping it. I’m telling people not to be terrified, and I’m terrified. So I can remember moments where I would get off the phone with a client and I would have to go cry.” She pauses. “But I also felt more useful than I’ve ever felt in my life.”
When Betts gave birth to her son in November, his two grandmothers quarantined and then came to help — but Betts says she fiercely missed the physical presence of her like-minded friends, as she faced a generational disconnect between her approach to motherhood and the advice of the older women.
“Neither one of them breastfed, and they were like, ‘Just give him a pacifier!’ or ‘Are you sure you don’t want to try a little bit of formula?’ “ she says. “And I kept saying, ‘No, no! I’m trying to make this work!’ They were trying to be helpful, but they have no experience there. Only about 40% of Black women even try to breastfeed. But my friends get it; they would have been like, ‘We’re gonna do this!’”
Rachel Loveridge had found a subreddit for new and expecting parents before the pandemic, and it quickly became a vital lifeline as her in-person access to friends and family vanished. “As a group, we’ve really imprinted on one another because this is a really specific cultural moment,” she says. “There are women and first-time parents from all around the world coming together to really support one another through it.”
It’s been helpful to have that nonjudgmental space, she says, especially as she looks anxiously ahead to the process of reentering her community and reuniting with her parents, who are stationed in Japan with the Navy.
“At this point, I want to come across as being settled into this new identity, but the truth is we’ve just been in survival mode,” she says. “There’s this natural self-consciousness of ‘Will my parents think I’m doing this right?’ I find myself thinking, in my raw moments, ‘I figured this out because I had to,’ and almost feeling preemptively defensive about how we do things.”
Even before covid-19, Athan says, the new mothers she spoke to often described apprehension about returning to the lives they lived before their children were born. But the pandemic has dramatically amplified that feeling; the rhythms of daily life are no longer familiar, and new moms worry about whether they will feel understood or validated as they begin to parent in the presence of others.
“Mothers are often asked, ‘When are you going back to work, back to your old jeans, back to this sense of normalcy?’ and they’re looking at you like you have two heads because that’s not what they’re experiencing,” Athan says. “There is no going back. And they’re experiencing grief about the loss of the old world order of things. They’re in this liminal, in-between place, this not-yet-to-be place.”
Bahr, whose daughter was born in May 2020, says she feels conflicted as she watches others rejoice about returning to their social lives. “I’ve never had a social life with the baby! She’s never even been in a grocery store,” she says. “It’s so hard to just suddenly be like, ‘All right, full steam ahead,’ when I don’t know how she’s going to act, and I don’t know how I’m going to act.”
Even as they feel the sting of separation from so many in their lives, several new mothers say they’ve found a deeper closeness to those who were there with them — their partners, their parents. For Cosmas, the experience instilled a new understanding of her own mother, a Lebanese immigrant who had also found herself facing first-time parenthood under lonely circumstances.
“She immigrated here, and soon after, she was pregnant with me. She didn’t know much English. She had to figure it all out on her own,” Cosmas says. “And I feel like I finally realize exactly what that meant, and I have so much more respect for what she went through.”- — -
Someday, if she has another baby, Redisch hopes it will be different — that her second child could be surrounded by those who couldn’t be there to welcome her son after his birth in May 2020.
“I hope that I pass that baby around so much that I only see them to feed them,” she says. “Although then I think I might be sad all over again, for all the things my son missed. I’m grateful he won’t remember this, but I will.”
Loveridge struggles most with the memories that were never made. “It’s hard to move past the things you don’t get to have,” she says. “I’ll never have the moment where I get to see my parents hold my son as a newborn. That’s gone. He’s going to be a year old by the time they meet him.”
Against the backdrop of the pandemic’s devastation, others have found a sharper sense of purpose and perspective. Betts says she feels more able to move through the unexpected challenges of new motherhood, the little pitfalls that might have rattled her otherwise. “If I was not in the middle of a pandemic when I became a mother, I think I would have been so serious about everything,” she says. “But I’ve learned to just laugh my way through it, because at least I’m here to experience it and enjoy it.”
Hannah Matthews, whose son was born in January, says the isolation of the pandemic has also granted her space for reflection. “It’s really helped me spend a lot of time with myself: Who am I as a mother, what does it mean to become a mother especially in such a chaotic time in the world?” she says. “This situation has only further clarified how responsible we are to everyone on Earth, and I actually think it’s so beautiful that he was born in this time when it cannot be denied how connected we are to one another, how we are all responsible for one another’s well-being.”
One evening in early May, Cosmas’s best friend — who had spent over a year checking in from a distance, running errands and dropping off groceries — stepped inside Cosmas’s house for the first time since Johnny’s birth. She took off her face mask and knelt down beside the 11-month-old boy, reaching out to touch him gently. She followed along as Cosmas got Johnny ready for bed, the only person other than Cosmas’s husband and parents to see the first-time mom move through the nightly routine, polished by months of practice: Cosmas changed Johnny’s diaper, gave him a bottle, read him a story. Her friend said, “Wow, you’re so good at this,” and Cosmas finally believed it was true.