Cork mums who gave birth during the pandemic reflect on the past 12 months

Ahead of Mother’s Day, EMMA CONNOLLY talks to three mums who had babies during the pandemic, about what motherhood has been like over the past few months
Cork mums who gave birth during the pandemic reflect on the past 12 months

Mairead Sullivan and her family.

MAIREAD SULLIVAN

“I found being pregnant during a global pandemic a horrifically lonely experience. And as long as the lockdown measures continue, I fear other expecting mothers will go through what I and thousands of other women nationwide had to endure, despite the astounding efforts of the midwifes and other medical professionals.”

That’s according to Mairead Sullivan, who gave birth to her third child, Liam, in September during Level 3 restrictions.

Mairead, who has a popular Instagram page called ‘thegetoutmommy’ admits that being pregnant during a pandemic was “really challenging without the normal external supports”.

An early years professional by trade, the Ballincollig woman is currently a stay-at- home mum while her sons, Cian, 6, Eoin, 3, and now Liam are still young.

Mairead Sullivan and baby Liam.
Mairead Sullivan and baby Liam.

She excitedly announced she was expecting at eight weeks, and what followed was an eventful start to the pregnancy.

“Lockdown 1 hit in the midst of the first trimester exhaustion and what should probably have been an easier pregnancy with school to distract the older two in the mornings became all out chaos as they were starved for interaction while stuck home 24/7. 

"Meanwhile hyperemesis rendered me fairly useless. I couldn’t even open the fridge without feeling sick and some days I’d resort to laying on the floor with nausea while the boys played beside me.”

Her husband Jonathan moved back to his home place of Ballylicky, West Cork to care for his father Dessie, who became ill quite suddenly and was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer shortly afterwards. “He couldn’t be exposed to the children while undergoing chemo which meant we couldn’t all be together. He sadly passed away at the end of August just weeks before Liam arrived.”

Being pregnant during a pandemic itself also brought its own worries for Mairead: “I had the absolute fear of the unknown. There were little to no statistics on the risk factors to pregnant women and back in early 2020 there was no information about the possibility of vertical transmission in utero. That fear was always in the back of my mind and certainly aided the need to keep to ourselves even more.”

Mairead, who is pretty resilient, admits it was a terrifying time and hospital restrictions made the pregnancy a very isolated affair.

“My husband wasn’t allowed to attend any scans, or be with me when I ended up in A&E with a scare in my second trimester. 

"He said he felt like he didn’t really know the baby, which was just rotten for him,” she said.

“On a less serious level, there was no sharing the news with loved ones, no baby shower, no baby moon, or a coffee with a friend to normalise the trials and triumphs of growing a human.”

She described arriving to the hospital in labour as bittersweet: “Jonathan brought me to the main door, relayed the relevant details to the midwife and then had to leave. The midwifes and staff were all amazing and tried in every way to support me but it’s simply not the same as having a partner who knows by looking at you that something is amiss.”

She said both her labours for her older boys were very different and the only consistent thing was having her husband there.

Baby Liam with big brothers Cian and Eoin.
Baby Liam with big brothers Cian and Eoin.

“It was definitely a frightening experience without him,” she said. 

“The lack of that intimate support lends itself to unnecessary stress and panic. 

"I appreciate why it’s a necessity but it’s still exceptionally difficult to comprehend when you’re in the throes of labour, already worrying about this new baby and unnecessarily fretting about whether your partner will be left in in time, if at all.

“Liam was born at 9pm, and Jonathan was left in just after 8pm, there was very little time to spare and it felt like a bit of a whirlwind.”

Mairead had originally hoped to get home that evening with Liam, but as she had been induced, both were required to stay in hospital for an additional two nights, meaning his brothers and Jonathan didn’t get to meet him until then.

She has lots of praise for the midwifes and Domino staff in CUMH especially the peri-natal mental health team.

“They read my notes at 20 weeks and saw we had a lot going on at the time and said they were there to help. I’d just have a chat one to one with them while I was in waiting for my appointments and it felt like a huge weight was lifted off me. In normal circumstances, you’d be able to meet family or a friend who could read you like a book and would know if you were OK or not, but that option wasn’t there.

“It’s really hard to be pregnant alone — even in the best of relationships you need that outer support network.”

Now Liam is nearly six months old, Mairead is aware he’s missed out on so many things — meeting relatives and friends, and attending everyday things like mom and baby classes.

“I feel especially sorry for first time mums. Some of my closest network of friends are people I met through my other babies and new moms have been robbed of that experience. I miss meeting fellow parents.

“I know in the scheme of things that longing for the missed perks of maternity leave isn’t important, but it doesn’t make you long for it any less. I really, perhaps naively, thought the pandemic should have been over by September and we’d be able to get out and about. When we can finally do just that, and meet our family and friends, they’ll be wondering where’s my tiny baby because he’s definitely not a tiny baby any more!”

Serena Lee, Andy and baby Koa.
Serena Lee, Andy and baby Koa.

SERENA LEE

“I REALLY needed someone I had a connection to, to be my voice in hospital after having my baby.”

That’s something Serena Lee still feels really strongly about eight months after the birth of her second son Koa last summer. Serena, from Ballinlough, feels this is the biggest and most important thing that has been taken away from mothers due to Covid restrictions.

“You really need another person there, be it the birth partner, the father, mother, whatever, to speak for you, hear you and be your voice,” the Cork model said.

Serena, already mum to eight-year-old Jacob, had no concerns about being pregnant during a global pandemic until she found out she might give birth early, and then an anxiety kicked in, especially as she had hoped to have a home birth.

Serena Lee with baby Koa.
Serena Lee with baby Koa.

Despite this, her labour and Koa’s arrival in CUMH was all positive and she has nothing but praise for all the midwives and staff there.

“The labour was really quick, a lovely experience, and it was so nice to have my husband Andy there, and to be fair, the nurses gave us as much time as possible, they were lovely. It was tough when Andy had to leave but everything had gone so well, I was happy to have some time with just the baby and me, get some sleep and get home.”

But after starting off so well, it went downhill from there for Serena. The night before Koa’s birth she had been labouring at home so didn’t sleep. She gave birth the next day so was exhausted, but didn’t sleep that night either. Koa had jaundice and was sleeping in a special basket by her bed under a blue light and she felt really protective of him.

Serena Lee and baby Koa.
Serena Lee and baby Koa.

“I feel like crying even talking about how it felt. I remember the next day leaning over to him, and I couldn’t stay awake a moment longer but I had to. It was the worst feeling in the world and it killed me. All I wanted to do was go home, but I had to stay that second night as well, which was my third night without sleep. It sounds dramatic but at that stage I felt like I was going insane.”

Lack of sleep and not being able to see Andy meant Serena felt very overwhelmed.

“And I’d had a baby before and didn’t feel the fear of a first time mum. I’m not sure how I would have done it if it was my first kid.”

Baby Koa.
Baby Koa.

Mum and baby were discharged the following day, but she felt reluctant to see other people: “I remember after Jacob I was so excited to see everyone as my partner at the time and I had that time in the hospital, to be together with the baby, we had that bonding, and then it was nice to have visitors. But this time was very different, especially with lack of sleep.

“Coming home with Koa, I didn’t feel like seeing anyone. It was so lovely for people to welcome us home, but I just wanted Andy and my other son. It was a lot to take in.”

Since then, she said lockdown has been a “mixture of emotions”,

“Part of me has enjoyed having that space from people and being in that bubble. I’ve enjoyed just having that time with me and Koa and the family. It has been a blessing and I’m enjoying that a lot.”

Noel and Laura Byrne and baby Fiadh
Noel and Laura Byrne and baby Fiadh

LAURA BYRNE

An emergency C-section, followed by 10-day stay for her new born in neo-natal was Laura Byrne’s induction into motherhood.

And the 24-year-old had to go through some of those frightening moments after the birth of baby Fiadh on her own, due to Covid restrictions.

When the pandemic hit Ireland, she was already 15 weeks pregnant, and two weeks later on March 26, she married her now husband Noel with just their parents present.

“It was the most perfect day. Then the next day we were hit with the news of a new stay at home order, and a ban on all essential travel and visits. I wondered what this meant for me?

For my family? My grandparents, and of course my baby.” From this point on, Laura, who works for Amazon recruitment, said things started to get really scary: “Letters came from the hospital to say I now had to attend all appointments alone. I’d had already had two scans, one due to having a previous pregnancy end in a miscarriage and another at 12 weeks which was a routine scan, both of which my husband was able to attend thankfully.

oel and Laura Byrne and baby Fiadh.
oel and Laura Byrne and baby Fiadh.

“But leading up to the 20 week scan I began to get quite anxious. I remember thinking what if anything was to go wrong, would I be able to take that news alone? 

"When the day finally came the whole time I was there, I just thought how this was my husband’s baby too and how much I would have loved for him to see our perfect little baby. It was such a relief to learn that everything was perfect and to find out our little baby was in fact a little baby girl!” Laura’s anxiety continued to grow as the weeks went by: “The maternity hospital was no longer leaving partners in during early labour this scared me but I just had to stay positive.” When she arrived at CUMH last September 11, already in labour, a trace of the baby’s heart revealed it was much too fast.

Laura recalled: “I was put on IV fluids as they thought maybe I was dehydrated, but 20 minutes later my baby’s heart rate was getting faster.” 

A quick showed meconium - that’s the tar-like substance that lines a baby's intestines during pregnancy. Typically it’s not released in baby's bowel movements until after birth, and it can block their airways.

Baby Fiadh.
Baby Fiadh.

Laura was rushed off for an emergency section, and fortunately Noel, who was outside, made it in time.

“The relief I felt when I saw his face, I just knew that when he was there everything was going to be fine,” she remembers.

“Once we got in there everything was so quick, On Friday the 11th of September 2020 at 11.47 baby Fiadh Tara Byrne had arrived, 9lb 7 oz. It was amazing, our baby was finally here and she was safe.

“I was taken to recovery where Noel could join us for a little while, I remember the midwife telling me feed her but all I could think of was how could I when this was the only time my husband would have with her for the next few days. After what felt like minutes it was time for him to go.” 

The new mum was soon faced with another challenge.

“When Fiadh was two days old I began to notice some things that just didn't feel right. 

"It started with her colouring, then I noticed she was doing a type of jerk with her hands which was constant and different to that new baby 'falling' reflex.” 

Her mother’s instincts were right and after shortly after she voiced her concerns baby Fiadh was placed in an incubator.

“The nurses explained they would be putting in a line and for me to come back in 20 minutes as I might find it distressing. I said goodbye and off I went back up to my room, sobbing while pushing and empty cot ahead of me. When I returned to the room I rang Noel straight away. 

Baby Fiadh.
Baby Fiadh.

"I can remember trying to talk but nothing would come out. I just had this horrible feeling and all I needed was someone to say it would be okay. 

"He made his way up and he went straight to ICU where Fiadh was, to see our little girl just for the second time since she was born because of Covid-19 restrictions.’ Those restrictions meant Noel and Laura couldn’t be in the neo-natal unit at the same time which made things even harder.

“The next 10 days were the hardest days of our lives. It was now confirmed that Fiadh had sepsis, caused by group B strep which I had unknowingly carried in my placenta.” Laura said she couldn’t have survived those hard days without her mum or sister Holly.

“I would go in to feed her and Noel would sit with her in between. While Noel was with Fiadh I sat in the car, and vice versa. It was awful. I was recovering from a section and will never forget how sore and uncomfortable I was, or the tiredness from rushing up to the hospital every morning to make her first feed of the day and staying for as long as we could to. It never got easier leaving her there so sick. 

"The first time coming away with out her broke my heart I cried the whole way home. But every day she became stronger so did we, we were so proud of our little girl. She was fighting so hard.” 

Noel and Laura Byrne and baby Fiadh.
Noel and Laura Byrne and baby Fiadh.

Their little trooper made it home after 10 days, and Laura said, not surprisingly, she went into full ‘protection mode.’ 

“We just kept to ourselves, we were happy in our little bubble and even happier knowing Fiadh was safe.” 

And despite all they’ve been through the threesome couldn’t be happier: “We love our new life as a family, I wonder sometimes what did we do before Fiadh. We have a very happy little girl who loves her food and loves her sleep. We are just so in love with our new life as parents.” 

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