When people ask me what it was like to have a baby during a pandemic, I have an easy answer and a hard answer.
The easy answer goes, “It was tough laboring and pushing in a mask. I’m grateful that the nurses let me take it off a lot.”
The hard answer is more complicated. It goes something like, “I feel like we had to skip parts.”
I don’t mean skipping parts of labor and delivery. I was in labor from Wednesday morning until Sunday morning — believe me, I don’t feel robbed of any part of that experience. We’ve missed sharing the rituals around my pregnancy and our daughter’s infancy with our loved ones.
Pursuing a sociology doctorate, I have become increasingly interested in events and rituals. Why are birthdays celebrated, especially when we are young? What does it mean when two people have a big party when they get married? Why does having a child prompt so many events and parties, even before the baby arrives?
Humans generally like to be there for big moments, to commemorate rites of passage. In my academic work, I argue that this is because we feel a need to memorialize or mark a person’s transition from one social category to another — from nonparent to parent, from single to married, and (in one of the most important transitions imaginable to the person experiencing it) from 5 years old to 6.
Crossing the boundaries between life stages defines how we interact in our social lives. People who meet at a bar tend to treat each other differently, for example, depending on their marital status.
In order to maintain the strength of these categories and the social norms that rest upon them, societies mark the transitions with rituals. Graduations identify students as having completed a level of education and send them into their next adventure. Weddings announce to society that two people who used to be single, and technically available, no longer are. Births expand immediate and extended families. Baptisms welcome new members into the Christian faith.
Rituals surrounding these transitions usher people into new categories and help us make sense of the fact that we must change the way we identify them.
What happens when we’re unable to mark these transitions with the usual rituals? When such a choice is made deliberately (for example, when a couple elopes), people in their social circle may be upset that they have been “excluded,” exposing an assumption that they were meant to be included in the first place. Feelings of exclusion from these big moments can be very strong, even at times ending friendships and dividing families.
Sometimes foregoing big moments is not voluntary. The pandemic has forced many people to experience transitions without one important aspect of the usual rites of passage: embodiment.
We had to skip parts of welcoming a child that allow social circles to be there for the big moments. Our baby showers were postponed and moved online. Our daughter’s baptism was downsized from a guest list of 150 to just 13 people. My parents and two of my siblings didn’t meet the baby in person for two weeks after she was born, since we were quarantining in case we had caught COVID-19 at the hospital. My husband’s family still hasn’t met the baby in person and won’t be able to until international travel restrictions change. Friends who have stopped by haven’t been able to hold the baby.
I am thankful for the technology that still allows some of these big moments to be shared, but something gets lost over the internet. It isn’t social support; we feel so much love and support from family who have fielded baby questions and helped us navigate postpartum life. Friends have dropped off meals on our porch, waving through a glass door or having a quick outdoor conversation across at least six feet or through masks. But there’s something about those six feet and that glass door that keep these experiences from feeling full.
I have realized that it’s the lack of physical presence that is associated with these events, the idea that a hug or handshake completes your sign of support for another person’s transition. After all, we humans are not just minds that categorize but also bodies that feel. We experience and signify these categories and transitions physically; it makes sense that it seems incomplete when we can’t celebrate them physically as well.
Many celebrations of rituals have been postponed or cancelled due to COVID-19, but transitions haven’t. As people celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, get married, are born and die, our society is left reeling, each of us trying to process the shifts and recategorizations friends and family experience out of our sight and beyond our embrace.
Society relies on rituals to process the idea that we can pass across social categories. As I have moved from nonmother to mother, I have realized that I was relying on social rituals for the same reason.
As a Catholic woman preparing to give birth, I was thrilled to receive my last first sacrament — the Anointing of the Sick. This blessing, entrusting the recipient to God and assuring her of the community’s support, is given not only on deathbeds but also due to health difficulties or before serious medical events. Childbirth qualifies as the latter.
When my contractions reached 10 minutes apart, I sat on the rectory porch with my parish priest, both masked and six feet apart, as he began the sacramental order. We reached the point where the minister usually places his hands on the head of the recipient for the Prayer of Blessing.
“Do you want me to do this from afar?” the priest asked me.
“No,” I answered.
Sometimes, we just really need the ritual, in both mind and body.
Abigail Jorgensen is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology and gender studies, studying family and politics. Her dissertation examines the role of parenthood ideals and transitions into parenthood on women’s political thoughts and activities. She lives in South Bend with her husband, daughter, two dogs, cat and five chickens.