Motherhood Amid Pandemic: A Light in the Darkness

In giving birth and adopting during COVID, moms tells of reliance on their faith.

L to R:  First-time mother Maria Hilger smiles along with her son, Isaiah; Emily Stimpson Chapman holds her son, Becket;  Hayley Miller expresses joy with her daughter, Sophia; and Dr. Kasia Kohler and her daughter, Emma, share a special moment.
L to R: First-time mother Maria Hilger smiles along with her son, Isaiah; Emily Stimpson Chapman holds her son, Becket; Hayley Miller expresses joy with her daughter, Sophia; and Dr. Kasia Kohler and her daughter, Emma, share a special moment. (photo: Courtesy of the families)

When Dr. Kasia Kohler of Manhattan, Kansas, gave birth to her fourth baby at noon on March 23, 2020, she had no idea that 12 hours later the entire hospital would go into “lockdown” due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a result, Kasia’s husband, Vaughn — who went home to check on the couple’s other three children — was not allowed to return to the hospital. 

Kohler called the next 24 hours a “time of darkness” when she felt anxious and alone. She feared COVID-19 could spread via housekeeping, food service or a nurse visiting the postpartum floor. She recalled feeling short of breath and wondering if she had the virus herself.

Kohler admitted that, given that she is a family doctor, her medical training can be a great gift but also a “huge cross to bear,” as she often worries about the worst-case scenario for her own family. At a certain point, however, she recognized her anxiety and turned to the Lord in prayer.

“I have to just surrender this all to God and enjoy this time with my baby,” she realized. “God gave me the grace to do that.”

Kohler also joined a group of Catholic mothers for a virtual Bible study from the hospital, which provided much needed support.

Despite the rough start, when Kohler took her daughter home, she said she actually appreciated the slower pace of life the pandemic afforded her family.

“I really enjoyed the fact that we couldn’t go anywhere,” she said. “I didn’t feel pressured to go to the park or get together with mom friends. It was really relaxing and peaceful.”

For Luke and Hayley Miller, missionaries with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), 2020 also brought uncertainty, as they found themselves expecting their second child and moving from Nebraska to Washington.

Hayley said that concerns created by the pandemic felt overwhelming, and as she prepared for delivery, she noticed herself frequently double checking the masks in her packed bag and watching for COVID symptoms. At one point, Hayley felt difficulty breathing and only later realized it was just the growing baby pushing against her lungs. 

Upon arrival at the hospital, she said the challenges only increased as she endured a nasal swab for COVID-19 between contractions while trying to breathe through a mask.

Through it all, the Millers clung to their belief in God’s care for their family.

“We were constantly praying, ‘Lord, give us the wisdom,’” Miller said. “It was clear that was what we needed in our marriage and our family life.”

As a fruit of this prayer, the Millers named their new baby Sophia Caeli (Latin for “wisdom” and “heaven”).

“Her name alone gave us so much solace during that time,” Miller said. “Even now [eight months later], when I’m stressed and I don’t know what to do, I look at her and say, ‘Okay, Lord, I need your wisdom.’”

Maria Hilger and her husband, Chris, welcomed their first child, Isaiah, in Omaha, Nebraska, on Feb. 6. Unfortunately, Maria’s own mother contracted COVID-19 around the same time and was unable to visit her first grandchild until he was 6 weeks old.

“I felt like my mom had really missed the beginning of my child’s life,” Hilger said. “We both mourned that.”

At the same time, Hilger said she trusts God’s “perfect timing” and recognized the opportunity “to lean on the Lord more throughout this time of uncertainty.”

Emily Stimpson Chapman, a writer from Pittsburgh and frequent Register contributor, experienced the pandemic as an adoptive mother twice in the past year.

Emily and her husband, Chris, adopted their first son, Toby, in 2018 and were ready to adopt another child when the pandemic hit. In July 2020, they received a call that newborn Becket was in need of a family.

“How fast can you get here?” the social worker asked the Chapmans. They hit the road in two hours, driving from Pittsburgh to Dallas.

As much as the pandemic placed limits on biological parents, Chapman said adoptive parents experienced even greater restrictions. The Chapmans weren’t allowed into the hospital until adoption paperwork was signed. Even then, Chapman said she and Chris took turns visiting their son in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), even though the biological parents were given access as a couple.

“We were never together as a family,” she said. “It wasn’t malicious, but no one knew how to handle normal birth situations [during a pandemic], much less an adoption.”

Chapman said many agencies found themselves short of adoptive families due to widespread fear about travel during the pandemic. While the Chapmans understood the risks, they felt God calling them to respond.

“If a baby needs parents, and we’re being asked to be those parents, we just have to entrust that to Jesus,” Chapman said. “Jesus calls us to care for the widow and the orphan and welcome the stranger all the time.”

“He didn’t say, ‘You don’t have to do that if there’s a pandemic or a war or you’re really tired,’” she added. “Saying Yes to that baby was an act of obedience to Jesus.”

Within days of bringing Becket home to Pittsburgh, the Chapmans learned that their older son Toby’s birth parents were expecting another child and had requested them as adoptive parents again.

Emily shared about this experience on Facebook Dec. 8.

“Three (children) under 3 with the youngest two only eight months apart is … not what most people plan,” she wrote. “But we loved this little baby from the first moment we learned of his or her existence. And there is no way we could ever look our son in the eye and tell him he had a chance to grow up with a biological sibling but we said No because it wasn’t convenient for us.”

Eleanor “Ellie” was born April 2 in California, prompting another cross-country trip for the Chapman family to meet their new daughter.

Chapman said pandemic-related restrictions had relaxed slightly since last summer, but she found the continued need for face coverings to be particularly challenging. 

She grieved not knowing what her baby’s nurses looked like and her own inability to kiss or smell her newborn — key elements of initial bonding. “I’m not anti-mask,” she explained. “[But] when you’re going through trauma and experiencing tragedy, the warmth of a smile — a face — is so consoling and comforting.”

Nevertheless, the day after bringing Ellie home to Pittsburgh, Chapman reiterated her belief that “God’s plan is always for our good, more than we can know.”

For Dede Chism, CEO and co-founder of Bella Health and Wellness in Denver, the COVID-19 pandemic required an increase in support for families in their childbearing years. Chism said the staff at Bella, a comprehensive health clinic that upholds the teachings of the Catholic Church, noticed an uptick in requests for abortion-pill reversals during the pandemic’s first few months, which she sadly interpreted as a sign of more women considering abortion.

“Whether they’re trying to achieve or avoid a pregnancy, people found themselves carrying some anxiety about whether it was safe to have a baby,” she said. “Everything they had been educated for, hoped and dreamed for was really tossed out the window.” 

Chism said some women were initially denied having a “support person” accompany them through labor, and some nurses separated families by taking babies from delivery rooms straight to the nursery. In the absence of husbands, grandparents and other family members, Chism found herself holding the hands of women in labor, praying with them and taking pictures after the birth.

“We [health-care providers] kind of had to blur the lines a little bit and be friends and family and really stand in the gap,” she said.

Certified doula Maggie Grevas of Winchester, Virginia, has assisted at six births over the past year. Grevas said that while some options for laboring mothers were removed due to safety precautions, such as some means of pain management and walking hospital halls, other choices like home births and birth centers became more prominent.

“For some women who have given birth later in COVID, it’s been kind of empowering,” Grevas said. “They’ve been able to do some research and advocate for themselves as the mom and as the patient.”

However, support for new mothers doesn’t end after delivery, Chism said. She emphasized the importance of staying connected throughout the postpartum period, when depression can kick in, particularly in the context of social distancing due to COVID-19.

“It really does take a village,” Chism said. “Postpartum is a lonely time for a mom anyway, even with the best of dads. You add on the isolation of the pandemic, and it just exponentially increases.”

Chism encouraged mothers who have received the gift of a child during the pandemic to carefully consider how they tell their child’s birth story in the coming months and years. “[The pandemic] is a part of your child’s history, but don’t let it be told like it was bad,” Chism said. “There is nothing bad about a child being born.”

Instead, Chism urged parents to recall the events with a focus on love.

“When you were born, we wanted nothing more than to hold you, because you are that special,” she suggested as wording. “We wanted to be together.”

“There’s a little bit of a mar in the memories,” Chism said. “[But] we can’t let COVID and the fear of COVID win.”


 

Kimberly Jansen writes from Omaha, Nebraska.