By Jane Vaughan
During a recent Zoom interview, Madi Louis was breastfeeding her 5-month-old, Wiley, in a moment that demonstrates how the boundaries between public and private life shifted during the pandemic, especially regarding pregnancy.
Louis said it was harder to tell people her big news since she wasn’t coincidentally running into them in person. Parenting behind closed doors also affected how she and her husband thought of themselves as parents. Other women said they faced judgment about their decision to get pregnant during the pandemic or struggled without help from the people who normally would have been close to them. The boundary between personal and private life disappeared in many ways and became reinforced in others.
Madi Louis is sitting on the floor of her Boston home breastfeeding her 5-month-old, Wiley, while on a Zoom call. This moment is a picture–perfect example of how the boundaries between public and private life have shifted during the COVID pandemic, especially when it comes to pregnancy.
LOUIS: It’s something that’s so personal and yet so public. And so, you have to tell people, right? Not that I want to hide it, but it just feels like this very personal thing, and yet everyone needs to know.
So, when no one can see your baby bump on Zoom, how do you tell people your big news?
LOUIS: It was harder to tell people virtually because you might not bump into them in the hallway or see them as frequently. And so, it’s like, well, am I going to call them up out of the blue to let them know that I’m pregnant, or do I just tag it onto the end of this work call?
Christine Percheski is an associate professor of sociology and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. She says the decision to get pregnant felt especially fraught during the pandemic.
PERCHESKI: A lot of people felt like life was just kind of suspended during the pandemic and that choosing to put yourself in a more vulnerable state by becoming pregnant might have been a risky choice. On the other hand, many women couldn’t wait much longer.
Louis said she faced some judgment about her decision.
LOUIS: The funniest question I was asked multiple times was, basically like, was it a mistake? Was it planned? And like people who don’t know me at work asked me that.
She had her first son in February 2020 and her second in September 2021. Since then, she’s been shut up at home, and parenting behind closed doors affected how she saw herself inhabit this new role.
LOUIS: No one saw us become parents. Because we didn’t see anybody seeing us parent, I think it made us not think of ourselves so much as parents.
Percheski says this sentiment tracks with what we know about social roles.
PERCHESKI: Part of it is having other people treat you as though you’re inhabiting this new role. In the pre-pandemic days, new parents would often take their baby with them to the post office and the grocery store where even strangers treat them differently because they have a baby and they would have been publicly connecting with other strangers with children.
Meanwhile, Sarah Palmer was desperate to keep some boundaries between her personal and professional life. When she got pregnant with her first child, she waited to tell people.
PALMER: The pandemic especially kind of dissolved a lot of personal boundaries between people and workplace, so I was like really trying to hold on hard to any boundaries I could.
But others felt compelled to tell everyone about their pregnancies to keep themselves and their babies safe from COVID. That’s how Amanda Hawkins felt. She gave birth to her daughter in July 2021.
HAWKINS: You’re kind of forced to tell people, and you’re also forced to think about the lifestyles and the life choices that all of the close people in your life are making.
For Anna Liles, the real difficulty lay after she gave birth. The big day came, her son arrived and she just went back home, with a new member of the family in tow. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but that became exponentially more difficult during the pandemic.
LILES: We had no help, just two 23-year-olds just trying to figure out how to live with this new baby. And trying not to give him COVID, and it was awful.
Now, we’re entering the third year of the pandemic. The world is starting to reopen, and many of these babies are in daycare. For their mothers, the delicate balancing act continues.
LOUIS: It’s trying to figure out the balance of everything. Everyone in the house, trying to figure out work and then do dinner and then make sure he doesn’t fall backwards off a chair, you know, that kind of thing. It’s a challenge, but it’s also a blessing.
For Medill Reports, I’m Jane Vaughan.