ULSTER PARK, New York — Pregnant with her third child, Christina Cavataio had made plans for a routine hospital birth at her neighborhood hospital in Brooklyn where she had her first two kids. Her partner, Sean Rivera, a first-time dad, brought up the option of a homebirth and midwifery early on in the pregnancy, but Cavataio was just fine with her routine hospital birth plan.
Then the coronavirus hit New York. Suddenly the city and its hospitals became the epicenter of the U.S. pandemic. With two young children and a baby on the way, fleeing the densely populated city to Sean’s mother’s farm upstate was a no-brainer. A few days shy of the official city shutdown, they loaded up the car and drove upstate. Christina was just weeks away from her due date, but they didn’t anticipate being gone from home too long.
“Initially when we got up here, we had no idea what we were doing for the birthing plan,” Rivera told VICE News.
In late March, most U.S. states, hospitals, and doctors didn’t have a lot of information about the impact of the novel virus on pregnant women and their babies, so began taking immediate precautions to protect them. (The CDC has since added pregnancy to the list of conditions that make COVID-19 patients more likely to suffer severe complications.)
In New York, two major hospital systems banned spouses, partners, family or any outside support including doulas from the delivery room — though Gov. Andrew Cuomo quickly lifted the bans after public complaints. Now, in places like Florida and Texas where reopenings have led to a recent surge in coronavirus cases, hospitals are also only allowing one visitor in the room during childbirth.
The hospital that Cavataio and Rivera had planned to go to stopped allowing spouses to come into the birthing rooms, and Cavataio thought it was too scary ”not having the person who has been with you throughout everything to be with you, to support you.”
As the NYC shutdown stretched into weeks, the couple started forming a backup plan: a home birth. They picked up the phone and called the local midwife. As it turns out, they weren’t the only ones. Nationwide, expectant parents are reconsidering whether they need to be in a hospital to give birth, which has led to an increased demand for midwives who can deliver babies at home or in birthing centers and facilities that operate outside the traditional healthcare system.
The demand is so high that families who are turned away are led to feel that there aren’t enough home-birth midwives to go around, revealing a long-standing battle in New York state and around the U.S. to integrate midwives into the hospital systems. Midwives have historically been excluded from the healthcare industry for myriad reasons that vary state to state relating to licensing and restrictions on who’s allowed to conduct home births.
“We did receive a lot of phone calls from people who were due imminently, and we had to turn them away because we didn't we didn't have time to get authorization from their insurance companies to get their births covered,” midwife Dr. Susanrachel Condon (aka“Birdie”) told VICE News.
Condon, of River and Mountain Midwives in New Paltz, New York, has been in practice for over 20 years. In a normal month, Condon and her partner Susan Rannestad take six to eight families. Once the pandemic hit New York City, she had families calling from as far away as Pennsylvania. Already fully booked, she decided to take on Cavataio and Rivera’s home birth because of Cavataio’s good health and history of two uncomplicated births.
“At some point Susan started referring to the people who were coming late as jumpers because it’s like they were jumping ship from the hospital. And it’s a term of endearment for us,” Condon told VICE News. “I always say, give me eight minutes and I'm in love. I can be your midwife. I don't have to know you ahead of time. I would be great in a hurricane or a refugee camp. I can be anybody's midwife. But, you know, it's always better if you have time to build a relationship.”
Produced & Shot by Cassandra Giraldo. Additional photography by Jika Gonzales. Edited by Ilaria Polsonetti and Nelson Ryland.
Cover: Sean Rivera, left, supports his partner, Christina Cavataio, right, as she experiences difficult contractions during their home birth at a satellite birthing center set up by their midwife Dr. Susanrachel “Birdie” Condon, right, of River and Mountain Midwives. (Photo: Cassandra Giraldo/VICE News).