baby reaching up to a mobile that has a world on fire
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Health

Trans Pregnancy in the Time of COVID

“A system coping with COVID-19 is not going to be better equipped to welcome an anomaly like me in months to come, and that’s a scary thought.”
February 8, 2021, 12:00pm
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A column about being a pregnant trans dad, and all the prejudices, healthcare challenges, personal dilemmas, and joys that come with making a family in 2021.

It seems almost too obvious to say that it doesn’t feel like the best time to be bringing a child into the world. There’s the global pandemic, the climate crisis, and, over here in the U.K. at least, Brexit, which is so far only noticeable in the psychic and economic grief it’s causing to individuals and the nation.

I reflect on this a lot, perhaps too much, and I’m finding there are some things I “get” and some things that still make my head spin even at this point in the pandemic. There are many effects of the virus that we as humans are not neurologically equipped to grasp. One is how its toll is so massive and yet so uniform across the globe. Maybe I’m weird but thinking about this has started to feel like a little psychic workout. I flex my brain (and toe the line of existential crisis) by trying to hold the sheer scale of shared experience stable in my mind. 

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We usually think of humanity as endlessly diverse, diffuse and active in a billion different ways. This itself is more a placeholder than an accurate imagining; it’s simply too big and complicated to consider otherwise. But now, we’re almost forced—in order to make sense of it—to imagine that same breadth of humanity is feeling and doing very similar, if not the same, things. It’s so deeply, fundamentally strange, it makes my brain go wonky, like trying to imagine “infinity” or the size of our galaxy relative to the universe. 

It’s not the same everywhere, of course. On my own Instagram feed, I see friends in Australia and New Zealand doing shockingly normal things. Normality in Thailand, Singapore and South Korea has mostly survived unscathed too. Yet, I can write about the limitations and loss shaping my family’s daily routine in our coastal English county, confident that much of it will resonate with readers in Los Angeles, Toronto, São Paulo, Cape Town, Mumbai, Moscow and Tokyo. Even after almost 12 months, it’s enough to make me puff out my lips and shake my head.

The things I “get” look more like this. I get that when my first kiddo—hereafter known as Shrimp—was born, the birthing centre I attended (known here as a midwifery-led unit) was fully open and accessible, to me, to a birth partner, and potentially even to other friends and family. Once I visited and felt reassured that the staff were cool with everything I was bringing to the party, it seemed like a sanctuary. 

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Now, hospitals in general, even dedicated, non-medicalized birthing centers, are forced to send a different message: “Stay away. Just don’t, please, unless it’s absolutely necessary. And even then, don’t expect a warm welcome.” Where does this leave someone who is laboring, when the physical process of birth literally relies on calm and confidence in order to progress smoothly?

I get that when I was pregnant with Shrimp, my midwife came to see me at home. This way, I didn’t have to go to a clinic, where I risked being misgendered and alienated up the wazoo, by everything from the receptionist to the posters on the walls. NHS community midwives have a degree of independence from doctors and the medicalized model of pregnancy and birth. In my experience, this either means they’re kind yet bossy and old-school (in the British tradition of Professor McGonagall) or they’re progressive and seek to empower expectant parents. They are assigned somewhat randomly but luckily, mine, who also happened to be an old family friend, was the latter. Having her physical presence and the routine of her visits, right down to perfecting the way she took her tea, lent regular relief to the slog of a dysphoric pregnancy. 

Friends who have recently given birth were limited to midwife appointments over the phone. The extent to which their birth partners were allowed with them during scans and labor, if at all, changed month by month, sometimes week by week. There’s no way on earth these grim circumstances could provide the same comfort I lent on in 2017. 

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Ideally, too, you have the same community midwife throughout pregnancy. Yet, when staff are overstretched and off sick, such humane policies become luxuries. And it’s the lack of consistency that perhaps scares me most. 

Late in my pregnancy with Shrimp, I was sent for an unscheduled growth scan. My midwife wasn’t working that day and I had to travel to an unfamiliar clinic. For earlier scans, I’d been seen by a queer sonographer, who my midwife had made contact with without me even having to ask. I’ll never forget their rainbow ID lanyard, bearing several Star Wars badges. The thought of that behind-the-scenes coordination and consideration can still make me tear up with gratitude. 

Close relatives who might have accompanied me to this “emergency” scan happened to be busy or out of the country. It was the only time during the entire 40 weeks that my makeshift trans-pregnancy safety net dropped out. I fell immediately and hard. 

At the clinic entrance, a bemused receptionist handed me a large, orange card bearing the word “ULTRASOUND.” I sank as deep as I physically could into a waiting room chair and focused on the podcast playing in my ears. After 10 long minutes, an unidentified nurse strode up. I stood to meet her, sensing trouble, praying she would whisk me straight into a side room. Instead, she stopped in front of me and just glared. The packed waiting room began to collectively stare at both of us. 

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“Do you want to know my name?” I mumbled.

“No,” she shot back, “I want to know why you’re holding that card.”

My fingers began to tingle and I choked out half an explanation. She walked off, leaving me swaying, surrounded by onlookers confused and embarrassed on my behalf, who, until that moment, hadn’t given me a second thought. I knew I needed a scan, in case something was the matter with my baby. But I also knew I needed to escape, for my own safety. Hospitals, especially NHS hospitals, are meant to be safe havens, no matter who you are. Instead, I was caught in a clinical, hostile trap.

A system coping with, on the verge of being overwhelmed by, or even rebuilding after COVID-19, is not going to be better equipped to welcome an anomaly like me in months to come, and that’s a scary thought. 

The lack of community playgroups due to social distancing is less scary and more poignant. I had almost a year of parental leave after having Shrimp. Six months was covered by my then-employer and the rest by a government stipend (approx. $200/week, which is less than half the average cost of living, so I had also saved in advance). Given how long this period lasted, I was exceptionally lucky not to experience the kind loneliness many parents with newborns talk of. Key for me was that in my final weeks of pregnancy, I was unexpectedly swept up into what became a tight-knit and fiercely-protective group of “parents friends”, including my sister. Our group chat is still going strong now that we have 2-going-on-3-year-olds.

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As our babies were, one-by-one and two-by-two, being born, one of us commandeered the use of a local record shop, on the morning each week that it wasn’t open. This became our own improvised and fully-inclusive playgroup. We covered the wooden floor in blankets and toys we pooled. There were lots of regulars and some who passed through. We shared triumphs and fails and drank coffee like Victorians used smelling salts. Not only was it social but the setting lifted our tired spirits, reminding us of nearby music festivals in summers gone and, we assumed, those to come. 

We made that space our own until our mini mob became mobile and started to threaten the stock. Then we shifted to church-run playgroups, which welcomed us, a bunch of total heathens, with subsidized snacks and activities. Basically, for about $1.50, we got to catch up for two hours with hot drinks on tap, while the toddlers got two ecstatic hours of sanctioned pandemonium. 

With the arrival of COVID, this almost-daily routine evaporated. I forgot Shrimp’s changing bag at our final Monday group, which we didn’t know was final, and will probably never see it again. It’s not a material loss; it just feels symbolic. I miss all those smiling faces of the mostly older women, who have presumably been keeping to their homes for months on end ever since. I hope they don’t miss our gross kids as much as we miss them. And I don’t let myself think about whether our kids miss those gatherings or what effect the sudden loss and prolonged lack of them might have. Even harder, despite them not being mine, I see newborns now and preemptively mourn playgroups for them, even the super noisy ones, even the ones that only put out snack-encrusted toys that all need new batteries.

And that’s before our kids even get to school, let alone try to become stable, independent adults. In other words, that’s before things like Brexit, or reactionary politics in whatever form it takes near you, and the climate crisis overtly start to influence their lives. It’s funny really (or is it heartbreaking?) but the things my brain can fully grasp seem somehow more overwhelming than the stuff that’s too big to comprehend. Welcome to the 21st century, friends.

Follow Freddy on Twitter.