Maya McKenzie, at 39 weeks pregnant, nurses her son while sitting at home with her partner, Francisco Reyes. Self-portrait by Maya McKenzie. All images courtesy of Maya McKenzie.

Pregnancy is stressful. Being pregnant during a pandemic is even more stressful. But being Black and pregnant during a pandemic and an uprising is devastating.

As a Black woman who is 39 weeks pregnant, I am terrified. I fear for the health of my unborn baby girl, my toddler son, my children’s father, my parents and my siblings. I am mourning the plans I had for my life and pregnancy.

Update: Maya gave birth to her daughter, Paz, and the family is healthy.

Pregnancy takes a toll on every mother, but for Black bodies, the risks are even higher. We are three to four times more likely to die pregnancy-related deaths than white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and systemic racism is largely to blame.

Black people also are dying at a higher rate from the coronavirus. The mortality rate for Black people is 2.3 times that of white people, according to a June study by APM Research Lab.

And I keep reading grim stories about the effects of the virus on pregnant women, and on children.

Then, there are the videos of Black people being viciously killed by police or white vigilantes. I imagine the faces of the victims replaced by those of my partner, my two brothers or my dad. I want so badly to join the protests so I, too, can vent and demand justice.

But as a Black, pregnant mom, COVID-19 concerns me most now. This virus has taken away so much from me. So many plans my partner and I had have been postponed by something I can’t even see.

A move out of state — on hold. The 3-D sonograms of my baby girl — cancelled. No playdates for my son. Sunday dinners with my parents and brother are too risky. Photos of my son in my parents’ arms — prohibited.

And the most frightening prospect: If I test positive for coronavirus at a hospital or if the results are not back before I give birth, I may not be allowed to hold and nurse my baby immediately after she is born.

No, this virus hasn’t taken anyone from me. But I have experienced the deep grief of lost joy.

Signs my world would be changing

An ultrasound image of Paz.

I was about 20 weeks pregnant in late February when the worry began. For weeks, my sister in California had been sounding the alarm about the novel coronavirus but I ignored her. I chose to live in my happy bubble with my baby girl, who I’ve named Paz (peace, in Spanish), growing in my belly.

In 2018, I had my rainbow baby, Phoenix. A rainbow baby is one born after the mother has miscarried. I’d been full of anxiety my entire pregnancy with my son, who was born healthy.

This time, I knew what to expect and had the distraction of chasing a toddler around all day. But my anxiety rose once I saw the death tolls spiking across the country.

My hope for a smooth pregnancy sank.

Initially, the CDC insisted that only those with pre-existing conditions or of advanced age needed to take extra precautions. The skeptic in me was unconvinced. How would they even know, since the virus was “novel?”

Why weren’t pregnant women considered high risk from this virus that affects the lungs? Pregnancy itself suppresses the immune system. Couple that with loss of sleep from dealing with a nursing toddler. That’s double immune suppression.

Time for isolation and research

Although the people around me kept trying to assure me all would be fine, I instinctively knew better. So I stopped going anywhere once the first confirmed case in Memphis was announced March 8.

My anxiety was once again at full throttle. I’m somebody who has to research everything tirelessly to release fear, so I went down the rabbit hole looking for what little information was available on the virus.

And in true millennial fashion, I joined some Facebook groups for pregnant women.

The posts sent my stomach into somersaults. Not only were some hospitals prohibiting women from having a support partner present during the birth, if the mother tested positive, she could also be separated from her newborn.

Now, I know for a lot of people not having their significant other present for the birth would be the worst possible thing that could happen. But for me, it was the CDC’s guidance that separating a COVID-19 positive mother from her child “should be strongly considered.”

That first hour is so important for bonding, immune support and cognitive development, and separating them could create life-long issues for the mothers and infants alike.

I wondered where my toddler would end up in all this. He has never spent more than 30 minutes away from me and is still nursing. I wanted him to meet his baby sister as soon as she was born.

Completely freaked out, I phoned my OB to find out what precautions he would be taking during prenatal visits, and the hospital’s policies regarding childbirth during the pandemic. I was met with silence and left with a sense that they had no idea what they were doing.

As a Black woman in her 20s, I’m used to medical personnel dismissing my concerns. I’m sure this attitude contributes to the higher mortality rate of Black women during pregnancy and after childbirth.

Through my research and news reports, I learned that most hospitals didn’t have enough personal protective equipment (PPE) and doctors and nurses were being infected at work. Some hospitals were not testing employees unless they had symptoms, and some were allowing them to work even if they did.

I would have to forgo my plan to give birth in a hospital, so I searched for birthing centers, which offer more control in a small setting. The closest one was in Nashville.

Taking control during chaos

Maya McKenzie at home with her son, Phoenix.

By this point, it was late March and I was 25 weeks pregnant. I knew my mom and partner would call me crazy if I talked to them about switching my doctor and birth facility to one 3.5 hours away. So I just did it.

During my first “telehealth” appointment, the midwife at the birth center assured me that coronavirus didn’t affect pregnant women any differently than it did any other person. I was told that as long as I was washing my hands frequently and keeping 6 feet away from others, I would be fine. She even stated it would be better for me to contract the virus earlier in my pregnancy than later.

I liked her immediately, and I knew she was giving me the best information that the medical community had at that time. But I didn’t trust that the latest information, even that from the CDC, was correct.

By the end of March, much of the country was on lockdown and more research began to emerge about the virus. Some studies showed the virus can cause preterm labor.

I felt vindicated about my decision to move to a birth center, but that sense of relief was short-lived. My significant other, Francisco Reyes, owns a small business in Mississippi that is our primary source of income. COVID-19 forced him to close on April 3 after the governor issued a shelter-in-place order.

I’d been worried that he’d catch the virus from a customer at work, so my anxiety was eased because he would not be interacting with so many people on a daily basis. But the reality was we were about to have a new baby soon and there were bills to pay.

We’d been saving so Francisco could take a month’s leave while we had our baby, due July 7, in Nashville. But now we had to figure out how to afford this.

We leaned on each other during this time. Francisco was the only adult I could spend time with every day without worrying I was putting my children in danger.

More than five weeks went by before Francisco was able to return to work, and I was 31 weeks pregnant by then. Now the worry was how to keep him from exposing us to the virus.

We made the hard decision to separate our family until close to my due date, and for Francisco to quarantine himself for two weeks before returning to me and our son.

He went to live with a family member, and those four weeks were by far some of the hardest of my adult life.

We occasionally fought: The loneliness coupled with financial strain from lost income was difficult for both of us emotionally

Raising a toddler through attachment parenting while pregnant also was wearing on me physically.

Since the pandemic began, my panic attacks have returned and I have even sought counseling for depression.

I expect that postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety diagnoses will dramatically increase over the next year. No one is going to be prepared for the fallout.

But somehow Francisco and I pushed through, keeping up and comforting each other through FaceTime visits. Being able to hug him and seeing my son’s face light up when he finally came through the door sent tears streaming down my face.

An uncertain future

Maya McKenzie in August 2019. Photo by KeaShundrea Donald.

I was 36 weeks pregnant when my family reunited. I was still breastfeeding my son and he was becoming more attached to me than ever. I’m a big believer in “conscious parenting,” so I welcome him being clingy. But now the birth center doesn’t allow siblings to be present for the birth.

It was just another slap in the face. Francisco would have to stay with our son in Nashville and I would have to find another support person, as the birth center requires.

We hired a doula, and ended up spending close to a grand to make it happen. We didn’t have the money to spare, but what choice did we really have?

With all the hospital’s and birth center’s restrictions, many women are opting to give birth at home. I can’t say it isn’t in the back of my mind. But the “what if’s” about what can go wrong ruin that as a viable option for me. My anxiety isn’t set up for it.

What angers me most is that these medical guidelines don’t seem to be created in the mother or baby’s best interest.

Everyone thinks you’re out of danger once you’re home with your new baby and COVID-free. But in today’s reality, you’re just going to enter a new realm of isolation.

The CDC says that the virus spreads through droplets “produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks.” So for now, I don’t think it’s safe for my parents and other relatives to see the baby in person.

I’ll continue to do what I can to protect my children and my health. And as the number of coronavirus cases soars, I’m still watching the news and doing my research. And I’m waiting, anxiously, until the day it’s safe to resume the life I had planned.

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy, the Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the American Journalism Project, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, and Community Change.

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