Mothers who fell pregnant in 2019 could never have conceived of the world their babies would be born into. The highs and lows of parenthood took on new challenges as the coronavirus swept the world and maternity leave was spent largely between four walls.
Dani Lapidot Cohen came into the world at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital on March 13 last year – just as Israel was moving into its first nationwide lockdown. No visitors were allowed at the hospital and it would be over two months until her grandparents would finally meet her.
“When we got to Ichilov, everything was open,” Dani’s mother Naama, 35, tells Haaretz over an evening Zoom call during the third lockdown. “We came out to a different world – everything was closed.”
When we got to Ichilov, everything was open. We came out to a different world
Naama struggled with the first lockdown, which she describes as “much more hermetic” than the two that followed. “I cried every day,” she says, remembering breastfeeding her newborn with no access to much-needed help from lactation consultants and with her 2-year-old son, Omri, constantly at home after the education system closed. Her husband, Karmel, 35, was also home but busy working remotely as a programmer.
“It was beyond challenging,” Naama says.
Dani had tongue-tie and the procedure to treat it was conducted on their apartment balcony in north Tel Aviv. Naama was suffering from an infection and had to send pictures to the doctor in order to get help. Nobody could take the newborn for an hour to give her the rest she needed. “It was chaos,” she recalls.
Little wonder Naama believes the coronavirus period will “leave scars.”
The scene she describes stands in stark contrast to the maternity leave she had prepared for with three of her close friends. “We had all these plans to spend it together, and in the end we spent it together on WhatsApp,” she says.
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‘Glass half full’
“This whole maternity leave was not what I imagined – it’s a bit sad,” says Shani Brosh, 34, who gave birth to her twin boys David and Oz last April. “It’s heavy on our hearts that when we go out, we only see people in masks,” the Ramat Gan resident says.
The Brosh family faced multiple challenges straight after the birth of their twins. One of the twins was kept in the neonatal intensive care unit for two weeks, resulting in multiple trips to and from hospital as the new parents did their best to tend to both boys. Shani barely had time to recover from her Cesarean section when, two weeks postpartum, she had to have another operation.
It was an awful period, Shani tells Haaretz over the phone. “We couldn’t have visitors in the hospital and we didn’t see family for a long time,” she says, noting that fear of the coronavirus was at its height because it was still relatively new.
Her husband, Yogev, 34, volunteered to be among those at Smart ATM – where he works as a customer service manager – to take leave due to the coronavirus crisis. He used the opportunity to help Shani take care of the twins.
Both Shani and Yogev see this as the “glass half full” side of the situation: The new father feels his parental instincts were able to develop faster due to the quality time he spent with his children.
But the Brosh family felt some financial stress when Shani’s return to work, as a computer technician at Ichilov, was delayed due to the closure of the kindergartens. It also made her worry about job security, as she had to delay her return to work every time the lockdown was extended.
Like Yogev, Karmel is appreciative of the quality time he has enjoyed with his children. With their first child, he was back in the office a week after the birth. In addition, he and the other fathers interviewed said they gained a deeper appreciation for the challenges their other halves faced as full-time parents, particularly during a pandemic.
Karmel and Naama also believe the coronavirus period helped build a special bond between their two children, and to strengthen the family unit as a whole.
“We see the relationship between Omri and Dani,” Karmel says, describing the way in which the big brother takes care of his little sister, who follows him around adoringly. Their parents believe the extra time they have had together, instead of being at kindergarten, has helped build the foundations of a deep relationship. “I think that’s the silver lining,” Naama says.
Falling birth rate
In 2020, 179,377 babies were born in Israel, including before the pandemic – a 1.25 percent drop compared to 2019. (There was also a decline from 2018 to 2019, according to data from the Population and Immigration Authority.) The coronavirus’ impact on birth rates will only start to be felt this year, though: According to the Macrotrends website, the current birth rate for Israel is 19.539 births per 1,000 people, a 1.47 percent decline on last year.
Prof. Yariv Yogev, director of the Lis Maternity and Women’s Hospital at Ichilov, says that when there’s a major crisis, people generally refrain from having children. In addition, he points out that Israel’s fertility clinics were closed for six weeks last year.
“In times of insecurity, fewer people expand their families,” Yogev says. When the situation becomes a “chronic” rather than an “acute” situation, he adds, people learn to live with it.
Thanks to the vaccine and as people become accustomed to the situation, he expects the birth rate to rise again. However, he also notes that those experiencing financial difficulties due to the pandemic may still refrain from conceiving.
“I’m not expecting a baby boom – only if tomorrow they say there’s no coronavirus. This is when people will celebrate,” he says.
Important support system
Unlike Karmel and Yogev, new father and essential worker Tom Cohen, 34, was required to spend more hours at work during the three lockdowns. He is a project manager on Tel Aviv’s new light rail network, where activity was increased to capitalize on the comparatively empty roads.
This meant that his wife, Debbie, 32, spent long days alone in their Netanya flat with their newborn, Liv. Tom left the house early and returned late; some days he didn’t see Liv at all in her waking hours.
Debbie’s parents, who live in Britain, were in Israel for the birth last August and to help her straight afterward. But due to tight Israeli restrictions on flights and, eventually, an almost complete closure of the skies, they have not been able to come back since. They are currently in the process of making aliyah, in the hope of reuniting with their daughter and first grandchild.
Debbie, who is considered high risk due to a medical condition, has been extra-cautious about who she sees.
“The hardest thing is being away from family and not being able to see my twin sister,” she says. The latter is yet to meet her niece. “I don’t feel lonely because I have Liv. I just feel frustrated that people can’t meet her,” adds Debbie, an English tutor.
Debbie says her WhatsApp group of fellow new mothers has been an important support system. “I think it was more crucial at this time than usual,” she says. She admits, however, that she envied her fellow mothers whose husbands were home with their newborns while hers had to work overtime.
The Cohens are interviewed on the balcony of their Netanya apartment. Debbie feeds her baby nonchalantly while talking – a skill she has mastered in a time when Zoom has been the dominant platform for both social and professional interactions. When she’s finished, she passes Liv to Tom, who rocks her to sleep.
It’s this type of care that makes Naama think many babies may have even benefited from the COVID era, due to the time they gained with parents or other caregivers.
“Food, love and attention” are all young babies need, Naama asserts. The Lapidot Cohens are more concerned about how the past year has impacted their 2-year-old, whose cautious character has been amplified by the current situation. Naama says the constantly changing schedule is “confusing” for Omri, while Dani is less aware.
“If I have a fear,” she says of her youngest, “it’s that she doesn’t see facial expressions apart from in her close environment – all she sees are masks. I’m worried about her ability to read and understand nonverbal gestures and body language.”
All she sees are masks. I’m worried about her ability to read and understand nonverbal gestures and body language
Shani shares the same concern. “What does it do to them? We can’t really know yet.”
She always removes her mask when talking to the twins. “I want them to see the meaning behind my words; I want them to see my expressions. I don’t want them to be bewildered as to why they suddenly don’t see my whole face,” she explains.
“I really hope they don’t remember anything from this period,” she adds.
Tamar Shababo Tirosh, a clinical psychologist with special training in parent-infant psychotherapy, says the first year of life is very significant for emotional development. But the emphasis is on the relationship between the baby and their primary caregiver (usually the mother).
“The coronavirus introduced an element of an emergency situation, and what will be relevant is how the parent is coping with the situation and if their ability to function was harmed,” Shababo Tirosh explains.
In the first months, the most important thing is that a baby sees their parents and how they respond to them, she says.
“We can’t yet say what will be the ramifications of this situation in which babies are seeing people wearing masks in the street instead of bare faces, and whether it will affect their emotional development,” Shababo Tirosh says.
“But we know that if their parents react when they laugh, cry or do something impressive, these are the most important things for their development.”
She continues: “At the first stages of a baby’s life, it’s the one-on-one with their caregiver that’s important – it’s an inseparable unit. If the caregiver’s going through a crisis because of what’s happening outside, it can have an impact on the baby’s support system.”
Shababo Tirosh notes that in some cases, the father’s increased presence at home has provided the mother with more support, while other families that usually rely on wider support suddenly had that taken away.
For parents who suddenly have older siblings at home 24/7, it can challenge their capacity to be there for the baby in the same way as before, she adds.
I know I’ll get over my negative feelings about myself. But I think the feeling of loneliness thanks to the coronavirus will make it harder
The clinical psychologist says many more people have shown emotional distress and sought mental help over the past year. Indeed, last October, ERAN – an organization that provides “emotional first aid” online and via the phone – said there had been a rise in inquiries about psychological treatment since the beginning of the pandemic, as well as a rise in the frequency of therapy sessions. And last month, the Aliyah and Integration Ministry announced the establishment of a center for mental health and emotional assistance, and support for new immigrants, against the backdrop of the pandemic.
But there are some who choose to try to cope on their own. One new mother, who wishes to remain anonymous, believes she’s suffering from postpartum depression. Having battled depression before, she says she doesn’t want external help.
“I can deal with this,” she tells Haaretz while bottle-feeding her 2-month-old baby boy in her central Israel apartment.
When filling out the questionnaire new mothers are given to check for postpartum depression, she didn’t answer truthfully. “That’s easy to fake,” she says.
The immigrant was already suffering from depression prior to giving birth, struggling with other life changes while being away from her family who live abroad. Her mental status deteriorated further due to complications following the baby’s birth, coming to terms with her postpartum body, her new status as a mother and a feeling of loneliness brought on by the lockdowns and social distancing.
“I’m much sadder than I was before,” she admits. She doesn’t laugh so much these days and has been blaming herself for her own health issues as well as those of her newborn.
“I know I’ll get over my negative feelings about myself. But I think the feeling of loneliness thanks to the coronavirus will make it harder,” she says.
“It will take time to understand the impact and ramifications of this period,” Shababo Tirosh says. “We’re now in survival mode; it’s like war. You need to recruit all your resources to fight – and afterward you can stop and analyze how it impacted us.”