Campus News

‘When the universe laughs’

After a difficult experience with her first child and an unsuccessful second pregnancy, Aislinn Spain was already nervous about trying to have another baby. Then the pandemic hit.

pregnant woman taking a selfie in the bathroom mirror
Aislinn Spain is executive assistant at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. She was pregnant and gave birth during the pandemic. (Photo courtesy Aislinn Spain)

Aislinn Spain is executive assistant at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. Her story is part of The Well’s COVID Diaries, an occasional series exploring the physical, mental and emotional toll the pandemic has taken on members of the Carolina community. If you have a story to share, email us at thewell@unc.edu with COVID DIARIES in the subject line. 

On Mother’s Day 2020, I was sitting in my bathroom waiting for that word to appear on the tiny screen in my hand. I knew it would. Call it mother’s intuition combined with a deep belief that the universe loves to laugh at me. The instructions on the pregnancy test said it would take one minute, but after 30 seconds the results were crystal clear. Just as I had predicted: PREGNANT.

People have made a lot of jokes about COVID babies. “This is what happens when we don’t have sports.” “My parents didn’t practice social distancing.” “Well played, quarantine.” That’s not exactly what happened in my case.

My husband and I had a really difficult time with our first baby and weren’t sure we would ever mentally recover enough to have a second. But by the summer of 2019, she was a toddler and the trauma of her infancy was starting to feel a little more like a memory. Maybe we could consider doing it all again.

But in 2019, when I was staring into the tiny screen in my bathroom, I wasn’t so sure. A week later, I found myself in the emergency room waiting to have my ectopic pregnancy removed. It was the greatest heartbreak I have ever felt, and I took it as a sign. I told myself, “The universe does not want you to have any more children. Please stop holding onto things that are not meant for you.”

Then less than a year later, I found myself pregnant again. Only this time I got the news at the start of a global health crisis and wasn’t sure how to feel about it. Excited? Of course. Terrified? Also of course. How could I have hope during a time of so much loss? How could I keep this baby safe when I didn’t even know how to protect myself? What kind of world would this child be brought into? What if he didn’t leave the house until he was five years old? What kind of life would that be? Like so many people in 2020, I had more questions than answers.

COVID-19 has been described by many as a disease of loneliness. Social isolation, never-ending screen time, people dying alone. Pregnancy in the pandemic was no exception. Because of COVID protocols, I wasn’t allowed an in-person doctor visit until I was 11 weeks along. I spent those first vulnerable months hoping that the baby was hanging on without having a doctor around to reassure me. No ultrasound picture to hold onto, no heartbeat sounds to give me confidence. When I was able to go to that first appointment, I went alone. No fathers allowed except on FaceTime. A kind nurse held my hand for every blood draw.

I found it hard to tell people my good news. At any moment, the pandemic could find me and take the baby away, so why should I get excited? Why should I tell other people? My co-workers only viewed me from the neck up on a computer screen, so they couldn’t see the growing belly that would have tipped them off. It never felt like a good time to say, “I know we’re all miserable in this work-from-home situation, but guess what … ”

Even among friends and family, I hesitated to talk about it. It was hard to let them know that there would be a new baby when I had no idea when they would be allowed to meet him. Because of COVID restrictions on gatherings and travel, they wouldn’t be throwing me a baby shower, and my husband and I wouldn’t be taking a pre-baby vacation. I often forgot that I was pregnant myself.

baby in a Tar Heel T-shirt and striped pants

Spain’s baby, Holt, is flexible and calm, not easily affected by change. (Photo courtesy Aislinn Spain)

But soon enough, the baby became big enough to literally kick me back to attention. He’d flip and squirm and say, “Don’t forget about me, Mom. There are good things coming to you.” I read that babies in utero are put to sleep by the movement of their mothers walking. I would walk miles every day trying to convince him to rest, to stop punching me in the lungs. But he stayed awake, always kicking, always reminding me that I wasn’t alone. And slowly but surely, I began to believe him.

As my January 2021 due date approached, I watched the pandemic ravage the country. I worried that my husband wouldn’t be allowed to come to the hospital with me. I worried that there would be no safe caregiver for my toddler when I went into labor. I worried that I would catch COVID at the hospital and give it to my entire family. All the normal fears about giving birth were completely overridden by the fears of the pandemic.

The thing about giving birth, though, is that there is no way around it. Only through it. And when my little buddy decided it was time to face this scary, painful, beautiful world — pandemic and all — he didn’t seem afraid. He seemed ready.

Holt was born Jan. 19, 2021. He is sweet and cheerful. He is flexible and calm, not easily affected by change. He never panics and rarely cries. He is the opposite of 2020. The antidote to the loneliness. He gave me resilience and bravery in the face of an unprecedented crisis. And as I labored in a mask, a travel-size hand sanitizer in the hospital bed with me, I no longer felt like the universe was laughing at me, only with me, celebrating all the good things yet to come.