As a dad-to-be, this is how I pictured the march toward our baby’s early-May due date: I’d go to every appointment, track my baby’s development right alongside my wife, and become knowledgeable enough to help ask the right questions.
And I was that guy. Then our appointment in March came, and so did the COVID-19 pandemic.
Suddenly, there were staff in full face shields posted outside the obstetrics department at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, ready to interview the one permitted and accompanying support person (read: me) about whether they have a cold. If you passed, and Purelled your hands vigorously enough, you were permitted entry.
The obstetrics department, once bustling with children and extended families free to wander as they pleased, was now limited to mothers and their partners. Medical staff certainly outnumbered patients. It made me realize how many people pre-COVID-19 didn’t really need to be there. But it didn’t really hit me that I could one day be deemed a non-essential participant, too. After all, I’m the father — one half of the offspring equation. The kid wouldn’t even exist without my contribution.
Two weeks later, non-patients were barred from attending appointments.
The reality was, Mom was keeping the baby alive. Biologically, at least, I’d been a groupie since conception.
With my wife fortunate enough to feel every roll, kick and hiccup of our little one in utero, pre-COVID-19 ultrasound visits were the strongest connection I had to something I knew intellectually would change my life forever, but still felt emotionally distant from.
I tried to make up for my redundancy by being an excellent emotional support to my wife. So much of pregnancy is a solo endeavour that’s difficult to articulate — she felt secure knowing she could dump her thoughts on me, sometimes just to hear them out loud.
COVID-19 made all those nice intangibles impossible. My wife would catch me up on what happened at each appointment, as best she could, but everything up until the week of birth felt hollow for her and abstract for me, like it wasn’t about to monumentally change our lives forever.
We arrived at the hospital at 11:30 a.m., two hours before our scheduled C-section — standard for people with dwarfism, which my wife has — only to discover the surgery had been moved up a day.
My wife could stay overnight in the antenatal care unit until the following day, but I wouldn’t be permitted into the hospital until the moment our child was actually being born.
Cue mad scramble to find a place for me to stay overnight in Toronto, where our baby was being born, a two-hour drive from home in Waterloo. I was turned down by a few friends who were understandably reticent to share their couch with someone who’d just spent a few hours in a hospital. My only option seemed to be a hotel full of travellers on a 14-day quarantine, which needless to say made me feel nervous. Then a nurse burst in.
“It’s time to go!” To my relief, she meant to the operating room, and not out onto the street. A bed in at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) had become available, ready to receive our newborn.
I hoped my own relatively unfazed state would help put my wife at ease.
As my wife was prepped for surgery, I sat in the designated “Support Person Chair.” (Yes, that’s what it’s actually called.) I couldn’t help but notice how alone I felt in that hallway. What I’d imagined to have typically been a busy part of the building felt more like St. Elsewhere inside a snowglobe.
After what seemed like an eternity alone, tacked onto weeks of sitting at the sidelines, “We’re ready for you, Mr. Broverman,” was music to my ears. It was finally showtime.
I entered the operating room as the anesthesiologists were making sure my wife couldn’t feel anything, which is always the most tense moment before surgery. A C-section meant no squeezing of hands, no breath coaching and no lamaze — I just tried to stay present, look into my wife’s eyes and be a source of reassurance. I had at least five surgeries related to cerebral palsy in my youth, so the flurry of activity and the procedural cues of surgical preparation felt oddly comforting, even nostalgic. I hoped my own relatively unfazed state would help put my wife at ease.
There was also no telling what she’d actually remember, given the injectables she was on, so I wanted to register what was happening, in case she asked me to recall the details later.
The surgical team encouraged my support. The stationary chair we’d talked about as part of the birth plan (stationary, so it didn’t roll away when I went to sit down) was waiting for me. Plus, the obstetrician made sure I was the one who stood up to look over the sheet and tell my wife the baby’s gender.
“It’s a boy! There’s no mistaking it,” I said. He appeared fully formed, slick and grey, like the classic rendition of an alien. Our alien.
It’s funny, I spent so much time in the lead up to my son’s birth wondering if I could even adequately pull off fatherhood without being able to independently lift my own child, but the moment my boy came out, I felt instantly calm. In spite of some of the doubts that had arisen, my capacity for caring expanded to a place I didn’t know was inside me.
I thought I could never really love anyone more than I loved my wife, especially when the pandemic made me feel even more removed from our child, but once I finally saw him — a part of me, alive and in the flesh — I knew I’d do anything for him.
Stepping into fatherhood
Our son was born at 38 weeks with dwarfism. We always knew he’d spend at least one night in the NICU to go through all the routine checks for babies with skeletal dysplasias, but things took a precarious turn when the doctors found fluid in his lungs, and extended his stay to four days.
At first, the news didn’t really register. Fluid is fairly normal. “He’s a little less pink than we would like,” the obstetrics team said. They did a good job of shielding us from the reality he wasn’t breathing.
His extended stay in the NICU was worrying and slightly sad, especially because those bonding moments between parent and child weren’t available to us right away. With COVID-19 protocols in place, just to touch him, I had to wash my hands in a giant basin, pick up my daily mask at the front desk, and bathe my hands in Purell before entering his room.
While that part quickly became routine, what I couldn’t get used to was how my wife and I were only permitted to visit our son one at a time. I had imagined that the first time I saw my son outside of his delivery, it would be with my wife, and we’d feel like a family. Instead, the first time we were united as a family was during his circumcision (a truly weird circumstance to mark a normally tender milestone).
I feel secure knowing that when this pandemic has ended, I’ll have found my own way to be a father.
We were just thankful that we could all be together in the same hospital for the entire stay. We’d heard that partners or support people at some other hospitals in the city could only stay for up to two hours after the birth before being asked to leave.
Another silver lining of our son’s extended stay in the NICU was having more time to learn how to feed, change and bathe him with confidence. When you have disabilities and you need to adapt — breastfeeding with smaller arms, holding a kid and bottle comfortably with cerebral palsy — that extra time proves invaluable.
Other new parents weren’t so lucky. We watched three couples come and go, all discharged within 24 hours to process the whirlwind of information on their own.
After we were allowed to go home, in-person visits with experts like a lactation consultant could only happen virtually or over the phone. Normally, this would be frustrating, but I didn’t mind fewer visitors (and opportunities to feel judged). My greatest fear, even pre-COVID, was having a non-disabled friend, family member or professional misinterpreting my learning to adapt as me struggling with my disability, and unnecessarily taking over. I don’t want to be a spectator at a time when I most need to figure things out for myself.
It’s been almost three months now. While COVID-19 has been challenging, I’m thankful for the opportunity to step into fatherhood with only my wife as a support. It has brought us closer together. I feel secure knowing that when this pandemic has ended, I’ll have found my own way to be a father.
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