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Sharing Pandemic Birth Stories Helps Mothers Advocate For Themselves, Babies

Study participants shared "mother wisdom" to support each other during the pandemic.

For many mothers giving  birth during the pandemic, pregnancy has not gone as planned. To learn about these experiences, a pair of researchers is collecting pandemic birth stories from across the country. 

Maria Brann and Jennifer Bute are communication professors at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. They're collecting the stories of women who have given birth during the pandemic.  

Credit Courtesy of Maria Brann
Maria Brann, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

“We wanted to find out what kind of effect giving birth in a pandemic had on women's experiences and their relationships with other people and their social networks,” Brann said.

Brann and Bute use focus groups to gather the stories — inviting women from across the country to take part. They are expanding on a previous study that explored what motivated  women to  engage in storytelling during pregnancy. Brann said they even came up with a term to describe the stories: mother wisdom.

“And so what this is, is really an opportunity for women to learn from each other and to empower each other through this unique yet shared experience,” she said.

Kathryn Engebretson gave birth to her second child in May.

No answers

“In March, when everything went on lockdown, it became really nerve-wracking,” Engebretson said. “To not really understand what that meant, for any of us. For our safety, for our labor and delivery experience, for what might the rest of my prenatal care would look like, for what our postpartum time would look like? It was just nobody had any answers.”

She said she joined the focus group to connect with other moms who gave birth during the pandemic.

“It was my one opportunity to talk to people who had done what I had just done,” she said.

Among those things were going to medical appointments alone and grocery shopping at a time pregnancy was considered high-risk. Then came the quiet.  

“Typically when you have a baby, people come in all the time, they check you all the time, the pediatrician comes in the person who tests his hearing comes in the person who has to give them the whatever check, you know, the whole thing,” Engebretson said. “And just none of that happened because of COVID. It was just very, very, very calm and quiet and peaceful. And it was just me and my husband and this shiny baby.”

Engebretson said that was the best part about giving birth during the pandemic.

“The world stopped around us,” she said. “And it was exactly what should happen when a baby is born, the world should stop around you and you should just focus on your, your people.”

Feeling isolated

Credit Courtesy of Lateva Woolfork
For some moms like Lateva Woolfork, not having the extra support was hard.

For Lateva Woolfork not having the extra support was hard.

“Your support system can't come in your house. And not that you can’t come in — did you get tested? Have you been wearing a mask? Are you isolating? Have you stayed home this whole time? I couldn’t emotionally put my baby in danger.” 

Woolfork is a mother of six and gave birth to her youngest in July.

“Feeling isolated is huge,” Woolfork said. “And when you're with a baby 24/7, especially a breastfeeding mom, you can quickly go into a space that is negative. Dealing with that emotion and feeling even more alone during the pandemic was a little bit daunting. I felt like postpartum depression was going to come get me around every corner.”

Bute said the focus groups allowed the mothers, like Woolfork and Engebretson, to support each other.  

Credit Courtesy of Jennifer Bute
Jennifer Bute, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

“I think one surprising finding is that some women in our focus groups were really open about some of their mental health struggles,” Bute said. “Sometimes that's a difficult topic for people to talk about, because there tends to be a lot of stigma associated with that.”

Woolfork definitely took strength from the focus group. 

“It's beautiful to connect with other women, other moms to know other people have the same struggles that you have,” she said. “The more information we get out to the world, the more we help each other.”

Bute and Brann hope their findings will help mothers feel empowered to advocate for themselves and their babies when it comes to health care.

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.

Darian Benson is a reporter for Side Effects Public Media and WFYI in Indianapolis. She can be reached at