Becoming a parent for the first time is stressful. You don’t know what you’re doing, you’re sleep deprived and terrified that you’ll somehow make a grave mistake while trying to figure out how to keep your new little baby safe and happy and fed.

Now imagine becoming a parent for the first time during a global pandemic.

For some local parents, the experience has proven challenging in a number of ways, but they are doing what they can to take it all in stride and just deal with the issues the pandemic and being first-time parents throw at them.

Taylor and Justin Slack of Fargo welcomed their daughter Sydney in August, and because she arrived five weeks early, she had to spend some time in the NICU. Months earlier, Taylor and Justin went to the first ultrasound just before the pandemic began in March, and everything was as expectant parents would typically experience. By the time Taylor’s 20-week anatomical scan came around, protocols had changed and Justin was no longer able to attend.

“I was trying to describe it to him,” Taylor remembered. “Him not seeing anything made it not really real, and that was a little sad.”

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The couple had wanted to find out the gender of their baby at that ultrasound, but the different protocol changed their mind; they opted to have the technician write the gender on a notecard and seal it in an envelope so they could open it — and find out — together.

For Ben and Heather Vatnsdal of Grand Forks, Ben was able to attend the 20-week ultrasound, but soon after, protocols became dynamic. “(The hospitals) kept changing the rules all the time,” Heather recalled. The couple managed the remaining appointments fine, thanks to many pre-screening calls before she was due and even the offer to rent out a fetal doppler so she could monitor her baby’s health at home and talk with her doctor via telehealth. She declined the option but was pleased to know it was available to her.

Because Heather is a nurse, she and her doctor decided she should stay home once she hit 37 weeks to ensure she wasn’t exposed to a COVID-positive person in the waning weeks of her pregnancy. She was scheduled to be induced and tested negative days before the big day.

While in labor back in September, Heather was not allowed to walk the halls of the birthing center, although she and Ben were not required to wear masks while in their room. Once Jonas arrived, they realized how sad it was that their siblings and parents were not allowed to come to the hospital to visit. The Kings related to that sadness.

“When you have the baby, you picture your parents being able to come in and visit, but they couldn’t,” Taylor said. Their situation was complicated further by Sydney’s stay in the NICU, so the family was doubly curious about the new baby and the progress she was making. “That was part of the stressful part — trying to keep everyone updated because they couldn’t see her.”

Once they left the NICU, Taylor and Justin were encouraged to try to limit their contact with people as much as possible and require any visitors they did allow to see Sydney to wear masks.

“Our parents were okay with (wearing masks); they just wanted to see her,” Taylor said. “But it’s not what you pictured — holding your granddaughter with a mask on.”

After the Vatnsdal family got home, Heather and Ben made the decision to allow only immediate family members to come to their house who’d been relatively safe about possible exposure, and they received only minor pushback about their decision to ask that visitors wear masks.

“We laid out the rules ahead of time,” Heather said.

Heather Vatnsdal and son Jonas snap a picture while waiting for a checkup. Special to On the Minds of Moms.
Heather Vatnsdal and son Jonas snap a picture while waiting for a checkup. Special to On the Minds of Moms.

That type of boundary-setting is exactly what Terri Burns discusses with participants in the Baby Let’s Talk event, a weekly online support group for new parents offered by Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota.

“Every week there’s a conversation about someone brushing up against boundaries,” Terri said. As the team lead of Project Renew, Terri has had multiple conversations with new parents like Taylor and Justin and Ben and Heather who are navigating this extraordinary time in their lives.

“It’s been interesting watching the first-time parents rather than the veterans, and there’s this grief with the first-time parents,” Terri explained. “Grief because they are losing experiences they envisioned with their first child and a lot of that hasn’t been possible.”

Ben and Heather Vatnsdal welcomed son Jonas in September 2020. Photo courtesy of Kacie Johnson Photography
Ben and Heather Vatnsdal welcomed son Jonas in September 2020. Photo courtesy of Kacie Johnson Photography

Terri said she counsels many first-time parents to work through their emotions and helps them see they are allowed to have feelings about what their experience of parenting in a pandemic has been. “We give them permission to feel it,” she said.

Despite Ben and Heather’s precautions to avoid catching the virus, Ben tested positive when Jonas was around 11 weeks old; when the baby developed a bit of a stuffy nose, Heather took him to the pediatrician, who tested him for COVID. Jonas tested negative, so Ben quarantined away from his new son and wife as much as possible and wore masks whenever he was in their vicinity.

Then, Heather tested positive.

The diagnosis threw her plans to return to work in a tailspin, but they managed another round of quarantine and soon everyone was on the mend. Both Ben and Heather expressed relief about having had COVID and coming out just fine on the other side. “We actually feel better now that we both got it,” Ben said. They are still being cautious and maintaining safe distances from others to keep people safe, but they acknowledged how “generally crazy” this time has been.

“We’re just doing the best we can,” Heather said. “The best advice we got was to do what we were comfortable with and don’t judge people for their opinions. Just show grace.”

Taylor echoed those thoughts.

“Try not to get peer pressured to come and do something if you don’t feel comfortable,” she said. “Now I don’t just have me to worry about — I have to worry about my baby. We’re juggling that for the first time.”

Taylor King holds her daughter Sydney in the NICU. Special to On the Minds of Moms
Taylor King holds her daughter Sydney in the NICU. Special to On the Minds of Moms

Helpful resources for unprecedented parenting

Project Renew Team Lead Terri Burns shared that when it comes to your baby, there is no wrong answer. Parents (first time or veteran, in a pandemic or not) know what is best for their baby and their situation.

When it comes to the current circumstances of a global health event, Terri said one of the most important factors for first-time parents — especially mothers — is understanding when stress or anxiety may be more than a typical reaction to parenting in a pandemic.

“I think mental health has to matter so much here, particularly with parents who are struggling,” Terri said. “Disconnecting isn’t going to help them, so we’re encouraging people to set boundaries but also change those boundaries if you’re struggling. Struggling alone is not good for you or for the baby.”

Terri said one strategy discussed during the weekly sessions is having a designated spotter, someone who isn’t a spouse or significant other, who is asked to keep an eye out for anything behavioral that seems out of the ordinary.

“Many people picked a sibling or a friend they speak to regularly, someone who could speak to them and say, ‘This is something you should talk to your doctor about,’” Terri explained.

Many of the conversations revolved around self-care, with parents sharing lots of ideas for how to stay sane or even still celebrate moments that have been altered due to the pandemic. Participants have talked about how to be creative with virtual baby showers or how to still enjoy the outdoors with a baby during cold Midwest winters.

As the conversations continue each week, Terri shared that while the pandemic has certainly changed parenting for everyone, it has also provided some unexpected gifts.

“The good thing is that kids are getting extra time with their parents … parents might get snuggles at lunch time and be home for bedtime most nights,” she noted. “The pace has slowed down, giving parents more time to be present with their kids, and that’s a gift.”