“My midwives gave me the big blue pads that people use for puppies”: When Covid hit, this Toronto mom changed her plan and decided to give birth at home
Paris Semansky and her husband, Mike, were planning to have their second baby at Michael Garron Hospital—until Covid hit and she decided she’d be more comfortable giving birth at home. She spoke to Toronto Life about her home-birth experience.
“For much of my pregnancy, I was miserable. I was technically healthy, but the whole experience took a huge physical and emotional toll. It was my second pregnancy, so I felt bigger faster. I work as communications director at CAMH, and the rush-hour commute across the city every day on the subway and 63 Ossington bus was gruelling. And I suffered from terrible pregnancy-related anxiety. When your brain chemistry changes so radically, it’s tough to stay calm.
“My husband, Mike, and I live in East York, four minutes away from Michael Garron Hospital, where I’d delivered our first daughter, Anna, three years ago. We’d planned to do a hospital birth again for our second baby, and I was due on March 22. My first delivery had been fast and complication-free, and the hospital was so close to home. It just felt right to do it the same way. But my midwife always says that your birth plan is whatever your baby wants it to be, so I knew all my preparations could be upended at any point. All I knew was that I wanted to try for an unmedicated labour. My fear of needles overrides my fear of pain.
“At 36 weeks, around the end of February, my baby decided to do a last-minute flip, which meant she was upside down, in breech. I had to go into the hospital twice for an ECV, or external cephalic version, a procedure where an obstetrician and a midwife try to physically spin your baby. They pressed firmly on the outside of my stomach, trying to rotate my baby in my uterus. The first time they did the procedure, it didn’t work. The second time, it did—and the next day, the World Health Organization officially announced that the coronavirus was a global pandemic.
“I was two weeks away from my due date, and still determined to give birth at the hospital. Why mess with something that had worked so well before, something that felt familiar to us? There was a different entrance to the maternity ward, I reasoned, so I wouldn’t have to wait with people who thought they might have Covid-19. But within two days, the hospital shut down all the entrances except the emergency department and the front doors, so everybody entering the hospital could be screened. I imagined my husband dropping me off at the front door while I ran around the lineup, yelling, “I’m in labour!” It seemed complicated and overwhelming.
“I went in for my last midwife appointment on March 17; my husband had to wait in the car because the clinic had restricted who could come in. I ran through the pros and cons of home birth with Christie Lockhart, Michael Garron’s chief of midwifery. What if I needed to be induced? What if the baby went into distress? What if there was post-natal bleeding? I left that meeting feeling confident that if anything like that happened, they’d take me to the hospital for care. Ultimately, Mike and I decided we were more comfortable with a home birth. Five days before my due date, we changed our plan.
“We didn’t have to do much to prepare. My midwives gave me some of the big blue pads that people sometimes use for puppies. I knew a bath birth was not for me, so I made our bed with some clean sheets, topped with an old shower curtain, and then another set of sheets on top of that. That way, when it was over, they’d pull off the layers off and we’d have a freshly made bed we could pop into.
“I went into labour on Sunday, March 22. I had contractions all day, and at 4 p.m. my brother-in-law picked up Anna, our three-year-old, to watch her while I gave birth. We said goodbye, knowing it was the last time we’d be together as a family of three. After that, my midwives arrived with their equipment in two huge, wipeable containers for easier disinfection. It was just a few days before midwives began to wear masks and face shields. We were lucky to have full faces and smiles.
“Our midwives brought in everything we would have had at a hospital birth: IV equipment, birth instruments, medication to prevent and treat hemorrhaging, an oxygen tank, a suction machine and a self-inflating bag and mask in case the newborn needed to be resuscitated. It was surreal to see all the medical-grade gear commingling with the unread books on our nightstand and my husband’s clothes.
“For the first two hours, I laboured upstairs in the bedroom with my husband. Every 15 minutes, one of my midwives came in to check the baby’s heartbeat. Otherwise, they kept a careful distance, chatting downstairs until I needed their support. It felt like having a medically trained auntie and sister there. I began to have some pretty wild contractions, and they came upstairs to put me into transition. I had to sit in a birthing stool for a while, which was painful, and shortly after that, I was pushing. One of my midwives was right up on the bed with me, looking me right in the eyes and helping me stay focused. I was surprised how normal it all felt.
“Our daughter, Mira, was born with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. It was terrifying: she was blue, and I was desperately afraid that something was wrong. But the midwives knew exactly what to do, how to hold her and rub her down and make sure she got oxygen. After about a minute, as they carried her to the infant resuscitation area they’d set up, she let out a huge wail and her cheeks flushed pink. Our baby was in the clear.
“My midwives helped us get the bed changed, and suddenly I was in a clean set of sheets with my husband and our baby. They brought me crackers and cheese and strawberries, and we called and FaceTimed our family. After they left, things were spotless. It was like they were never there, except they’d left a baby behind. Anna came home the next morning to meet her new sister. She was excited, and wanted to hold her right away, or at least until she started to wiggle. It took Anna a few days to learn her own strength and realize a baby is more delicate than some of her toys. Those first few days were magical. We just cocooned at home. We obsessed over Mira’s breathing and eating and pooping— a welcome reprieve from the relentless news cycle of the weeks before. My worries evaporated.
“Parenting is a huge challenge right now. There’s a reason humans don’t parent in isolation. My husband and I are trading off all the time. We have a newborn and a preschooler who wants our attention all the time, so there’s no alone time or together time. Occasionally, I get a longer shower in the morning, which is a real treat. We’re so privileged and lucky in all kinds of ways, but there’s no substitute for a family member coming over to give you a hug. When you have a new baby, you’re creating a new family, and you’re asking other people to witness that intense, emotional, life-affirming experience with you. And that’s hard to do digitally.
“Last week, we drove up to my mother-in-law’s house in North York to drop off some groceries for her. She was able to see Mira and Anna through the window. We went thinking it would be nice, but it was harder than we expected. Anna began to cry because she wanted to hug her grandma, and didn’t understand why she couldn’t. It was heartbreaking. I keep thinking how there’s no proxy for touch, or eye contact, or body language, or the intimacy that comes with those things. We’re keeping our bubble extremely small, just our immediate family, and we’re introducing Mira to relatives and friends over FaceTime. She might be two and a half months old before she’s meeting anybody in person. We just don’t know.
“My husband works for the government, so he was able to take his paternity leave early. We’re starting to talk now about what we would do if one or both of us got sick. How would we manage with two kids? Who would we invite into the bubble? Can we bring someone new into a home with a newborn who has no vaccinations, who’s still learning to breathe? That’s what we’re trying to navigate right now.”
—As told to Katherine Laidlaw