These are the real stories of parenting during lockdown
Ariane Audet grows quiet on the phone. She is usually the one posing questions about motherhood, and now, she’s not sure how to answer the one I’ve asked her: What do you think would have happened if you had given birth now?
She stays silent for so long that I glance at my phone’s screen to make sure we haven’t been disconnected.
“I’m afraid to say it,” she finally says. “But I don’t know if I would still be alive.”
Three years ago, Audet gave birth to her first child, and five months later, she ended up in a psychiatric unit of a hospital.
“Becoming a mother broke me in a way I didn’t know was possible,” she explains. “But by breaking me, it finally let me rebuild myself in the way that I wanted to, which is probably someone who needed meds her whole life.”
While being treated in that hospital for severe postpartum depression and anxiety, Audet came up with an idea for putting her photography skills and PhD in literature to use. She decided that once she returned home, she would start a storytelling project called Faces of Postpartum.
Since then, she has nurtured that project alongside her children: two girls, who are now three years old and 18 months. She has collected stories and taken photographs of women throughout the Washington DC region – and from as far away as Canada – that capture the parts of parenting that aren’t Pinterest-pretty. They show the moments without make-up, the bits that are messy – and, because of that rawness and realness, they are therapeutic for both the women who get to share their stories and those who get to read them.
But before Audet got to that place where she could help others, she first had to walk into an emergency room in Virginia to help herself.
She doubts she could take those same steps now that Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has overwhelmed medical services across the country and made going into any building feel like a risk for contagion.
“I wouldn’t want to go to an ER now, and I’m not even sure an ER would see me,” Audet says, thinking of the women who are currently struggling in the same way she did when “the world was fine”.
She is worried about them. She is worried about the new mothers who can no longer walk into a lactation consultant’s office and get in-person help with breastfeeding. She is worried about the women who desperately want to be mums and have seen their adoption plans and fertility treatments put on hold, indefinitely.
She is worried about the people who are now isolated at home with their children, feeling alone in ways that go beyond social distancing.
As the death toll from Covid-19 rises around us, it is natural to focus on the loss of life. The stories so far about whom this virus has claimed have been devastating, and will only grow more so.
But this virus is also causing other types of losses behind closed doors – and those are the ones that Audet has spent a lot of time thinking about lately.
A few days ago, she decided to transform her project into a place where women could share their “pandemic postpartum” stories, and already she has received submissions. She shared them with me with the agreement that I wouldn’t identify the women who wrote them. On her website, Audet uses only first names to allow people to speak freely, without having to worry about Google searches.
The recent submissions contain hilarious observations and intimate confessions. They also show what is happening beyond those pictures on social media of fresh-baked cookies and at-home art projects.
“My nephew asked me what I wanted for my birthday over the phone and I said: ‘I want nobody to touch my boobs,’” one woman writes. Being at home makes her son want to breastfeed all the time. “Makes you resent him a little. You don’t want to feel that way towards your child, but you do, and it adds to the whole situation that is already stressful.”
Another woman writes: “Moms are posting all the ‘fun’ educational things they are doing with their kids while I’m barely staying afloat with work and running the house. I’m struggling just trying to feed them all the meals they need, let alone make sure they are learning. Are they exercising enough? Will they be behind next year? Am I dropping the ball?”