Raising infants in a deadly pandemic

In this follow-up to an article in August 2020 about giving birth during the Covid-19 lockdown, the mothers reveal what their parenthood journeys have been like in the ensuing months.

For the first three months of his life, the baby boy to whom Mihlali Nkosi* gave birth at the height of the coronavirus pandemic only knew his mother as a masked person. Having tested positive for Covid-19 just days before the delivery, Nkosi was not allowed to kiss her son and had to show him love in other ways while they were both in quarantine.

“It was such a low point in my life because I tested positive for Covid and my mom, my dad and my gran had also tested positive,” she says, adding that she had to move out of the family home temporarily. 

The day after she gave birth, her mother, who had been asymptomatic before, was in a critical condition in hospital. Other family members wanted to help Nkosi look after her son, but they either had comorbidities or were afraid of contracting Covid-19 and spreading it to their households. Already having to juggle everything alone, Nkosi also had to recover much quicker than normal from the C-section she had. At some point, her stitches came out because she was just so busy.

Nkosi says because there are good and bad moments in those early days, having support after giving birth is important. “You need to be able to rest so you can recover, you need to take care of your scar. Somebody either needs to be taking care of you or your baby. You need that constant validation that you’re doing a good job, because at some point you realise that you just don’t know what you’re doing, or if you’re doing it right. You think ‘maybe I’m a bad parent’,” she says about navigating her way through parenthood in those first scary days. 

Nkosi struggled to adjust to her son’s sleeping patterns. He was still waking up every two hours like a newborn when he was between five and six months old, instead of waking up periodically for feeding or a nappy change. “I would go to work like a zombie and I would be so unproductive,” she says. 

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Her social life has also taken a knock because of the pandemic. “You realise that you don’t want people over… You end up over-controlling your environment, and you end up just not enjoying even the little things.” 

Nkosi’s son turned eight months on 17 March. He is now able to roll over and tries to crawl in reverse. “We are going through those milestones very quickly,” she says, adding that having a routine has helped him develop and grow at his own pace. 

“Having everything structured from a young age is doing good for him. In terms of his social interactions, he loves kids, and I have a lot of nieces and nephews and cousins. When he sees them, he lights up and he will try to grab them, he will smile, he will laugh,” says Nkosi, who is not keen to take him to a nursery school at such an early age.

Developing children’s social skills

Angelina Maphula, a lecturer in the psychology department at the University of Venda, says children who don’t play and interact with their peers may grow up to be independent, but they could have socialising and developmental problems that will only become evident later. 

“When children play, they learn how to solve problems. So when they … go to crèche, they are able to pick up more words. And with language that impacts the child’s intellectual development – even language development in terms of sharing, waiting your turn to speak or interacting in a group setting,” she says.

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Maphula says tools to enhance a child’s development such as educational toys are important if one can afford to buy them. This is especially true if children are stuck at home as confinement is really stressful.

Thembeka Sibiya, who also gave birth during the lockdown, says she chose sending her boy Khaya to a nursery school early because it was a safer and more reliable option than getting a nanny. 

“Kids get bored easily. There are only so many toys you can buy, there are only so many shows you can watch… There’s only so much stimulation and interaction I can give him and he’s growing now, he’s crawling, he wants to stand, he’s trying to talk,” says Sibiya, adding that Khaya is emulating older children at the crèche. 

25 March 2021: Baby Khaya attends a crèche where he emulates the older children.

Maria Beda* says 14-month-old, Sibabalwe*, had to go to a crèche when everyone in the house returned to work after lockdown regulations were eased. He was only a few months old at the time and, like Khaya, is the youngest child at his nursery school. Beda says he fell sick often but developed profoundly during that time. 

“Now that he is back there this year, he has even learned how to bite people when he doesn’t get his way,” she says. 

Beda echoes Sibiya’s sentiments that there is only so much stimulation a small home can offer a child. Before Sibabalwe joined the crèche, she saw how everything outside the confines of their house fascinated him when he went on a rare public outing. He was scared of masks and would cry when an unfamiliar voice rang out from behind the mask. Now he recognises masks and even knows how sanitiser works. During a video call, he reaches out his chunky arm, his fingers in the centre of his palm waiting for the sanitiser. And even as most of it lands on the floor, he spreads his tiny fingers and rubs his hands together before clapping for himself with a toothy grin. 

Separation anxiety

Since the first interview in August last year, Sibiya has been retrenched from her job because of Covid-19. She says it has given her more time to spend with both Khaya and his seven-year-old brother, Esethu. She hasn’t missed any of Khaya’s milestones and she is able to fetch him from nursery school every day, with no need for aftercare outside her home.

Sibiya says Khaya is a clingy baby because they were isolated together and she didn’t leave his side after he was born. “You know, babies want mommy. Well, with these Covid babies, it is like that on level five. uKhaya is obsessed with me, he wants me in front of his eyes at all times. I can’t do anything,” she says. 

One of her lows during Covid-19 was losing many people around December. “I lived in constant fear because we lost so many people, like healthy people, young healthy people who were recovering or doing well and then you hear they are dead because of Covid,” she says. 

She has not contracted the virus and says she has not decided whether she will get vaccinated or not. And although it has been hard raising Khaya in isolated circumstances, there has been an upside as well. “As much as I say it has been isolating to be alone, being away from people has been nice. I don’t have to see people, [do] small talk, laugh and [face] people wanting to see my baby, and I’m socially awkward so my social anxiety has been at an all-time low,” she says.

Asked if they would have more children, Nkosi and Sibiya reply with a big, resounding “no”. 

“It was so tough giving birth during Covid, and with the uncertainty of it, you don’t know when it’s actually going to end. I wouldn’t go into making a whole new baby knowing the situation and what I went through – you know, having no support, no one could be there for me because I had Covid myself,” says Nkosi. 

25 March 2021: A brief respite for mother Thembeka Sibiya as baby Khaya has his mid-morning nap while his brother, Esethu, watches TV.

Sibiya says she will consider having another baby when Khaya is five because he is such a handful. “He crawls everywhere, he takes everything, he keeps me busy. He makes a mess everywhere – for some reason babies believe that toys should be scattered all over the house – so my house is a mess, I have toys everywhere.” 

But, she says, the experience has allowed her to grow as a person. “I’ve learned to trust myself, especially after last year having postpartum depression and still having to soldier on so the children don’t see and they aren’t affected. Making sure I’m all right for them, it’s an achievement for me. I had my breakdowns and I still carried on and made it through.” 

Sibiya wonders if her son will ever know the normal that she once knew, before the pandemic. “It’s all they know, masks and sanitisers, so I guess for them it’ll be harder to adapt to a non-Covid environment because they were born into a Covid environment,” she says. 

*Not their real names.

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