Around this time last year, my baby bump was really starting to show. Finally, it was no longer a whispered debate among passersby of “is she or isn’t she?” I was now unmistakably pregnant, and everyone around me could see it.
Except… none of that actually happened. Because this was a pregnancy in 2020. Those whispered debates? Well they weren’t ever really going on, as the only passersby that witnessed my now very obvious, spherical stomach were my reflection, my fridge, and my husband. And all three were pretty clued in since the day we saw two lines.
High hopes and Hypnobirthing classes
It was December 2019 when my husband and I decided to sign up for Hypnobirthing classes. We chose the Friday morning sessions for the four-week course, which would be happening in April the following year. We knew that the days of it being just the two of us were finite – and happily so, as earlier that year we had tragically lost a baby at 20 weeks, so our gratitude for our healthy baby was immense – but they were numbered nonetheless. So we decided to make the most of them.
We had great plans for savouring that beautiful twilight of solo coupledom, and Friday Hypnobirthing classes slotted in perfectly. We’d head out early for cute romantic breakfasts while most of Dubai still slept, walk hand-in-hand into our antenatal course, and then maybe stroll those baby shops we’d never had any reason to wander before. It was finally our time and we were going to do all of it. But, as anyone who was pregnant during the pandemic knows all too well, 2020 had different plans.⠀
Perfect pregnancy plans ruined by a pandemic
Instead of excitedly walking hand-in-hand into a classroom and meeting other couples who too were expecting their miniature new family members, my husband and I plopped down rather unceremoniously in front of a laptop.
The gridded Zoom screen made it impossible for the soon-to-be-dads to drift off to one corner of the room while we waddling women gravitated to another, comparing due dates and what hurts this week (ah, that quintessential split of the sexes that we as a species never seem to shake since the school cafeteria). Instead we sat alone with our partners in our respective homes, together.
I studied the faces of these women (their bumps - where my eyes would have likely been diverted had the classes been in person - sat for the most part off camera), and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t with a fair bit of longing.
These were the women I was supposed to be sitting next to, bouncing on giant yoga balls, where we’d probably snicker like schoolgirls as we learned the mantra “open mouth, open cervix” while practicing that quintessential Hypnobirthing “surge breath.”
A craving for community
Pregnancy can conjure up so many different things to so many, and while it did send me inward, connecting and convening with my body and mind more than I ever had before, it also sparked a flame for community. My pregnancy craving was not food but connection. I wanted more than ever to be grounded in some way to nature — be it a simple swim in the ocean or walk in the park — and instinctively I yearned to be connecting with women, particularly those on the same week-by-week path I was currently trending.
But as the full Disinfection Campaign started in Dubai – requiring everyone to remain indoors at all times, with social gatherings out of the question and permission to go outside only granted via permit - none of that was going to be possible.
All of us on the Hypnobirthing course were well into our second trimester, most coming up to our third, and the only “grounding” or “in-person connecting” in store for us would be via a police permit to leave our homes for an occasional grocery store run or to attend OB appointments.
Speaking of which: the news that only I would be allowed to attend my antenatal visits to the doctor - partners could not attend due to COVID-19 precautions – came as a huge blow. For someone who had already received soul-crushing news at my 20 week OB appointment just nine months earlier, these monthly visits had already taken on a slightly more anxious tone prior to the pandemic. Now, I had to do them without my husband by my side.
Pleading with the Universe
For a moment it all felt so unfair. “Really universe?” I thought, “after all this? Pregnancy after loss, now with a side of global pandemic?”
I’ll never forget driving to my first prenatal monthly appointment during lockdown. The empty roads were jarring; I felt so strikingly isolated on the same Dubai streets that were heaving just one week before. But in that moment of palpable isolation behind the wheel, something hit me.
I wondered how many other mothers-to-be were driving themselves to their appointments, passenger seat empty. How many women were maybe off to meet a new OB/GYN, but would only be able to try to get a read from this new doctor’s words, eyes, and mannerisms, and not their masked mouths? How many would receive wonderful news, tragic news, all the news, by themselves?
And aside from the serious stuff, what about the simple things? The long-imagined pleasure of running around town, cute little bump in tow, eliciting smiles from passersby, silently celebrating with sweet strangers the massive life change that was in store? None of us would be doing any of it. And there was something weirdly unifying about that - this strangely beautiful solidarity with everyone traversing these similar, unnaturally lonely experiences.
Instead we were all relegated to parading those protruding bellies between the walls of our respective homes. And as for this group of women, we’d be “seeing each other” three more times on a virtual hypnobirthing class.
Being alone, together
Even when the city started to open up for others, the evidence on the impact of COVID-19 on pregnancy was sparse at the time, so most of us pregnant women continued the isolation voluntarily, being far more cautious than we might otherwise have been.
Our ‘community hall’ instead became the WhatsApp group. Here we gathered virtually throughout all the milestones of month seven, month eight, month nine and beyond. That collection of pixels saw us through our lives’ most dramatic and defining moments – from “Is that my water breaking?,” to “He’s here!,” and “Owww breastfeeding hurts,” all the way to, “Who’s back at work and how are you managing?,” “Am I ever going to sleep again?”, “She’s rolling!,” “He’s crawling!” and so much more…
Going through the biggest transformation of our lives, we shared birth stories and all the moments since, with other women whose faces and bellies we’d never seen in the flesh. Reading the messages - often bleary-eyed in those first few weeks and months postpartum - brought the type of sincere smiles, tears, and almost every emotional reaction in between that one could hardly imagine transpiring from relationships with those you’d never truly “met”.
A reunion, and an introduction
It was a subtly steamy Friday morning; a clear hint from the month of April that the tolerable Dubai weather would soon be packing up for its annual leave.
I pulled into the dusty parking lot of Ripe Market in Umm Suqeim, and I realized there was a lot more in my car than this time last year - two more people in fact: my husband for one, and a miniature carbon copy of him in the backseat.
As we walked towards the entrance, I rechecked my Whatsapp. “Towards the back right of the market, in front of the petting zoo,” I giddily relayed to my husband.
We were finally walking hand-in-hand into our Hypnobirthing class. Granted it was without the Hypnobirthing, without the class, without the teacher, and a year late, but it was happening.
Our bumps had changed to babies, and it wasn’t just them who were meeting for the first time - it was their mothers too. And it was beautiful.
Alana Gallini is an American expat and mum to almost one-year-old Raef living in Dubai, who posts about her life on Instagram at @human__ing.