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Pregnant during a pandemic: How will COVID-19 impact future generations?

Mar 4, 2021 | Features, Health | 0 comments

//Ashlee Morris Hobbs, a school social worker, holds her 6-months-old son on Feb. 26 at Cheesman Park. Hobbs, who gave birth to her son last year, worries about how systemic racism and the COVID-19 pandemic will impact her child’s future. Photo by Polina Saran | polinasarana@gmail.com

Editor’s note: Some names have been changed at the request of those sharing their story.

As Dr. Sally Lin looks into the eyes of her baby girl, she thinks back to the day she learned she was pregnant. Lin vividly remembers television screens across the hospital lighting up with late-breaking news as the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic

“I was really terrified, not just because of the pandemic, but because we have difficulty getting pregnant and staying pregnant,” Lin said. “I’ve had three miscarriages.”

With unmasked patients flooding the hospital, Lin feared how the evolving pandemic and the visceral anxiety she had surrounding it would affect her unborn child. 

“I was worried that my negativity and anxiety would somehow cause long-term, lasting effects on the baby,” Lin said. “I worried that the baby would have some type of abnormality.”

Pandemic pregnancies have ushered in widespread scientific study and debate. Some researchers believe “corona babies” will live with long-term trauma, and other experts do not expect newborns will suffer a lifetime of difficulty. University of Southern California researchers are already fielding participants to find definitive answers.

Those answers are within easy reach. A Psychiatry Review study found heightened levels of depression, anxiety and trauma-related disorders in 1 in 3 women bringing a new life into the world this past year.

Erica Bonham, a licensed professional counselor in the Denver area, explains trauma lives deep within the body. She describes it as silent, intangible and powerful. 

“There’s growing consensus that trauma is passed down through generations in DNA,” Bonham said. “We find that if one generation experiences a traumatic event, like a very violent genocide, their offspring will often times have the same trauma responses, but it’s really hard to prove.” 

As Lin’s baby bump grew, intense fear and excessive worry loomed large as she treated the first COVID patient and dozens more at her hospital. The effects of her position, the pandemic and pregnancy forced her to take some time away to calm, refocus and avoid further trauma.

“In line with generational trauma, I took a month off of work because of the fear of the health effects from getting COVID, and also because I was worried about how my mental health would translate to the growth and development of the fetus,” said Lin. 

When Lin returned to work, a second virus of sinophobia was gaining speed as former President Donald Trump often referred to COVID as the “China virus” on social media, and at press conferences and rallies. 

“It was a really strange time to be a pregnant physician who is also Chinese American,” Lin said. “I had one patient afraid of me as their doctor because they thought I was going to give them the virus. It’s really not fair to have this type of racism driven by a national policy. I was also worried about the safety of my daughter, too, because she looks very much like me.” 

While the racial attacks and slurs still sting, Lin and her family are thankful they were physically unscathed. Others cannot say the same. The advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate has recorded more than 3,000 hate incidents directed at Asian Americans nationwide since the start of the pandemic. 

As COVID ended lives and disrupted others, the civil unrest and political vitriol of last year had another Denver area woman on edge. 

“It was definitely an added layer of stress for our family,” said Ashlee Morris Hobbs. 

With her now 6-month old boy babbling in the background, the school social worker recalls schools shutting down across Colorado just days after her pregnancy was confirmed. 

Hobbs, already stressed from being unable to support her students in person during the pandemic, was further traumatized following the death of George Floyd. 

“I’m half Vietnamese, and my husband is Black, and we’re bringing a Black boy into the world,” Hobbs said. “And we questioned, ‘What kind of world is he coming into?’ I felt a different sense of fear than I had before.”

But she did not let fear stop her from showing up for her students protesting for racial justice and an end to police brutality against people of color. 

“As the news of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor broke, we were processing and talking about their murders. It added a layer of responsibility and concern,” said Hobbs. 

Prepared with multiple masks and bottles of hand sanitizer, Hobbs joined a school-wide demonstration focused on giving students of color space to talk about their experiences in the classroom. Her decision, while wrought with worry, felt right, not only for her students but for her future baby boy. 

 “It was a very human moment, and it had me asking myself, ‘How are we going to talk about this with our child?’” said Hobbs. 

Lin and Hobbs don’t know each other, but they do know what it’s like to have some of the joy of pregnancy stripped away. 

“My husband heard our baby’s heartbeat for the first time over the phone,” Hobbs said. 

They traveled to ultrasound appointments alone. They didn’t celebrate their new chapter with family and friends at a baby shower or spend hours walking the aisles of Buy, Buy Baby. Both craved normalcy. Most of all, they feared how their every thought impacted their future child. 

“As a mental health provider working with kids, I’ve seen how parents’ emotions can profoundly impact our kids’ emotions,” Hobbs said. 

While psychologists debate the extent of generational trauma related to the COVID pandemic and the babies born into it, they look to the past for future leads. 

In the 1960s, a Canadian psychiatrist recorded high rates of psychological distress among children of Holocaust survivors, and the concept of generational trauma was first recognized. 

One child psychiatrist writes that everyone is susceptible to generational trauma. Still, certain populations are more vulnerable to it, including African Americans in the U.S., families affected by catastrophes like hurricanes and people living in war-torn countries. 

Today, Lin and Hobbs are taking a short break to reflect on their experience and soak up the joy of motherhood by showering their babies with love, attention and celebrating every milestone.

“I’m adopted, so I grew up not knowing anyone who looked like me,” Hobbs said. “He’s the first person that I’ve met who looks like me. We hope our Malcolm embodies the legacy of deep respect, empowerment and advocacy of BIPOC people,” Hobbs said.

Meanwhile, Lin is awaiting her baby’s next move with much anticipation.

“She’s a happy, active baby who likes being held,” Lin said. “She’s already trying to stand up.”

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