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The bizarre reality of being new parents in the age of coronavirus

New parents Cynthia and Nelson Rodriguez
New parents Cynthia and Nelson Rodriguez of Santa Ana bring their 2-week old son, Mateo, to his first pediatric visit in Orange during the coronavirus outbreak.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

All 21 days of Mateo Rodriguez’s life have been in a world where coronavirus reigns.

He was born to Cynthia and Nelson Rodriguez on March 11, the day before California Gov. Gavin Newsom recommended a statewide cancellation of gatherings of more than 250 people to slow the pandemic’s spread. Two days later, as school districts across California began to suspend classes, his parents went to stay the night at the Yorba Linda home of Cynthia’s mother.

They have largely sheltered in place there ever since. Their first family outing happened just last week — a routine checkup in Orange where the pediatrician elbow-bumped Nelson instead of offering a handshake. Cynthia peppered the doctor with questions like any new mami would for her firstborn. But there was an extra dose of urgency.

Does Mateo’s occasional shallow breathing mean he has the coronavirus? (No, that’s natural as babies learn to breathe outside the womb.)

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Mateo gets extra-warm sometimes — is that coronavirus? (No, he’s just bundled up a bit too much.)

What about ... ? (Not coronavirus.)

The pediatrician declared Mateo perfectly healthy. That hasn’t stopped Cynthia from thinking that the coronavirus will eventually reach him.

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“Your mind goes to those places right now,” she said in a phone interview. “I don’t want Mateo to sense that, because babies feel it. So that makes me feel more helpless.”

New parents Cynthia and Nelson Rodriguez
Cynthia and Nelson Rodriguez of Santa Ana leave the doctor’s office after bringing their 2-week old son, Mateo, to his first pediatric visit.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Being a parent is hard enough. But the coronavirus has thrown a curveball of anxiety to new mothers and fathers. They had meticulously prepared for months on how to handle parenthood, and now find their plans mostly moot.

“No one really knows what’s going on in the big picture,” said Diana Spalding, digital education editor for Motherly. The online publication has received so many queries about the coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, that they created a section devoted to how parents can handle the crisis, with over 100 articles published since January.

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Spalding, a former pediatric nurse and midwife, teaches an online birth class and made it free on Monday; over 7,000 people have already taken it.

Hospitals are beginning to limit who can be present during a delivery, and even blocking visitors altogether. Shortly after Cynthia and Nelson received their mothers and Cynthia’s sisters in the delivery ward at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, a doctor advised them to not allow any more visitors. Cynthia had to turn away her grandmother, who had come down from Chowchilla to see her first great-grandchild.

“It’s a major pain point for so many people right now,” said Spalding. “Isolation from loved ones can have a pretty profound impact on a mother’s and baby’s well-being. It’s a scary time for mamas.”

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Cynthia, a 33-year-old freelance writer, knew the coronavirus would “become a thing” in the United States, having tracked its spread across Asia and Europe as far back as January. But she and her husband didn’t pay too much attention to it during the last weeks of her pregnancy. Their focus was on getting ready for life with Mateo.

They put final touches on what will eventually become his room at their home in Santa Ana. They continued to sift through the presents from a baby shower. A name was decided on once and for all. (Cynthia wanted Luca.)

The first hint that the coronavirus would change life as they were expecting it to unfold happened on the day before Cynthia gave birth.

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For a last date night, Nelson, 33, took Cynthia to Father’s Office in Culver City to enjoy the restaurant’s much-celebrated hamburgers. They were expecting the usual busy crowd; instead, they were one of a few diners.

That eerie desolation was a factor in Cynthia’s decision to stay with her mom instead of returning to Santa Ana (a roommate is taking care of Cynthia’s cat, Amy Winehouse). “You just don’t know what’s going to happen in the coming months,” said Cynthia, who added that they’ll remain in Yorba Linda “as long as it’s necessary and safe for the baby.”

Dr. Sean O’Leary, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and a member on the infectious diseases committee for the American Academy of Pediatrics, understands the over-precaution new parents and even pediatricians are practicing because “we haven’t got a lot of research with newborns” and the coronavirus.

The AAP issued a bulletin advising that a baby’s vital first check-up be in person instead of via teleconference after hearing reports that pediatricians were asking parents to do the latter. A recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. found newborns in China infected with it, although it wasn’t clear if the mothers passed it to the child in utero or after birth. Doctors in Long Island recently revealed that a 3-week old was infected, the youngest yet American with the virus.

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O’Leary acknowledged the danger of the coronavirus but added, “as a parent with a newborn, I wouldn’t be too panicky.”

The doctor has read reports that show respiratory diseases for infants, who are naturally prone to them, are actually dropping right now due to social-distancing practices. “To an extent, that’s what we’ve always recommended for newborns, anyway,” he said.

That’s been the most painful part for Cynthia and Nelson, though.

“Everyone wants to see the baby right away,” she said.

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“It’s sad letting them know you can’t see them days old,” Nelson added. “Now you have to wait to meet Mateo until he’s months old.”

The two have tried to make up for that loss with multiple FaceTime sessions from the safety of Cynthia’s childhood bedroom.

That keeps them happy until Nelson ventures out. Then he vainly scours stores for diapers, formula and baby wipes. The financial planner doesn’t like those trips, because the people he sees “are acting like robots — just out and about. They’re in shock. You don’t see any light or soul in them.”

The Rodriguezes nevertheless are planning for the day everything will improve. They’re already practicing how to recount these strange days to Mateo when he becomes of age.

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“I’m going to tell him how scary it was, and how our main thing was to take care of him,” Cynthia said, as Mateo began to cry for his afternoon feeding.

“And I’m going to tell him he was the best part of 2020,” Nelson said. “Everything else was garbage.”


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