Postpartum in a pandemic: Two new-mom pastors share what it was like

By Jessica Brodie

Having a baby can be challenging in typical times. But for two South Carolina United Methodist pastors with newborns in the midst of a pandemic, those challenges have brought both troubles and great blessings.

The Rev. Meg Cook gave birth to her son, Leonard, in May, experiencing not only labor with a mask on but also the challenges of pregnancy, a major postpartum hemorrhage and moving to a new church—not to mention juggling a newborn and a toddler—during what has been a wildly abnormal summer.

The Rev. Tiffany Knowlin-Boykin, who gave birth to her son, Kaleb, in February, experienced both the difficulty of postpartum depression and her husband’s major health crisis and subsequent hospitalization in the midst of the most stringent shelter-in-place orders.

While both women—and their families—are doing well now, 2020 has been a trying year. Looking back, they reflect not only on what they went through, but also the surprising blessings they discovered through their ordeals.

Cook’s story: From hard times to family bliss

When the pandemic hit, Cook was in her last trimester with her second child and pastoring First United Methodist Church, Winnsboro—and getting ready for a move to a new church that summer. Her first child, son Jimmy, had recently turned 1, and she and her husband, John, were excitedly preparing for a home birth with a midwife.

Then came COVID-19, and all their plans went awry. Instead of a home birth, their unborn child had to be induced, and Cook found herself giving birth in a hospital.

“No midwife or mom or anybody, just John and I and all the doctors in masks.” Cook lets out an ironic laugh. “Labor with a mask on—that was no fun.”

Thankfully, Leonard was a healthy baby, and soon they were sent home. But then came trouble: 15 days after giving birth, Cook experienced a major postpartum hemorrhage and had to be rushed to the hospital by ambulance.

Some of her church members were incredibly supportive and helpful, but the timing was tough; Cook was forced to lay in bed and heal while her home was being packed up in preparation for a move—in July, Cook was moving to Cayce UMC, Cayce, as senior pastor.

“Everything that happened that was hard happened all at once,” Cook said.

That’s when things began to take a tremendous turn for the better. Immediately upon arriving at Cayce, she was met with incredible support, not only for her as a pastor but for her role as a working mom of two very young children, as well.

From being generous about her flexible schedule and adjusting hours to offering childcare at every church event, Cayce has offered what Cook and her husband call “a huge, huge gift” to their family in accommodating their circumstances.

Now, she, John and the boys are settling into their new routine, grateful for a loving and flexible church that works with them—and doesn’t mind in the least when their pastor preaches on occasion with her newborn in a baby sling. In fact, they love it.

Knowlin-Boykin’s story: From overwhelmed to appreciative

Knowlin-Boykin gave birth to Kaleb in February, and her first few weeks as a new mom were relatively peaceful. She was on leave from her job as senior pastor at Wesley United Methodist Church, Columbia, and looking forward to a summer of getting to know her new baby and figuring out the how-to’s of motherhood.

Then came COVID-19—and everything changed.

While most of the community was under shelter-in-place orders, her husband, Kareem, still had to go into work every day. Meanwhile she was all alone at home, struggling with what she now realizes was postpartum depression, trying her best to breastfeed, care for Kaleb and survive during a pandemic.

“It was just me and the baby and it was—oh, my—very overwhelming,” Knowlin-Boykin said

Kaleb had latch issues at first, but because of the pandemic, she could have no one with her to help her properly and make sure her baby was getting enough milk. She also couldn’t go to her own six-week postpartum checkup for months.

“It was a really, really scary, overwhelming time. There was so much anticipatory anxiety—what happens if this goes wrong?”

Then in May, when Kaleb was 3 months old, things went from difficult to worse—her husband became very ill with diverticulitis.

“I had to call 911 in the middle of the night, and I couldn’t go with him!”

Her husband was in the hospital for a week, and Knowlin-Boykin was alone at home with Kaleb, desperately worried and struggling to stay afloat.

Eventually, she and her family decided to risk COVID exposure, and first her mother-in-law came to stay with her to help, then her parents came. Soon her husband was released, without needing surgery. Everything soon went back to relative normal.

“The biggest thing was the isolation, not having anyone around to come in and help.”

Her congregation at Wesley is a baby-loving crowd, and it was hard for both her and them not being able to have them meet baby Kaleb in person; they had only seen pictures or seen him on Zoom.

As her maternity leave ended and churches began to reopen, the next obstacle became childcare.

“I needed focus time to work on sermons, Bible studies, etc. It was hard—Kareem and I and the baby were together 24-7, and it was like, ‘I need a break, Lord! Kareem needs a break!’”

Thankfully, two women in the congregation stepped up to help. One comes Tuesdays to help with Kaleb, and the other comes on Thursdays.

“That was such a gift to me—we call them his ‘bonus grandparents,’” she said, laughing.

Things are settling into a new rhythm. It’s not exactly what she’d envisioned, but she’s grateful for the blessing of family and a wonderful church at her side.

“One of silver linings I’ve discovered is I would never have had so much time with my baby if it wasn’t for this pandemic,” she said. “The time I’ve had with him since the beginning of his life till now, and I am still with him! And there’s no way Kareem would have had that time with the baby and us together—he’d just started this new job. That time has been a true gift.”

Another positive has been the gift of learning to accept help from neighbors and friends. “I can be one of those people who like to give a whole lot but not receive, but now I’ve been able to receive,” she said. “I needed the help, needed it in a way I had never needed it before.”

And finally, she’s come to appreciate a third precious gift from having a newborn in this unusual year: the gift of slowing down and truly appreciating her blessings.

“I’m not taking family and friends for granted, and sometimes you don’t think about those things when you’re running around. And with Kareem getting sick, I appreciate my husband all the more, appreciate the partnership we have.

“I continue to learn how to be wife, mom, pastor and just Tiffany.”

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