KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 12 — For one group of Malaysians, navigating the Covid-19 pandemic has proven to be doubly challenging.
New mothers already have to deal with how to take care of their newborn baby but with the pandemic, there is a whole new level of anxiety and fear thrown into the mix.
For Nabila Hishamuddin, a 26-year-old customer support associate with a business messaging platform and mother of an 11-month-old baby, the average day involves juggling working from home (and all the challenges that brings) and taking care of a newborn baby.
“It does take a toll on me because I’m the type of person who needs human interaction or I’ll slowly spiral into depression.
“I miss going out to refresh or destress before coming home to continue doing the best for my partner and baby,” she said.
She added that her husband who works as a senior associate at an investment bank is having to deal with similar issues.
“It’s even more difficult in this pandemic because he is as tired as I am, and I can’t allow my baby’s grandparents or a babysitter to take care of my kid as it is risky,” she said, noting that her mother lives just five minutes away. But it may as well be in another city.
New mothers have fewer choices when it comes to getting the help most desperately need, be it from their extended family or a traditional confinement lady.
If you don’t live in the same household, the standard operating procedure is you do not “mix” with each other so dropping off your newborn baby at your mother’s or the in-law’s is not available now.
As for a confinement lady or a helper, new parents may take the risk if they are fully vaccinated but even then letting a stranger into your home after more than a year of being told to keep your distance from strangers takes additional getting used to.
Paediatrician Datuk Dr Musa Nordin said that living in isolation will have detrimental effects on both mother and child psychologically speaking, as the immediate postpartum period is a challenging one as some women will experience postpartum blues.
“Lack of help can easily make them (mothers) feel overwhelmed, tired, burnt out and inadequate to care for their newborn baby.
“These feelings can easily trigger postpartum depression and if left untreated, it could lead to reduced bonding, child abuse among older kids and even more dangerous consequences such as infanticide,” he said, adding that he has seen an increase in postpartum depression among mothers since the pandemic began.
Having a good support system is one point Dr Musa emphasised on, saying that talking to your husband or partner about your feelings and worries and utilising all possible resources to connect with friends and family will have a positive impact.
Harlina Ramli, 28, said she feels anxious all the time caring for her 47-day-old newborn in the pandemic.
“Certainly no parent asked for this type of challenge, and it’s likely that you have many questions and concerns. Will my baby get the virus? How can I keep my baby safe during this time?” she said.
Harlina, who is currently on maternity leave from her job as a content moderator at tech company Bytedance, said her husband, a content review analyst with Google, has been her only on-site support system.
“Thankfully I have the best support system… I can’t thank him enough for never commenting on my mood swings.
“Some days are hard, and some nights we don’t get much sleep between the diaper changes and feedings. Some days I don’t get a shower and I walk around for hours with dried milk and spit-up all over me,” she said.
That anxiety about your child’s safety does not just affect new mothers either.
Natasha Marie Westwood, who works as a front office receptionist with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), said the safety of her two young children is always top of her mind.
She keeps her two children, aged five and one, at home as much as possible but adds that this limited contact with the outside world has taken a toll on her.
“The pandemic has brought on anxiety because of the constant fear that something could compromise my children’s health,” she explained.
Though living in isolation is tough, Natasha is thankful for the reach technology gives us today.
This has allowed her to draw support from her family, even though they are pretty spread out, with two out of her four siblings currently living overseas, and her parents in Penang.
“I still get support from family and friends though not physically in person. Still, with everything that is happening, I’m thankful that the technology we have today allows us the comfort of at least seeing them via video calls,” she said.
All three mothers agree the pandemic has taught them how to take extra precautions in everything they do, from equipping themselves with knowledge, getting vaccinated, and ensuring that they have no visitors at home to infect them and their children.
“A sanitation pack (wipes, sanitiser spray and gel) is always a must, everything, everyone and everywhere must and will have to be pre-sanitised before encountering the baby, be it family or friends, baby toys or equipment,” said Natasha.
“And if you are sick, you don’t get to see the baby physically… only virtually,” said Nabila.
Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood, executive director at Sunway Centre for Planetary Health at Sunway University, agreed that technology has afforded mothers some good communication tools to help keep away postpartum blues.
“They don’t replace human interaction and touch, but having meals together with extended families virtually, regular chats and other interactions can help.
“Everyone must increase their self-awareness. What are the limits we can tolerate with stress, identify the triggers that can lead to any form of mental or emotional breakdown and build a circle of support you can turn to,” she said.
Dr Jemilah, who is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, also said that the best way to help these mothers get over their fear of Covid-19 is to get vaccinated.
“Most importantly pregnant women need to be vaccinated. This protects her and her child from severe illness. It’s crucial as pregnancy is a state of reduced immunity so gravid women are at a higher risk,” she said.
“When the baby is born, make time for yourself too and ensure there is support to help you with the newborn and your own daily chores,” she said.
Dr Musa also stressed on the importance of identifying trigger points and symptoms of postpartum blues.
“Call support groups like Befrienders if the need arises, earlier rather than later.
“Or talk to your ob-gyn so he or she can decide if you need to see a psychiatrist and whether you need to be started on any medication to relieve anxiety or gentle sedatives to help with sleep,” he said.