Two Year Later, Pandemic made us the Parents who we are

Pandemic Parents Bivek Tamang & Sangmu ThendupBivek, Sangmu & Semchu

Fathers’ too undergo serious emotional pain and experience tremendous nervousness. That was the time I truly realized that it’s not easy to become a father. I was looking for a support or even a distraction but none came to my rescue. To make matter worse there was a big television screen with flashing reports on increasing number of positive cases in India.

Everything was set; bags and a trolley were packed on Friday the 13th of March, 2020. The day was not bad by any standard of Gangtok at around 8 in the morning. We stepped out of our rented apartment after offering a final prayer to the Almighty. We were doubly excited (and not to lie the persistent apprehensions running down our neck) about our first chopper flight from Gangtok (Sikkim, India) to Siliguri (West Bengal, India) and the big one being parents for the very first time in life in just a few days time. After a drive of 40 minutes we reached the helipad well before the reporting time. A few minutes later; against the background of engulfing fog appeared a smart and well dressed lady staff to inform us very briefly that they are taking stock of the weather and most likely our flight could be delayed by an hour or two. But within the next 30 minutes or so even lay persons like us on weather forecast knew that we would not be flying. Soon, I found myself running towards the counter for a refund or a next possible date. I was eager to get a date for the next day i.e. Saturday. Our co-passenger for the day, an old lady who looked unwell, later came to know that they were travelling for her treatment was keen with eyes full of wrinkles to tell me not to take the flight on Saturday; as in our parts of the world the belief is not to travel on Saturdays for any important assignment at hand. Right throughout her (our) pregnancy we had consciously adopted a zero risk policy. This policy only made us to take a chopper (as the highway leading to Siliguri from Gangtok was too bumpy) in lieu of road and then we took a chopper on 16th March, 2020 the MONDAY, a bright and sunny day and not on Saturday.

We landed in Siliguri on a nice sunny and pleasant day in Bagdogra Airport with my father-in-law waiting for our arrival. We enjoyed the sunny weather away from the cold of Gangtok as we drove away from the airport. As planned, we settled in our sister-in-law’s apartment. From next day onwards we continued with our gynecologist (Sangmu’s school friend) in Neotia Hospital located very close to our apartment. In our next consultation we decided for a C-section on 26.03.2020. We left her chamber all smiling and looking forward for the 26th March.

Announcement of Janata Curfew by the Prime Minister Modi

The covid thing was beginning to appear in India but let’s be honest none was serious at all about it. Our Prime Minister announced a ‘Janata Curfew’ would be placed on March 22nd from 7 am to 9 pm. Very little did we know that this would be our ‘new normal’. As planned I had to bring my mother to join us during & post delivery. Given the announcement I found myself  with not much time, hence,  drove to Kalimpong on 21st March and started next day from Kalimpong at 4 in the morning and reached Siliguri at 6:30 am i.e. well within the 7 am mark. I spent most part of the day sleeping. I am not a morning person at all. So all I remember about the ‘Janata Curfew’ is the bells ringing, beating of plates etc as it was loud enough to break my evening sleep. It turned out into quite a big rally with people sloganeering “go  corona…go”, beating and ringing whatever they could hold on to….. all across India after 7 pm.

First Loud cry 26th March 2020

By now the covid cases were beginning to pick up in India. Covid protocols were in placed and particularly in the health centers. The day arrived and after taking a good breakfast I very cautiously drove her to Neotia. Yes we were nervous. Nonetheless, we completed the formalities got admitted around 9:30 am. The time arrived I could see the nervousness in her eyes as she kept reading the holy book of Goddess Tara. I tried my best to motivate her but guess that did not work well as I saw no improvement in her facial expressions which by now had evidently shifted from nervousness to fearfulness. Alas! She was taken inside and I was told to wait outside and due to covid protocols no family members were allowed to accompany me. I found myself all alone and perhaps the security personnel knew that I was getting too uneasy. He walked up to me and lifting his hands said very casually “Sir take it easy, all will be fine…so many people like you come and go from here”. All I did was nodded my head. Fathers’ too undergo serious emotional pain and experience tremendous nervousness. That was the time I truly realized that it’s not easy to become a father. I was looking for a support or even a distraction but none came to my rescue. To make matter worse there was a big television screen with flashing reports on increasing number of positive cases in India. And the screen was mounted right in front of me. I just could not escape the report. By then we had only one or two cases reported in Siliguri. Still a big flashing screen with covid reports; was not the support or distraction that suits would be father in that almost breakdown moment. Given my nervousness I must have sat there for an hour. The same security personnel arrived with a smile and said “Sir, now you can go inside”. As I entered I was given a grayish colour gown to wear and as I pushed another door on my right…the Pediatric and his two assistant came carrying a pretty huge baby and said “congratulations…we got a baby girl”. I replied “Thank you Doctor but how both are?” Before he could reply the newborn cried really loud. I felt her cry was not out of nervousness but more of… a kind of demanding one. Trust me it was loud by any yardstick!!! Felt like she would be really fearless………and nursing her won’t be an easy job. In the midst of all these the Doctor turned away and replied both are fine. I returned back to the waiting room with a big relief and with teary eyes. As I tried calling my mother I found the same personnel even with a bigger smile saying “I told you….all will be fine”. A clear, confident and conscious yes came out of my mouth. I met my family members downstairs…..seeing them so happy lifted my confidence thousand times. True “in time of test, family is best”. We shared sweets and the meeting was brief as I had to return back to the same waiting room. The phone rang, the personnel answered and instructed me, by then he was acting like my senior, to visit the nursery downstairs to see the newborn. I entered the nursery and saw my baby sucking a pacifier with a real intent, eyes closed. I move in nervously to see her face closely. She looked like a typical Sherpa face (no stereotyping here) and looked super healthy. I called her “baby…your Appa (father) is here”. She immediately opened her eyes and began sucking harder. My immediate reaction was requesting the nurse to feed her as felt she must be exceedingly hungry. The nurse replied “do not worry Sir….we will handle…your time is over”. I without knowing what to say next….guess left the room. I got to be honest here. There is not much emotion or bond that (I) a new father feel when he sees his newborn for the very first time. At least I didn’t feel that strong captivating emotion. Because the whole time you are constantly thinking about the mother who is must be recovering from a major surgery and whom you have not seen till now. Finally, they called me to see Sangmu. I moved close to her and saw her blank face and half opened eyes. But she looked okay and recovering well from a strong effect of anesthesia. I whispered “hey Champ…we did it…from a single sesame sized cell to a full grown 3.8 kgs of baby…and she looks super healthy”. Guess she could barely see my face… she must have tried hard to give me a full smile…but the smile was small and short, still, enough to indicate that her happiness knew no limits. I eagerly narrated my first meeting with our baby. Before I left… I felt… my father must have undergone similar emotional upheaval and my mother too must have experienced the same what Sangmu is experiencing right now… perhaps some 37 years ago. Life truly is a cycle.

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Exit from Neotia:

Doctor Sanjukta told me in a very professional manner “see Bivek…you got to move out from here at the earliest. I will make sure the discharge is done within next 48 hours. Hospitals have become very unsafe for the newborns. Home is the only safest place as of now.” I clearly understood the underlying cause. So I had to prepare for the exit accordingly. Suddenly, an unprecedented journey for completely unprepared first time parents had just begun. Still, there was no scope for me to lose my senses. I wanted to make a safe exit particularly for our baby. I approached the authority, wobbled from one door to another…looking for a safe back door exit. I tried hard to make them understand the logic of avoiding crowd and public lifts. But that did not work at all. So we hurriedly got dressed, cleared the bills and reached Nursery to take our new born to the apartment. I was in no mood to converse with anyone as I had become like a bull caught in a storm just looking for an early exit. The staffs at the nursery were happy to allow us to collect the baby as they frankly narrated how loudly the baby cries and have been giving them a good run for their money as all other babies would lose their sleep and start crying due to her loudest cry. Still they perform their duties with utmost dedication and care. We ended up looking at each other…smiling…little did we know that our turn was coming for countless sleepless nights.  

Jolting between travel date to Kalimpong home and performing Nauran*:

So we got her to the apartment. Needless to say all excited to see the baby. We had to place the restrictions on visiting the baby as many of our folks from Kalimpong, Kurseong, and Gangtok wanted to visit us. Home protocols were placed & zero-risk policy got extended post delivery too. By then the pandemic had build up with positive reports in the Darjeeling hills and plains. We had very inadequate information regarding protocols & permissions for travelling. Institutional quarantines were made mandatory for anybody returning back to their homes/community. Imagine being placed in an institutional quarantine with a new born that was unimaginable with just a firsthand experience of nursing a newborn for few days. We had to put up a brave face and tell our folks that we are having a very small and closed Nauran in the apartment. I generally make Sangmu do such uncomfortable tasks. But here I had to step in as Sangmu was still in her recovery phase and 100% occupied with the baby. Making first couple of calls was the most difficult. Not inviting your own folks for Nauran is something which is unheard (if not a taboo) in our community. But I picked up confidence with every call. I was able to answer more readily to some of the hard questions on not inviting. The pandemic was beginning to puncture our cultural practices too. So on 1st April we got a monk from Kadamtala Gumpa and performed a small closed door Nauran.

*Nauran is a ritual observed mostly by the Hindus and Buddhist in which the priest/monks purifies the baby including the family members and all blood relations attending to purify themselves and to bless the newborn.

Finally back home:

My major job during the day was to collect information regarding our return to our home in Kalimpong. The rising cases of covid and the heat were making our life really difficult in Siliguri. Our travel got a major setback when the first covid death in the region was reported. It was a case in Kalimpong. Only after that people starting taking covid seriously. Nonetheless, we had to return home. Rumors started flowing in about people with a history of hospital discharge or travel history being directly taken to institutional quarantine centers. We all had almost given up hope as we were scared of being taken to quarantine center on our way back to Kalimpong. GTA (a local administration) helpline provided me the exact information regarding travel protocols in line with protocols from the Ministry of Home Affairs, Govt. of India. Family members could not believe me when I informed them around 10 am to pack up as we were heading home that afternoon. We had delayed our travel for more than a week because of the lack of correct information and the fear and apprehensions of being sent to quarantine centers with a few weeks old baby. During this first wave of covid-19 keeping the newborn safely at home was a biggest challenge for parents…and travelling with a newborn was almost unthinkable for most. Around 5:30 at dusk we entered our home. Needless to say it was a massive relief!!! After all, home is home.

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Things were beginning to settle; given the comfort and ease of your own home and own space. Govt. provided the slim window period for workers to return back to their native place. We had few returnees in our locality too. All returnees mandatorily had to follow institutional quarantine or community based quarantine (arranged by the locals in an isolated space whenever there was a lack of institutional quarantine infrastructure). Our Samaj (A society or organization) had two options either to go for a make shift quarantine space in a far away inhabited place or use a readymade school infrastructure. The ultimate decision was thrown at me. If I were to express my reservation regarding the school infrastructure located just about 10 yards below my premise then the returnees had to quarantine in a faraway place with immense logistic difficulties and lack of amenities. I had to take a call as a father and as a community member. I discussed with Sangmu and decided to offer ‘no objection’ for using the school premise. The returnees were from Pune (notified as Red Zone). As parents we were aware of the consequences of the decision. We decided to shift our 6 weeks old baby to Kurseong (my in law’s place) from Kalimpong. Within two hours we found ourselves all packed and leaving for Kurseong. We did not speak much along the way; but there was a sense of satisfaction in the decision though we were completely unaware about how the Samaj there at (Kurseong) would react to our arrival. Those days entry to any locality were often not easily permitted, were highly monitored, barricades were placed and locals were vigilant about any new entry from outside. Sangmu’s father had communicated the locals about our stay on self quarantine mode (all locked up inside in Kalimpong) and that we would continue on quarantine mode in Kurseong…this made our entry possible.

Rice feeding ceremony & Semchu’s first Birthday:

Semchu was turning six months soon on 26th September 2020. She had been completely inside the house except for her occasional balcony visits and her vaccine outings to the doctor’s chamber which was often accompanied with loud bouts of crying and howling. That’s how we had been keeping her in a cocoon, just to keep her safe from the virus. Even taking her out for vaccine shots was one big risk. We had literally gone paranoid. Whenever I held her as the Doctor advanced to administer the shot…my eyes would be on his mask and whether he had sanitized his hands or not. I would wonder if the Doctor himself was carrying the virus. Questions and apprehensions constantly poked my conscience. All parents must have been in dilemma when it came to vaccines and doctors visit during those initial days of the pandemic.  The Pandemic not only made us realize how helpless  parents can get but also…that parents at times have  to keep flowing like waters…deal with whatever is thrown at you, privately and with a hope that your kid(s) will be fine.

Multitasking

Like Nauran…for the rice feeding ceremony (on 2nd Oct, 2021 or the Gandhi Jayanti) also we did not invite anyone and it was a small ritual performed. As parents our only concern was to keep her safe. And the only way to do that was not to expose her to the outside world and people.  In the process we too were almost completely inside the house. By the end of the first wave the covid fatigue was creeping in; parenting pressure, WFH load, tiring Work At Home (WAH), sleepless nights, with fading social contacts…life was far from normal and easy. But the joy of seeing Semchu safe and turning 1 year old was overwhelming and worth the effort. Pandemic had dipped considerably close to her first Birthday. We had a debate regarding the scale of her birthday celebration. I was not in favour of any gathering but Sangmu and my sister insisted on inviting very few close relatives since their opportunity of meeting Semchu was long overdue. Over their strong persistence, ultimately I had to give in and we decided to hold a small gathering to mark her first birthday. Semchu was looking very cute and colourful. Her eyes, face and body language appeared all fascinated by the decoration we had made. She looked around, ever inquisitive and must have felt that there is life beyond in-house covid restrictions too. Including us they were about 20 people who had gathered to see Semchu for the first time and to spend some time with her. With all relatives gathered around we could see that inquisitiveness in her eyes fading away, her face wasn’t as expressive as before, she was holding on to her mother very tightly. As Sangmu brought her to the gathering for cutting her birthday cake she had covered her eyes entirely with her little hands. Soon all started singing for her…and she started crying. I had to take her to her room. What Semchu was witnessing was completely new for her and perhaps intimidating too. She had never witnessed such a big gathering before, had never heard so many people speaking forget about singing. It took quite an effort to make her feel okay and safe in her own room. That birthday gathering must have given her the first shock of her life.

1st Birthday

Second Wave: the deadliest wave in India

By the month of May 2021, the second wave was on. I was back in station (Gangtok) after a long layoff beginning to find a footing at my work. Up to then Sangmu was on her Child Care Leave (CCL). Sangmu’s father health had deteriorated by the beginning of May, 2021. She called me in the evening and from her muffled and clearly stifled voice… I could make out we do not have much time. I immediately drove to Siliguri and same evening the Sikkim Govt. announced a state lockdown.  With arguments and counter arguments at the border check post, somehow I found myself on the other side of the state border. I could not sit next to Papa on his bed. He could barely open his eyes and my eyes had no space to hold my tears. We immediately got him admitted to the hospital. With Papa on the ICU bed and second wave in full swing, all of us were into high risk category. We were doubly worried for Papa; his own sickness plus the risk of getting infected with covid. His Doctor had clearly stated “we have a remote chance for the patient to survive”. Every minute he fought hard; he never looked like he was giving up. Miraculously, he survived and got discharged in 21 days without getting infected with covid ( covid NEGATIVE) even after such a long stay at the hospital. . It was a very miserable situation then. One could see an old man fighting hard for his life and I a relatively young son could do nothing. Not even go near him to comfort him, to motivate him. Every time I took a step to go close to him I wondered…what if I am carrier? What if I transmit/spread to him? Will he be able to come out of it?’ It was truly miserable for me…away from Semchu, Sangmu and mom…and here with a father who needed to be pulled back from the clutches of death. Sangmu and mom were worried about me getting infected, rightly so, as I was stuck in the hospital all throughout. Occasionally, I used to get into this zone of deep contemplation of; what if I get infected? Will Semchu become fatherless; she is just a year old?  But the conviction in me was super strong; I knew I would be safe. It’s a different story that I missed her the most in those 3 months. Finally, seeing her after 3 months was pure magical. True, children reinvent your world for you (Sarandon).

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Third Wave

With reports of 10 times faster transmissible covid variant (Omicron) than the previous variant, we knew life was not getting normal so soon. After somehow surviving the deadliest second wave where we could see reports of people dying outside the hospital due to lack of oxygen supply and plies of body left on their own in the crematoriums.; parents were confronted with the third wave with a note that this variant is likely to affect children more as they belonged to an unvaccinated group. For parents the situation was worse than a drowning man catching a straw. Ours were completely WFH. But some of my friends including breast feeding mothers had joined back to work on physical mode.

 At the end of January 2022 Sangmu and mom got the symptoms of cold, cough and fever. We waited for 3 days then Semchu too developed the symptoms. We knew that our bubble (of protected, safe and isolated life) had somehow got punctured by the variant. Semchu was getting too fussy. Sangmu was unwell and baby only wanted to be with her mother. She would be with me for few minutes but soon would cry looking for her mother. The scenario at home was just running out of hands. We ran the test. Mom got positive but the effect was very mild, somehow Sangmu was negative. We consulted the Pediatric…gave the prescribed medicines to Semchu. Luckily, all recovered well within a week. Life just was not getting normal!

The pandemic just did not permit enough time for parents to prepare and plan. The initial unknown virus completely threw us to an unknown world. Parents apart from keeping their children safe also had to educate, entertain and ‘enlighten’ kids. Poor parents had to do the role playing of teachers, entertainer, friends and relatives apart from their own WFH duty. Parents could not hug their kids while returning back to their work station given the office order of return to site/workplace. Even small cultural practices like spitting on kids hands before leaving could not be followed. All festivals or celebrations were limited to in-house members only. Kids lost that crucial opportunity to meet, eat, run around and travel celebrating festivals and family time and above all make friends and see & feel the outside world. On the flip side, parents got ample time to be with their kids, tell stories, and teach (re-teach) their mother tongue, native rhymes, tales and history. Many studies have confirmed these.

Fundamentally, kids had zero access to friends, and zero socialization. My friend called me to narrate how his two and half year old son is screaming (trying to communicate) holding on to his window grill with a neighbour’s daughter standing by her window. Both looked eager to interact and play but the pandemic just did not permit them to be friends. My friend felt bad and helpless to his core. Consciously, every parent must have tried their best to fulfill this void. But the pandemic induced stress on parents made then unable to deliver to the extent they wished or were capable of. Joggling between WFH and child care has landed parents on a road to self-discovery or self-doubts. We do question our parenting style in the name of ensuring her safety when we see our daughter’s conduct today. Did we over do the process of keeping her inside or maintaining distance?

Our two year old daughter is yet to realize that there are people other than her parents and grandparents. She is yet to act (behave) like a normal two year old kid. Initially, the lockdown babies will struggle to be normal and normalize themselves in the world outside their homes. Our next major challenge is in next 11 months time she would be in pre-school. We need to model and remodel our parenting approach and methods to support, install and encourage her to feel normal and secure in the world outside her home. With parents returning back to office; meaning spending less number of hours per day with their kid(s); parents must find new ways of parenting to help their kid(s) come out of this lockdown effect and psychological behavior. By and large, parents are left on their own. Whom do we look up to?  Confused and unassisted parents of millions children born during this pandemic (or pandemic babies or lockdown babies) world-wide.….hope we will be able to learn, re-learn, and resolve the shortcomings  to provide additional support what pandemic babies truly need and deserve.

Semchu

Last words… Still the Pandemic is far from over. Stay safe and continue to keep your kid(s) safe.

Writes – Bivek Tamang & Sangmu Thendup. Both are teacher at Sikkim University, Gangtok.


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