In this personal essay Cleo Hanaway-Oakley reflects on being pregnant during the pandemic and the importance of ultrasound scan imagery.
Edit: as of the 3rd of August (after this post was written), you may attend your scan with a support person.
Lockdown life is sated with audio-visual encounters. My brain brims with an ever-ballooning lexicon of video conferencing vocab – Skype, Teams, Hangouts, BlueJeans, Zoom – and my eyes and ears ache from the near-constant barrage of images and sounds that emanate from my computer screen. There is a certain pleasure in this overstimulation: the gratification of immediate connection with distant friends and colleagues. I have never been so socially promiscuous, ‘meeting’ friends in Italy one minute, Dublin the next, and watching American drag shows from the comfort of my UK-based bed. But there is one person I’m desperate to connect with – my unborn child. I want to Zoom with the baby in my womb.
I discovered I was pregnant back in March. A few days before the positive test, my husband and I agreed to put our baby-making plans on hold. Lockdown had just been announced and the severity of the pandemic was apparent; it seemed foolish to risk pregnancy in the current climate. It was an emotionally tumultuous decision as we’d been trying to conceive for a couple of years and had suffered the sorrow of two missed miscarriages the previous year. But, as fortune had it, at the time of our tearful conversation I was already pregnant. Due to my previous losses, I had been promised an early ‘viability’ scan in the event of a positive pregnancy test. Now, with COVID on the rise and hospitals battening down their hatches, this offer looked unlikely to be fulfilled.
Grainy monochrome images of foetuses in utero are now ubiquitous. It’s hard to scroll through Facebook or Instagram without coming across one. These ultrasound images serve as visual proof of pregnancy and give us an insight into the contents of our opaque bodies. They allow parents-to-be to feel connected to their offspring prior to their arrival in the world. Last year, a pilot study affirmed that offering parents-to-be opportunities to engage with their baby via ultrasound – especially through 3/4D scans – increases attachment and reduces stress (Pulliainen et. al., 2019). With my first (viable) pregnancy, I certainly found this to be true. I participated in a baby growth research study, so I had a multitude of extra scans. My mother joked that my baby was photographed more than Princess Diana. Having already experienced one miscarriage, I found great comfort in the regular catch-ups with my baby; it was reassuring to see my daughter developing inside my uterus.
Given the ubiquity and power of baby scans, it is hard to imagine life without them. But ultrasound imaging was not used during pregnancy until the late 1950s, and it did not become a routine part of maternity care until the late 1970s (Campbell, 2013). X-rays were sometimes used in the 1910s and 1920s; they were phased out in the 1940s due to risks to the foetus (Benson and Doubilet, 2014). Without access to scans, the first encounter pregnant people have with their unborn baby is the small movements, known as ‘quickening’, which are usually felt from around 16-20 weeks gestation. Quickening is a private encounter; we cannot directly share it with our friends and family, we can’t post it on social media. And, for me at least, quickening is difficult to distinguish from bowel gas or the multitude of other sensations one gets used to feeling during pregnancy. I find it hard to perceive it as proof in the same way as a scan. Sight has long been privileged in the hierarchy of the senses; like many of us, I have been conditioned to accept visual images as reliable testimony more readily that feelings.
The desire to see and connect with one’s unborn baby is strong. This longing is beautifully captured by Sylvia Plath in her 1960 poem, ‘You’re’, when she describes her unborn baby as ‘Vague as fog and looked for like mail’. Mothers want to communicate with their babies. We want to be pen pals. We want to view clear, regular fogless images of our unborn children. We want to Facetime with our foetuses. If I can Skype with my friends all over the world at the touch of a button, why can’t I videocall the baby located inside me? The current omnipresence of communication technologies makes it even harder to accept the impossibility of regular meet-ups with my growing babe. Yet the reason behind this surge in video comms. (COVID-19) means that pregnancy scans, and other maternity care appointments, are being delayed, cancelled, or greatly curtailed.
I have been lucky. I did get to have a viability scan at 7 weeks, and it showed that all was well. Whilst my ‘baby’ was, at that point, little more than a white tadpole-shaped splodge, I was delighted – and rather nervous – to meet them, to witness their existence as a bundle of growing cells. Since then I’ve had two further scans, at twelve and twenty weeks. My twelve-week scan was somewhat unsatisfying. My baby was stock-still in a kneeling position. I was hoping to see them move, to watch my foetus frolic freely around my womb. But they would not budge. The gap between twelve and twenty weeks seemed huge, compounded, no doubt, by the slow-moving monotony of lockdown life. I longed for a window into my womb, for the chance to video-chat whenever I wanted. My twenty-week scan was more gratifying. I saw my baby dance around in real time. But for each of these scans I was alone.
Current COVID precautions forbid partners or friends from attending ultrasound appointments. My husband has seen the photos. I was given free printouts of the black and white images and they are now proudly displayed on our fridge door. But it’s not the same as being there. A study from 2002 stressed the particular importance of scans for fathers’ attachment to their unborn babies (Draper, 2002). One of the study’s participants said that the scan was ‘the first time that it really crystallised into anything’, whilst another loved ‘seeing the little legs waving about’ – ‘it was real close’ a ‘real good show’ and it did ‘make the reality of it so much more obvious’ (Draper, 2002). Being present at scans is also of great significance for parents who have taken the surrogacy route. In the recent channel 4 documentary ‘Our Baby: A Modern Miracle’, which follows a transgender couple’s journey to parenthood, mother-to-be Hannah Graf expresses her worries about not having a biological connection to her child and states that scans are her ‘small opportunity to really be with [her] baby’.
Key friends and family are missing out on the ‘show’. The father of my child was unable to be there with me, unable to view the baby ballet taking place inside my uterus. He couldn’t observe the real-time dramatic display. Somewhat ironically, video calling is banned inside hospital scanning rooms. There were signs in the waiting room stating that the use of Facetime, Zoom, and Skype is not permitted. I’m sure there are very good reasons for this. But it does mean that fathers, and other important individuals, are losing the opportunity to experience the all-important live element of ultrasound scans. And I worry about how this lack of real-time connection will affect paternal bonding. Will the fathers of lockdown babies be less-securely attached to their children? I hope not.
Dr Cleo Hanaway-Oakley is Lecturer in Liberal Arts and English at the University of Bristol. Her academic work, and personal essays, explore ideas of embodiment and subjectivity through considering the interrelations and intersections between literature, culture (especially film), philosophy, medicine, and science. She is on Twitter @CleoHanaway