It takes a village to raise a child, the ancient African proverb says.
But in April of 2020, when Maye Abdo, a middle school performing arts teacher living in Sterling Heights, became a mother for the very first time, her village was in lockdown.
No moms were allowed in the hospital birthing room to whisper wise words of encouragement. Friends couldn’t drop by the house with their signature crockpot dinners. And there were no wonderfully noisy celebrations with relatives calling dibs to hold her newborn son.
“You don’t know what to expect as a new mom, but because I’m so close with my family,” Abdo says, “having them there was something I definitely looked forward to. It’s such a happy time in your life, but then we were isolated. Bonding with our first son was really beautiful, but the fear of the pandemic and the virus made it emotionally hard.”
She had spent the last month of her pregnancy constantly worried about contracting the virus, and even passing it to her unborn baby. At the time, there was little data to tell. And now, welcoming a vulnerable little one into the world meant addressing a fresh set of fears.
“I don't want to say I was psychotic,” she says today, “but after we had our son I was much more anxious, more uptight. It was scary, and I didn’t want to do anything that would harm my baby.”
Each evening, when her husband came home from work, he immediately washed up and changed clothes. Abdo nervously ventured out to the grocery store, scrubbing and sanitizing everything she purchased. Often, in the middle of the night, the new mom could be found Googling all things baby and coronavirus.
“There’s so much information out there, and it’s very overwhelming,” she says. “I came to the conclusion that I was going to find whatever I was looking to find, good or bad. I had to learn to put a limit on running to outside sources, and learn to trust myself, my own gut, and advice from people like my mom, versus the internet.”
Her mother, Susan, had quarantined prior to her grandson’s birth, and stayed with the new family for the first two weeks before returning to her full-time job. “She was the only one besides us to touch my son for three months,” Abdo says. “If people came to visit, they saw him through the screen door, or they looked through the window.”
Or they “met” him at the “Drive-by to meet Levi” event her mother threw when her son turned a month old. Instead of attending a shower, the parents sat with Levi behind a clear shower curtain as guests drove by in cars or walked along the driveway to see the new family member. Abdo laughs about it now, but those were the times, she says.
For her, and many others.
On average, over 110,000 babies are born in Michigan each year, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS)
. And in metro Detroit, an area hit hard by COVID-19, there are thousands of pandemic babies like Levi whose first-time parents have a unique set of shared experiences.
Realizing this, Abdo, at several months postpartum, reached out to new moms she knew — some old friends, some acquaintances on Instagram — to ask if they would join a virtual support group based on navigating motherhood in a super weird time.
And the village was formed.
From breastfeeding to vaccines, and all things in between
Over a year later, 18 women are engaged with the group. Throughout the day, they connect with each other on WhatsApp, FaceTime, and Snapchat. They talk about sleep training, baby-led weaning, formula, pediatricians, vaccines, and more. They swap recipes, activities, and lots of photos. Recently, a few have started to gather with their toddlers on Friday afternoons at the Chaldean Community Foundation in Sterling Heights, for a couple of hours of in-person playtime.
The women in “Mary’s New Mamas,” named after the Virgin Mary, are mostly Chaldean, and live in metro Detroit. Neither are a requirement; it’s just how it happened when one friend invited another, says Abdo. They often bring their faith into it, she says, feeling comfortable to ask for prayers, help, and advice. The group is open to anyone who’s become a first-time mom during COVID-19.
“I’ve a friend who just had her fourth kid during the pandemic, and she loved the fact that no one could visit them and they could just be alone as a family,” says Abdo. “But if you’re a first-time mom who’s learning and growing, it’s an experience that’s really hard to explain. This community of girls just gets it.”
The community shows support to one another in a lot of ways, says Tania Jarbo-Shallal of Sterling Heights. At 35, she’s the oldest mom, and her daughter Skye, at 22 months, is the oldest child. Sometimes that means encouraging a mom with a sick toddler, she says, or sharing ideas for things to do, or offering advice on something you’ve already gone through.
“In the beginning, I felt like I couldn’t seem to do anything right, but once we put the group together,” she says, “and people just talked about their day and what they were experiencing, I found out I wasn’t alone. We're all going through this, and a lot of the fear and anxieties I’ve had are very similar to others in the group.”
The pandemic babies themselves have commonalities. Jarbo-Shallal shares about the social anxiety Skye initially showed around her large extended family, who now gathers again on Sunday afternoons. Her daughter also won’t lay down to sleep at other peoples’ houses, something that’s not understood by her late-night family members. Skye’s used to her own space and her own schedule, she says, because that’s all it was for so long.
“They’re all clingy babies,” says Bianca Mansour of Rochester Hills, “because we’ve been home with them for months.” And though her son James “goes nuts” whenever she’s out of sight, she says she wouldn’t trade the unexpected one-on-one time she’s had with him for anything. Due to the pandemic, Mansour took over a year off from working and is recently, along with her husband, now employed from home.
“It was a big transition, being home for the first time in a long while,” she says. “So it was really nice to be able to talk with moms doing the same thing, that left their jobs to stay at home with their kids, or because of the pandemic were working from home and had to adjust to that.”
It also was a comfort to talk with others feeling isolated and disappointed from having missed milestones: baby showers, holiday gatherings, and regular family visits. Now that many of the kids are turning one, and some moms are pregnant again, she says, there may be new opportunities to celebrate small and safely.
The moms in the group have a lot of shared experiences, but they also have contrasting views on many topics, particularly sensitive ones, like vaccinations. There are moms who choose not to vaccinate their children at all, some who’ve been excited and comfortable to get the COVID-19 vaccine themselves, and others who are still researching and making those decisions.
“It gives me a sense of comfort, knowing that 18 girls can come together with very different opinions and be respectful,” says Jarbo-Shallal. “We live in a world where you're so afraid of offending people, and yet, the elections, the pandemic, the vaccines, all that went on and we managed to have respectful conversations every single day. That says a lot.”
It’s a really safe space to learn and grow, Abdo says, without the discouragement or insecurities that new moms can feel when they compare themselves to others. She tells how defeated she felt when Levi was 6 months old, and her family contracted a mild case of COVID-19, after they’d done so much to keep safe. Going through that experience taught her an important lesson, one she shares with others in the group.
“There are gonna be things in life that are just not in your control,” she says. “You can only control how you react to them.”
Having given birth to her second son 10 weeks ago, she’s been scrolling through past conversations to be reminded of the many ways this community of mothers has taught her.