People & Culture

Placing the Pandemic in Perspective: Mothering in isolation

When my son was born, my world shrank to the size of an island

Writer Emma Yardley with her son and husband at Beddis Beach, one of their favourite spots on Salt Spring Island, B.C. (Photo: Hannah Spray Photography)
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Placing the Pandemic in Perspective is a multimedia project to collect and share how Canadians’ experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic were — and continue to be — shaped by place. Visit the project website to read more stories and add your own. 

“You’re probably safer in your car than you are in here.” That wasn’t something I’d ever imagined hearing from a neonatal nurse. It was March 2020, and I’d just given birth. After four tough nights at Victoria General Hospital, my husband and I were hoping to rest a bit longer before the two-hour trip home to Salt Spring Island. But our world — everyone’s, in fact — was changing hourly. When we’d arrived, nobody was masked; now, looking around, hospital staff wore head-to-toe PPE. We scooped up our newborn and scrambled for the exit.

As we waited at the ferry terminal, our Facebook feeds and inboxes were flooded with news from our
small island home. Bleach, baby formula and toilet paper were sold out. Midwives were no longer doing in-person appointments. No one knew if the ferries would even keep running.
It wasn’t the new-parent home-coming we’d anticipated.

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I’m originally from Salt Spring, but left after high school to find a life “off the rock.” I landed in Toronto and worked for various Canadian media outlets, eventually moving into freelance travel writing. When my husband and I decided to start a family, it felt right to settle on Salt Spring, where we could have the support of my parents and childhood friends. In 2014, we moved into my granny’s old seaside cottage, with its crumbling roof and 100-year-old apple trees. But within months, my dad died of prostate cancer; two years later, my mum died of a brain tumour. I focused on my career, taking assignments that sent me across six continents, far from Salt Spring and the hard memories its shores now held.

In 2019, while on assignment in Portugal, I discovered I was finally pregnant. I envisioned showing this baby the world while I wrote about it. But when he arrived, everything shut down, and we were stuck. No grandparents, no visitors, no flights; just the three of us in an old cottage on a tiny island.

In that first week, after a tearful call to the public health office, a very kind nurse (and high-school acquaintance) came and did a breastfeeding check through our bedroom window — and left us a Mason jar of her own bleach so we could clean everything coming into the house. But breastfeeding soon became unbearable, and my son stopped gaining weight. I made panicked calls to my best friend’s mum, a retired midwife, who lent us her baby scale to track our newborn’s growth. My husband bulk-ordered formula online. I had wanted my childhood village to help raise this child but, overwhelmed by fear, the three of us barely left the house for months. 

I felt so disconnected from our community, which was bitterly divided over pandemic measures. When my husband returned to full-time work outside the home in 2021, my isolation intensified. Persistent intrusive thoughts about harm coming to my baby led to a diagnosis of postpartum anxiety and, later, post-traumatic stress disorder. Thankfully, with a timely referral to the Pacific Post Partum Support Society, my outlook slowly shifted.

I downloaded a map of island hiking trails and ocean access points and committed to taking my baby to a new one every morning. If we couldn’t see the wider world, we’d discover more of this tiny one together. We spent sunny hours collecting oyster shells and surprising crabs, and rainy ones on soggy forest paths finding mushrooms. These outings reminded me that life contained more than fear and our four walls. I began weekly stroller walks with a few friends through the wildflower-filled sheep fields of Ruckle Provincial Park, the oldest working farm on the Gulf Islands. (My son’s first word was “dandelion.”)

I cried with relief when I got my first vaccine, and again when my aunt visited and could finally hug her great-nephew for the first time. This past summer, they grew potatoes together.

Now, my son happily masks up indoors and trots off to daycare a couple of days a week. The ferries are still running (most days), and we have plenty of bleach. We’re even planning our first pandemic-era trip to the U.K. this summer — and I might even write about it.

If things go according to plan.

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This story is from the March/April 2023 Issue

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