Pandemic, Pregnancy and Popsicles! Capturing Stories and Promoting Compassion
The Pandemic Pregnancy Project was born after playwright and actor N’Jameh Russell-Camara heard an anecdote from a pregnant woman about pandemic babies being developmentally advanced compared to other babies. According to this mom, there was a theory being bandied around social media that speculated that because women were able to work from home during the pandemic, they endured “less stressful pregnancies,” and that the relative advances of their children could be correlated to moms experiencing less stress. That did not square with Russell-Camara's personal experience of being pregnant during the pandemic.
“That was a very blanket statement, and it stuck with me. I did have the privilege to work from home, and I was not less stressed. At that point, there was no vaccine. There was not enough data on COVID and pregnant mothers. We were still washing our groceries with disinfectant.”
Russell-Camara was galvanized by her own harrowing experience of passing out while pregnant and then spending hours in the ER “in the exact place we didn’t want to end up” at the height of the pandemic. Surrounded by COVID, and many of the unknowns related to it and how it might affect her unborn child, she found herself forced to confront additional layers of challenge in bringing her child into the world. She knew that she wasn’t alone in this.
“I thought to myself: why don’t we collect stories, and hear what people actually went through?”
Under the umbrella of the Pandemic Pregnancy Project is “Pandemic, Pregnancies and Popsicles!” an initiative where Russell-Camara and her partners collect stories in Milwaukee and around the country from people who experienced pregnancy and birth during the pandemic, shared with “a twist of something sweet.” The organization put out calls through Milwaukee newspapers, radio stations, TV stations, and magazines to solicit stories that they would then archive and adapt into short monologues. With each subject, Russell-Camara and her team gathered virtually to have a conversation about the person’s experience. The conversations included a ritual of eating a sweet treat together over Zoom. The act of “sharing something sweet, together” like a popsicle, was a way to promote the conversation unfolding with more space for genuine connection between the subjects and the interviewers.
“We wanted authenticity. There’s beauty in a stranger sharing their vulnerability with a person they don’t know. Realizing they have everything to gain, nothing to lose.”
Russell-Camara hopes that the “Pandemic, Pregnancy and Popsicles!” project will do more than amplify women’s experiences of bringing children into the world during this time. Through the act of gathering the stories from about twenty women, she hopes to promote “authentic connection, bravery, and freedom.” With sensitivity to this, the subjects, most of whom are Millennial women from Milwaukee, have all been kept anonymous.
“There is the ability to be even more brave when you know that no one is going to attach any demographics to you.” And she believes that listeners may also be able to more readily see themselves within the experiences of others when those experiences are divorced from specific identities.
Within the stories, she sees a thread of resiliency that extends beyond the conditions of this dramatic time and even the experience of pregnancy itself. Each monologue reflects a moment of “surrender, grace, or even humor.”
“We are interested in giving the listener a breath. Some light to walk into to inspire resiliency. We hear traumatic stories of how the pandemic has affected us. We’ve become exhausted by it. Some people, I dare say, have become numb to it.”
In the same way that pregnancy is a universal yet simultaneously deeply personal experience, so are our experiences of living through this time. Russell-Camara hopes that memorializing these narratives will open up avenues of empathy between people. She sees value in gathering qualitative portraits of people’s experiences rather than just reflecting data about what they’ve endured.
“Statistics are good when you are trying to create policy, but there’s something missing there. When you archive and make history of the pure story, we’re able to see individuals again. When you get to see people, you think: that could be my neighbor, my sister, or, that’s me.”
Russell-Camara is now in talks with potential partners as she considers how the work might be performed and shared more widely, including a local radio station and a mental health group. In her mind, a documentary film would be the “ultimate archive and performance” of this work.
I asked her if she thought that parents from this time will be equipped with any special wisdom to impart on their children.
“I think their wisdom may touch upon surrender. I know surrender is not new to pregnancy, but when you add a pandemic on top of that and you’re not able to see your OB-GYN in-person ever, or not feel what it feels like for people to see you pregnant, your body changing and to acknowledge that with you. Or not having enough data about a vaccine that you’re taking. There’s so much that’s out of your hands.”
Ultimately, the “Pandemic, Pregnancy and Popsicles!” project is an exercise in sharing and generating compassion.
“I’m interested in shamelessly building empathy with this work. I know a lot of playwrights who are interested in just showing humanity. In this project, we are showing humanity, and the next step is also building resiliency, joy, understanding. Because without that, humanity doesn’t go on.”
You can listen to the collected stories at pandemicpreganancyproject.com.