Last April, John Smith and Jolene Brink were a young Missoula couple navigating a high-risk birth in the opening days of an international pandemic. Their lives have significantly changed since then. Now the two are left pondering family life in a post-pandemic world.
Leo Marlay Smith had his first birthday late last month, celebrating with grandparents over FaceTime. It's said that a first birthday party is less for the baby and more for the recognition of significant milestones: survival, growth and change.
Leo’s family is now intimately familiar with all of those markers.
"Leading up to Leo's birthday, we were pretty sure it was going to be an emotional and sad day," said John Smith, Leo's dad.
"But when it actually came around, it was really hard to feel that way because here he is in front of us, and he's giggling and playing, and we just had a whole day to be present in what’s going on right now instead of the way it was a year ago."
Smith’s son was born March 26th, 2020. Leo arrived almost two months early after John’s wife, Jolene Brink, suffered a significant pregnancy complication.
He weighed just over 3 pounds.
"He has a diaper from the NICU — he was a micro preemie — that's the size of a little cocktail napkin," said Brink. "And now it would fit on his foot."
Leo’s nerve-racking birth directly coincided with the initial worldwide spread of the novel coronavirus. John and Jolene witnessed the hospital rapidly pivot to stringent COVID-19 precautions — it was all so new and scary back then. To top it off, a magnitude 6.5 earthquake was simultaneously rattling the region.
At the time, it all felt very powerless on different levels for John.
"We’ve been wrestling somewhat with the feeling of having a lot less control over the world than we thought."
Just days after that interview, their lives became even more chaotic. Jolene joined the ranks of millions of fellow Americans who were losing their jobs to the COVID economic crash.
Baby Leo, meanwhile, spent six weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit. The family laid low, and stuck close to home after he was released in May.
John’s parents came to visit their grandson for the very first time later that summer.
"It was the first time any of our family had gotten to hold this little baby," Jolene said. "The whole time they were visiting we just kept looking at each other and were like, 'We kind of just want to go home.'"
"Home" was an 18-hour drive back to Minnesota. Missoula’s white-hot real estate market enabled them to sell their westside house within three days.
"And then we packed up and drove two days across the country with a four-month-old and a big cat and a U-Haul with my parents," Jolene said. "It happened pretty fast."
They were bound for Two Harbors, Minnesota, just north of Duluth on the shore of Lake Superior.
John, who now works for a Minneapolis-based tech firm, says they’re slowly regaining that sense of control that rapidly slipped between their fingers just 12 months ago. They have " more certainty; more familiarity with what it means to be in a pandemic and how in a public health emergency like this; and more certainty as parents and more comfort in our ability to take care of Leo, having him home."
Jolene has been reflecting on the past year as well.
"You know, when it hasn't been a lonely year, it's been incredibly peaceful."
Her layoff and the COVID lockdowns — paired with John’s salary that covered the whole family — provided Jolene the opportunity to stay home full time with their baby.
"I feel like the idea of being powerless, I think it just kind of turned into this quiet settling of routine and safety and caring for each other at home."
Now Jolene is grappling with the realization that, as the world slowly opens back up, she and John will need to recalibrate those carefully constructed routines. They will need to unlearn the parenting lessons taught by a global pandemic.
"One way to describe it is, my parents, both my grandparents all received their vaccines a couple of weeks ago," she said. "It was the first time where they could conceivably come over."
The change is reframing parenting for Jolene.
"The idea of that door opening, kind of like the world knocking a little bit louder and asking to be let in, in a way that we had never felt as parents: That, for me, was a big shift in needing to learn how to share our experience as parents outside of the house where it’s just the two of us."
John and Jolene are tip-toeing across those little milestones that other families, under more normal circumstances, may have already experienced.
As they contemplate life in a post-pandemic world, the couple is simultaneously trying to avoid being overly protective of the happy, healthy, growing baby Leo has become. It's a journey marked by small steps, steps like the recent hire of the first non-family babysitter.
Yes, the couple concedes, it is a small step. But give them time — they’re catching up.