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If a baby cries during a pandemic and no one’s around to hear it, does it still make a sound?

My son was born in August of 2020, right smack dab in the midst of Canada’s pandemic shutdown. Now, at six months old, I sometimes wonder whether my son exists.

Aside from my husband and me, he’s only been held by five people. My brothers have never touched him. He barely recognizes his grandparents because of their masks and physical distancing.

Even when I was pregnant, only my mom and my husband ever touched my expanding belly. I had always imagined pregnancy and child-rearing as a social experience. People exclaiming over my bump, offering unsolicited advice, telling me how much I was glowing. I envisioned bustling women at my baby shower building diaper towers and guessing my due date. I thought my parents would be waiting anxiously in the waiting room as I gave birth. But the baby shower never happened, and my parents had to pace around their kitchen waiting for updates instead of hearing their grandson’s first cries.

I wished I could hand my son off to a parade of family and friends when we came home from the hospital, but COVID-19 kept almost everyone away. To be honest, the calm of isolation has been a bittersweet reprieve from societal expectations. But how is it affecting my son?

Our child has spent almost all of his time with me and my husband, within the walls of our house. His future daycare sent us a questionnaire, a “get to know you” kind of thing. They asked how he interacts and plays with others. The thing is, he’s never even met another baby, let alone played with one. My next-door neighbour had her baby within weeks of ours. By now, those two should have played side by side, screamed in unison and slobbered on the same toys. Instead, we’ve held up their car seats to each other from our driveways a couple of times. The boys were too young to even see each other over the short distance.

Like any parent, my child has completely changed my life. My daily schedule revolves around him and my nights are a bleary series of crying wake-up calls. This little boy occupies so much space in my life, and yet he remains a stranger to almost all the people I hold dear. A few friends have seen him from afar, their faces obscured by masks. During Zoom calls we hold him up like a little trophy and everyone coos over how cute he is. He stares blankly at the screen, and then the moment is over. A new child normally dominates a room, but in this year of virtual life, he’s just a footnote.

Babies just don’t work online. They’re everything that virtual is not: They’re tactile, they need to be held, they learn through nuanced interaction, they crave physical affection and reassurance. My baby has no place in the virtual world. There’s only so many heart emojis my loved ones can send in response to my WhatsApp videos. You just have to be there.

Recently, as the spring thaw began, he saw other children playing at the park. This might have been the first time he’d actually seen another child. When we got home he was so excited that he wouldn’t sleep for hours. I was both saddened and overjoyed. This was his big moment, seeing other children playing from afar.

My child is lovingly, exhaustingly real for me and my husband. But for my siblings, my extended family, my friends and my co-workers, he’s nothing more than the odd picture or video. He isn’t real. None of them are there to exclaim about how much he’s grown or to play peekaboo or to help change a diaper. I don’t think my child will really join his community until he begins daycare and I head back to work. Even then he’ll be with strangers, and who knows when it will be safe for him to see the family.

To be clear, he hasn’t shown any problematic signs. He doesn’t cry when a grandparent holds him (an increasingly rare occasion, once the second wave took hold), and he’s hitting all of his developmental milestones. But how will he act when he starts daycare and suddenly has to communicate and share and eat and sleep amongst other children? My kid is on a collision course with the world, and I don’t think it’s going to be easy.

One day we’ll have studies telling us all about how the pandemic affected our babies. Until then, these tiny beings are like little secrets, held close to our chests until it’s safe to share them with the world. I hope that when the time comes my little secret is ready to reach out and embrace the world. Because he is real.

Sandra Smith Hasan lives in Richmond Hill, Ont.

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