Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Master of Arts




Dr. Lindsay Bell


The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed weaknesses in the existing systems and institutions people depend on in all areas of life. Birth is no exception. This research shows that COVID-19 replicated dominant North American cultural scripts treating birth as a risky and stressful medical event. It goes further to explore how birthers themselves described their experiences. Drawing on autoethnographic reflections, ethnographic interviews and a WhatsApp group chat, this thesis documents the nuance in predominantly middle class, cis-gendered women’s experiences giving birth in Ontario and Quebec during the pandemic. It uncovers the overarching non-birther centric nature of local birth culture and argues for a more balanced view of the advantages and disadvantages of giving birth during a pandemic. The research highlights the increased labor women were burdened with but also points to the ‘things that worked’ for people giving birth during a pandemic. This study contributes to the broader literature on anthropology of birth by offering in depth autoethnographic reflections to understand the complex phenomenon of pandemic births.

Summary for Lay Audience

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed cracks in the healthcare system and deepened gender inequalities. This work is an anthropological investigation of some women’s birth experiences during the various phases of the COVID-19 pandemic in Quebec and Ontario. I use my unique perspective as a birth worker who also gave birth during the pandemic to answer the questions: how do women experience birth during the COVID-19 pandemic and what can this tell us about the broader cultural treatment of birth in these places? Using data collected from nine-semi structured interviews and a WhatsApp group chat of women who gave birth during various phases of the pandemic in Quebec and Ontario, I document the nuance in these women’s experiences, including my own, to show the confusion and inconsistency we experienced as we tried to navigate our births and transition to parenthood during uncertain times. The interviews underscored an increased reliance on online supports which were useful in finding alternatives to gaps in support but also added to the mental workload of ‘COVID cautious’ women as they tried to locate supports that were safe during a pandemic. Finally, the thesis outlines positive aspects or “silver linings” of giving birth during COVID-19 which I suggest point to the weaknesses in our shared birth culture and present areas for increased attention and improvement to women’s experiences. I argue that looking at the positives in addition to the negatives gives a more complete picture of what continued to work well despite the standstill in other areas of life and what can be learned from these experiences to improve pre and postnatal care for women. At the end I recommend some cultural and institutional changes to implement over time to make birth a more dignified experience during and beyond crisis.