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Catholic parents of ‘lockdown babies’ describe bringing new life into a socially distanced world

Labour of love: Babies born during the COVID-19 pandemic, like five-week-old Alfred Laurence Ries, are discovering the world beyond the womb is only as big as their family’s house. Alfred is the first-born son to former Brisbane Catholics Jonathan and Brigid Ries, born in Adelaide just days before the state borders were closed due to the increasing spread of coronavirus.

JONATHAN Ries had quit his job as a hospital theatre nurse just as Australia was on the brink of declaring COVID-19 a national health emergency.

The former parishioner at the Brisbane Oratory in Annerley quit his job as a theatre nurse at the Queensland Children’s Hospital to study medicine at Flinders University, Adelaide, starting in February.

On top of packing up to move interstate, Mr Ries and his wife, Brigid Ries, were also expecting the birth of their first-born son.

Alfred Laurence Ries came into the world on March 11, just four days before a public health emergency was declared in South Australia.

“The first case at the hospital only just arrived that week,” Mrs Ries said.

“We were very blessed that we were able to deliver our baby in a relatively normal birthing environment.”

What wasn’t so normal was Alfred’s baptism on March 22.

“His godparents are Brigid’s younger brother and his wife, and they live in Albury in New South Wales – they drove through the night nine hours on the Friday, and then they announced lockdown measures on the Saturday, and closure of the state was Tuesday, and the baptism on Sunday,” Mr Ries said.

“That was the first weekend we couldn’t have Mass as well.

“The priest (Fr Adrian Wee) was still very cautious and didn’t even want to touch the baby when doing the sign of the cross with the chrism oil.

“From start to finish it was a very different type of baptism.”

Adjusting to life with a newborn in a new city during a coronavirus lockdown hasn’t been easy, and while they have Mr Ries’s mum at home for extra support, the couple are noticing their halted social life.

Mrs Ries is also acutely aware of the dangers of isolation for postnatal mums.

“It’s something I’m very aware of and it’s something I’m taking pretty active measures to guard against, trying to keep healthy mentally, physically and spiritually,” she said.

“We did have very full, active busy lives in Brisbane.

“In a lot of ways it’s an opportunity, and it’s not just us having moved here, but everybody has got a lot more time to slow down and connect with God and their families and husbands and themselves. “It can be difficult with the kids constantly singing Frozen in the background, all day long, to make that time for yourself.”

Although Mr Ries is undergoing a career change, the pandemic has reinforced his passion in the medical profession.

He has already applied to work at one of the major hospitals in Adelaide as a frontline worker for COVID-19 patients.

“For me I think it’s something that really tests your desire to work in healthcare,” Mr Ries said.

“I think if you’re not prepared and willing to go out and potentially risk it and get sick yourself, that tests your desire to be in the industry in the first place, because as much as it’s a job I think it’s a real vocation to be a nurse or a doctor, a frontline healthcare worker.

“I wouldn’t have any hesitation in going and caring for these patients if I had to because it’s something I want to do, I want to be part of the solution, part of helping people get through this.”

No chance to share a miracle

STEPHANIE and Christian Unger waited 10 years for their precious baby girl, Abigail.

Abigail Unger was prayed into existence on February 3, 2020, with support from her mum’s “prayer family”.

“Even before she was around, lots of people knew we were wanting her to be around and if it happened it would be such a miracle,” Mrs Unger, who works in student formation at Brisbane Catholic Education said.

“So I was so excited about sharing her with the village and them being a part of shaping her and being around her.”

Steph Unger and baby Abigail: “It was like that gave me permission to spend Holy Week and Easter just present with my family week and present at home, and not trying to be connected into everything and being just like Mary was being at home.”

What should have been a time of joy and celebration has instead become a time of grieving for Mrs Unger, who due to COVID-19 restrictions, has not been able to share the miracle baby with friends and family.

“I’m really grieving what I thought this six months was going to be and realising what it’s actually going to be now,” Mrs Unger said.

“It’s sometimes fine and we’re on video and we’re sharing pictures and being able to share her milestones and that’s been great, but other times when I just want my mum to be here or want friends to actually meet her and see her.

“Just to have someone see her, to look at her and touch her and to say she’s ok, and you’re doing fine and everything is ok, I missed that.”

On the flip side, being in isolation has taken off the pressures of being a “productive mother”.

“The positives of course of that, there’s nothing else I can do but to be with her, so there isn’t any other pressure to be particularly productive because there’s just us and we’re at home.

“So I get to see all her little things that she does and be really present with her and that’s a really good thing.”

Mrs Unger said she felt even more aware of the need for her Catholic faith since churches had closed but was struggling to participate in the virtual church.

She said she particularly felt the absence of the Eucharist, but found consolation in a reflection on how the first disciples felt when Jesus died.

“Mary and the first disciples only knew emptiness and quietness,” Mrs Unger said..

“It was like that gave me permission to spend Holy Week and Easter just present with my family week and present at home, and not trying to be connected into everything and being just like Mary was being at home.”

Quarantine life puts greater focus on the new baby

MELKITE Catholic couple Bernard and Jane Toutounji are experiencing life with a newborn for the fourth time.

For them, social isolation measures have actually been a good thing.

With no places to be, and no places to see, life has revolved around the new girl in the family, eight-week-old Isabel.

And while it’s still chaotic inside their Sydney-based home, there’s a strange calmness that’s come with not having any plans.

“Even the baby’s been quite calm, but maybe also because we’ve been home and had nowhere to go, everything’s revolved around her so she feeds when she needs to feed, she sleeps when she needs to sleep,” Mr Toutounji, who is the national director for Aid to the Church in Need Australia, said.

“There is much more focus on the needs of the family.”

Unique moment: Bernard and Jane Toutounji with their four children including eight-week-old Isabel in lockdown on Easter Sunday morning.

“We’re never rushing,” Mrs Toutounji said.

“To be honest, whether coronavirus or not, life, just family life, whether you’ve got a newborn or not, it’s pretty chaotic.

“Very often you go into survival mode.

“You just do the best you can do.”

Like many other Catholic parents with newborns, the Toutounjis were also faced with the question about Isabel’s baptism.

According to the Melkite tradition, Isabel should be receiving her sacraments of initiation into the Catholic Church in a couple of months.

As a Melkite, Isabel will be baptised, confirmed and receive first communion at the same time.

“Because the baptism is their baptism, communion and confirmation, this is the big sacramental event so we invite a lot of people to it,” Mr Toutounji said.

The Toutounjis have chosen to delay her baptism for now, but are considering a small ceremony if the pandemic continues for several months.

While they’re looking forward to the holy event, Mr Toutounji is aware that the pandemic is calling his family to live in the present.

“It is a unique time that we’ll probably get to the end of, just because you don’t know how the time’s going to go – you can see how you’ll get to the end of this in a month or two and think, ‘Wow that was a very unique period of time and like anything, did you make the most of it?” he said.

“People are saving 10, 12 hours a week in travel.

“That’s a huge difference to family life.

“There is a real blessing to all that.

“I’m wondering if people will be keen to give that back up at the end?”

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