Even in times of war and climate change, global pandemic and economic uncertainty, life goes on. Perhaps surprisingly, during these difficult “pandemic years,” many Maine couples have taken on what will become the challenge of their lives — starting a family.

“Yes, babies are expensive and the cost of living keeps going up without wages keeping on par,” said new mom Brianna Anderson of Owls Head. “Yes, there are some really scary things happening in the world and life is unpredictable. However, it always has been unpredictable. As with anything, if you try to wait for the perfect time you’ll be waiting forever…”

Anderson and her partner Ben Holbrook welcomed new addition Aivy during the pandemic.

“The pandemic definitely affected the whole experience,” said Anderson. “Ben was unable to attend any of the prenatal visits in person with me. He was able to video chat for the ultrasounds, but that’s so much different and takes away some of the excitement. Being his first child, it was disappointing that he didn’t get the full experience.”

The challenges posed by COVID-19 continued to throughout the pregnancy.

“As far as labor and delivery there were definite restrictions,” she said. “We wore masks, although I was allowed to take mine off for active labor. Ben was only allowed to leave once a day, and we were allowed no visitors.”

Brianna Anderson, Aivy Holbrook and Ben Holbrook.

Chelsea Crochere had her first child, Daphne, in 2019 right before the pandemic and her second in the thick of the first year of the pandemic. She was living on Vinalhaven at the time and has since moved to Rockland.

“No one knew how long it was going to last and my husband and I were not getting any younger, so we decided to just go for it,” she said.

“My birth experiences were completely different…,” Crochere said. “Before the pandemic with Daphne I had my friends, family and a birth photographer. It was pretty chaotic and eventful. With Delilah, it was just my husband and I, and it was calm and peaceful, which was nice also. I’m sad I won’t have the pictures as I did with my first.”

Prior to the pandemic, Maine, like the rest of the nation, had been seeing a decline in births. It has been steep enough to cause some concern and study into the causes, including worrying in the medical community about infertility issues.

However, in 2021, Maine saw an uptick in the number of births. That year the number rose to 12,001, up by 467 from the year before, according to figures provided by Maine CDC. The previous trend had seen the numbers decrease from 12,678 in 2014 to 11,534 in 2020.

Dr. Robert Grondahl, head of obstetrics and gynecology at Waldo County General Hospital, recognizes how important this is to couples who hope to have children, but fertility has not been grabbing headlines during the global pandemic.

His team, like those at other hospitals all over the world, have had to deal with a changing landscape of precautions in dealing with COVID. At one point, the hospitals were bracing for a big surge of COVID patients. Later, it was finding the right rules to keep everyone safe as they continue to access care.

Ultimately the goal is to help every couple that comes in to conceive successfully if they want to, and have a healthy pregnancy that ends in a healthy baby and healthy mother. Grondahl said each patient starts with an assessment of their potential risks.

Meeting with a couple about infertility issues can offer an opportunity for a doctor to diagnose other health problems that may be at work.

Grondahl also noted that right there in Belfast, techniques and procedures including ovulation induction and intrauterine insemination are being offered to help couples conceive. In some cases this means medication that helps time intercourse with ovulation for maximum results.

With intrauterine insemination, when the time is right, whether it is on a weekend or holiday, the couple can come into the office where the staff will prepare the sperm sample to maximize motility and inject it directly into the uterus. He said the last part of the procedure can be accomplished in three minutes time.

Grondahl also praised the work of the midwives on his team, calling them outstanding.

In some cases, the drop in birth rates may be attributed to unexplained infertility. Illnesses including endometriosis can lead to infertility as well as debilitating pain. In some cases, something as simple as a stitch in the cervix during pregnancy to hold it in place can prevent a dangerous pre-term delivery.

Infertility is one issue affecting birth rates, and another is that many couples now wait until they are older to start a family than in the past. Grondahl said there is no question that a woman is significantly less fertile at 35 than she is at 25.

Young couples today face the challenge of building a career and paying off college loans, which can mean putting off a family. This is exacerbated by soaring home prices, formula shortages, and trouble finding affordable daycare. Those issues over the long term have been showing up in the birth rate numbers, but this year’s uptick may be a sign of hope for the future.

“It certainly helps to have some financial footing and things in order,” Anderson said. “A home you can afford and enough space, time and mental/emotional capacity for a baby. Babies are hard and life right now is already so hard sometimes without a baby. Babies are also a huge source of joy though.”

“As for having babies later in life, it was certainly the best choice for us,” Crochere said. “I tend to encourage the younger generation that I’m around to wait, but I feel like you’re never truly 100 percent ready for kids. You never really have it all figured out.”

Crochere said the greatest challenge has been a social one. “I feel like the biggest struggle with the kids that we’ve had so far is with Daphne, her social emotional development had a big set back because she grew up in pretty much lockdown, only seeing friends and family over FaceTime. Fortunately, with Delilah the world opened up more and was able to have hands-on, face-to-face interactions with people during peak social emotional development months.”

Locally the numbers show a small rise in births. In Knox County, there were 274 births in 2020 and that rose to 279 in 2021. However, that is down from 337 in 2014, and the rate has seen a steady decrease over that time.

Lincoln County saw an increase from 234 to 254 from 2020 to 2021.

Waldo County saw a rise from 341 to 349 births from 2020 to 2021.