In the After, I Will Say ‘No’

Turns out a pandemic offers great practice for setting boundaries

Ellen O'Connell Whittet
Published in
3 min readJul 7, 2020
A mother reads while holding her baby in her arms.
Photo: nattrass/Getty Images

I was 25 weeks pregnant when my state’s governor issued the nation’s first shelter-in-place order. As the world around me became unrecognizable, I clung to the security of my birth plan. I would deliver in a birth center rather than a hospital, assisted by midwives instead of doctors — a decision that brought some measure of relief as hospitals became overcrowded with Covid patients. I relished that small sense of control.

What my husband and I hadn’t considered were the boundaries we would need to assert as new parents in the age of coronavirus. As the birth drew near, our midwives reminded us of a new complication: We would need to establish a pandemic protocol.

“If you set up a meal train, keep it small,” they told us. “Ask people to leave something on the doorstep that you can reheat later.” And, “You can show the baby to friends and family through the window, but social distancing means they can’t come in the house.” In other words, I would have to institute ground rules and enforce them by saying “no.” This would always be true with a new baby, but now the stakes were even higher. And, at least I hope, people understand the seriousness of the boundaries being set.

As someone who is hyper-aware of social niceties and protecting others’ feelings, learning to ignore my phone and say “no” to visits, texts, phone calls, and, largely, the news, has given me a different type of control — one that’s transformative and freeing. Instead of a planning mindset that focuses on logistics, I’m managing potential demands for my attention. I’ve pledged to only say “yes” to offers of help that are actually helpful. The added bonus is that this allows me to be more present for my newborn.

As things begin to reopen, I plan to take this new freedom with me, expanding or contracting my social engagements exactly as much as works for my family. For now, I…



Ellen O'Connell Whittet
Writer for

Ellen is the author of the memoir What You Become in Flight, the story of her exodus from ballet. She lives in California.