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caption: Cassandra Cast, second from left, smiles while holding her 9-month-old grandson, Zoli Rae, next to her daughter, LaTriece Arthur, left, daughter-in-law Christina Arthur, and Christina's mom, Barbara Arthur, right, on Monday, April 19, 2021, at LaTriece and Christina Arthur's home on Vashon Island. Cassandra Cast and Barbara Arthur traveled from Boston and Atlanta, respectively, to meet their grandson Zoli Rae for the first time.
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Cassandra Cast, second from left, smiles while holding her 9-month-old grandson, Zoli Rae, next to her daughter, LaTriece Arthur, left, daughter-in-law Christina Arthur, and Christina's mom, Barbara Arthur, right, on Monday, April 19, 2021, at LaTriece and Christina Arthur's home on Vashon Island. Cassandra Cast and Barbara Arthur traveled from Boston and Atlanta, respectively, to meet their grandson Zoli Rae for the first time.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Photos: Baby Zoli's joyful birth as a family reels from Covid tragedies

Right before the pandemic hit, Christina and LaTriece Arthur became pregnant with their first child.

When they felt they could tell more people about their pregnancy, the state closed in, and people began to work from home.

As the weeks dragged on and the virus raged across the U.S., the couple's expectations for their pregnancy shifted.

It was hard, but they say they tried to hold on to the pure joy and excitement of expecting their child, and the upsides of being stuck at home.

“At least I’ve been home with Christina through this whole process, watching her belly grow day after day,” said LaTriece.

LaTriece said she talked to the baby every day.

But the pandemic meant re-imagining what birth would look like for them.

caption: Newborn Zoli Rae Arthur sleeps on Thursday, October 1, 2020, at home on Vashon Island.
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Newborn Zoli Rae Arthur sleeps on Thursday, October 1, 2020, at home on Vashon Island.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

They had decided long before that they didn’t want a hospital birth.

“I have a general distrust of being in those spaces,” Christina said.

She said she's never been comfortable in hospital settings. She's seen family members in pain, not having their needs met.

Racism and discrimination continue to permeate the health care system, and Black mothers die at far higher rates than white women in the U.S.

Christina and LaTriece planned for a home birth. They sought out a midwife and a Black doula for support.

As Covid case counts rose, Christina said home birth made even more sense.

But Covid meant the image they had of what that might look like had to change.

“We definitely were planning very early for family to be here,” Christina said.

caption: Christina Arthur holds her newborn son, Zoli Rae, on Thursday, October 1, 2020, at their home on Vashon Island.
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Christina Arthur holds her newborn son, Zoli Rae, on Thursday, October 1, 2020, at their home on Vashon Island.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

By summer of 2020, they realized the chances of making that happen were slim.

The couple was intimately aware of the stakes. LaTriece’s grandmother got Covid-19 and died in March 2020.

LaTriece said the virus added an extra layer of worry when it came to the baby they’d waited so long to meet.

“This was an imaginary baby for years, and I already feel overprotective of this life," she said. "Now I've got this other thing, this added weight, to everything you do. It's intense. It's very intense."

Fast forward to September 2020 and what was supposed to be a routine visit to their Midwife threw Christina and LaTriece’s birth plan off track.

caption: LaTriece Arthur changes her newborn son Zoli Rae's diaper on Thursday, October 1, 2020, at their home on Vashon Island.
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LaTriece Arthur changes her newborn son Zoli Rae's diaper on Thursday, October 1, 2020, at their home on Vashon Island.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Christina was one week past her due date, and something the midwife saw while monitoring the baby’s heartbeat concerned her.

She had Christina change positions, and she got out an oxygen tank. Finally, she called for an ambulance.

"She was like, I think we're going to meet your baby today," Christina said. "She stayed super positive, and I really appreciated the way she framed that, because my heart was starting to melt.”

Christina said she held it together as long as she could, but as she was getting into the ambulance, she started to cry.

"Everything kind of came to a head in terms of wow, this is not at all how I wanted to deliver our baby,” she said.

caption: Christina Arthur holds her newborn son, Zoli Rae, on Thursday, October 1, 2020, at their home on Vashon Island.
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Christina Arthur holds her newborn son, Zoli Rae, on Thursday, October 1, 2020, at their home on Vashon Island.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer
caption: LaTriece Arthur, left, smiles as she holds her newborn son Zoli Rae while picking apples in the backyard with her wife, Christina Arthur, right, on Thursday, October 1, 2020, at their home on Vashon Island.
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LaTriece Arthur, left, smiles as she holds her newborn son Zoli Rae while picking apples in the backyard with her wife, Christina Arthur, right, on Thursday, October 1, 2020, at their home on Vashon Island.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

She didn’t want to go to the hospital; she didn’t have her parents with her; and she was worrying about the baby.

LaTriece tried to reassure her. She said she felt in her heart that everything would be okay.

They had to separate on the way to the hospital, which LaTriece said was nerve-wracking. There was also nervousness around what they’d be walking into at the hospital in terms of Covid-19 policies.

“We weren't sure if our doula could be there at the time," LaTriece said.

Covid-19 policies were a moving target in hospital maternity departments. Some allowed just partners, some allowed other support people and, depending on case counts, the guidance could change.

caption: LaTriece Arthur burps her newborn son Zoli Rae on Thursday, October 1, 2020, at their home on Vashon Island.
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LaTriece Arthur burps her newborn son Zoli Rae on Thursday, October 1, 2020, at their home on Vashon Island.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Both LaTriece and their doula were allowed to be with Christina and, despite earlier fears, the couple say they felt reassured and supported by the care they got.

Christina was induced and in the end, they met their son, Zoli.

"They bring him up to her chest and I am just, I'm balling," LaTriece said. "I'm so proud of her," said LaTriece.

"He is just so precious. He is so perfect."

caption: Christina Arthur breastfeeds her newborn son, Zoli Rae, with her wife, LaTriece Arthur, left, on Thursday, October 1, 2020, at their home on Vashon Island.
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Christina Arthur breastfeeds her newborn son, Zoli Rae, with her wife, LaTriece Arthur, left, on Thursday, October 1, 2020, at their home on Vashon Island.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Like so many others, when Christina and LaTriece left the hospital with their son, they were met with a drastically different landscape for new parenthood.

Friends and family couldn't be there to share in the joy and to support them. So they leaned on each other and captured the moments, big and small, in photos and videos.

But those early weeks of joy were punctuated with grief.

After Zoli was born, they learned that LaTriece’s grandfather had passed. His death wasn’t Covid related, but around the time of his funeral, LaTriece’s mom got Covid and ended up in the hospital. She spent the next several months in the ICU.

“I don't know how I would have made it through if it weren't for Zoli, because it was an extremely, extremely stressful time and just really hard to deal with," LaTriece said.

"He was just this little bundle of joy that I could snuggle and smell his little head as much as I wanted and needed to.”

LaTriece's mother pulled through, although her Covid symptoms persist, and she is now considered a long-hauler.

Both Christina and LaTriece have lost family to Covid, and seen what the virus can do to those who get sick. Those experiences shaped the way they interacted with the world in the first months of Zoli's life.

"There was like this immense fear that I can't lose anything else,” LaTriece said.

caption: Christina Arthur holds her son, Zoli Rae, at a birthday party on Saturday, May 29, 2021, on Vashon Island.
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Christina Arthur holds her son, Zoli Rae, at a birthday party on Saturday, May 29, 2021, on Vashon Island.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

They kept their circle tight. They had friends bringing them food, but nobody coming in to hold the baby, or hold them.

“The flip side of that was the yearning and the craving to be held, the yearning and the craving to have community in that moment," LaTriece said.

The isolation was hard. They desperately wanted to see friends and family.

Christina said they made careful plans for contact, mapping out precautions, but then fear would set in.

“Two days before I'm like, ‘Ah, I'm sorry, we just can't do it. I'm scared, I don't want to do it,’" Christina said. "I don't know how many times we canceled."

There were silver linings. Christina and LaTriece treasured the one-on-one time they got to spend with Zoli, and say they learned more about each other and parenting together because they were alone.

During their first hike with Zoli as an infant, LaTriece reflected that it was activities like that, taking in the beauty of the Puget Sound region, that they want for him, and other children they may have.

“We are grateful for this time off to be able to spend it as a family and do things like this," she said.

But every week that they didn't get to share their son with friends and family was hard.

"I don't think anything would give us more happiness than to be able to extend this day in this beautiful region with our loved ones in person,” Christina said as she hiked.

caption: Cassandra Cast smiles while watching her daughter, LaTriece Arthur with her newborn son, Zoli Rae, on Monday, April 19, 2021, on Vashon Island.
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Cassandra Cast smiles while watching her daughter, LaTriece Arthur with her newborn son, Zoli Rae, on Monday, April 19, 2021, on Vashon Island.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Like so many others, Christina and LaTriece relied on video calls to fill the space between them and their families.

Grandparents would call and read to Zoli, play piano, sing songs, watch him grow. They talked often.

“Sometimes it would be multiple times a day, like, ‘Look at what Zoli's doing,’ you know? They were always there,” Christina said.

She said whenever she pushed the call button, her parents would answer.

“I think they knew I needed that,” she said.

caption: LaTriece Arthur kisses her son Zoli Rae on Monday, April 19, 2021, at their home on Vashon Island.
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LaTriece Arthur kisses her son Zoli Rae on Monday, April 19, 2021, at their home on Vashon Island.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Now, as vaccines roll out and people can gather more safely, Zoli has met both his grandmothers, and one grandfather.

caption: LaTriece and Christina Arthur cheers their moms, Cassandra Cast, left, and Barbara Arthur, right, on Monday, April 19, 2021, at their home on Vashon Island. Cassandra Cast and Barbara Arthur traveled from Boston and Atlanta, respectively, to meet their grandson Zoli Rae for the first time.
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LaTriece and Christina Arthur cheers their moms, Cassandra Cast, left, and Barbara Arthur, right, on Monday, April 19, 2021, at their home on Vashon Island. Cassandra Cast and Barbara Arthur traveled from Boston and Atlanta, respectively, to meet their grandson Zoli Rae for the first time.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

"Being vaccinated changed our whole perspective,” Christina said recently, as she and Zoli gathered with friends at another child’s birthday party.

She said they still feel some risk, but they’re trusting everything will be okay.

“It's there, it's present, but this feels good,” she said.

The family is entering a new phase of life.

This story is part of a series of pieces looking at personal experiences and the broader system of maternal care during the pandemic. More pieces will be published throughout the summer.

If you have any feedback on this story, email me at kateo@kuow.org. Or click the feedback button on the right hand side of this page. Reach out. We're listening.