The Parent Trip: Amanda and Isaac Kessler of Ambler

Amanda and Isaac Kessler, with daughter Leah and baby Owen

THE PARENTS: Amanda Kessler, 33, and Isaac Kessler, 32, of Ambler
THE KIDS: Leah Rose, 2½; Owen Edward, born May 8, 2016
WHAT THEY FIRST NOTICED ABOUT EACH OTHER: His dark sunglasses (in a bar at 11 o’clock at night). Her dance moves.

Never mind that both Amanda and Isaac are civil engineers by training and type-A planners by temperament.

Never mind that they'd listened to audio books about childbirth, taken nearly every pre-parenting class Abington Hospital-Jefferson Health offered, and followed an app that compared the growing fetus to various pieces of fruit.

Amanda still had no idea what to expect.

So when the nurse said, "OK, you can push now," her first thought was: "I have to push? I thought the baby just came out."

Three and a half hours of effort later, Leah emerged. "I was in awe; we made this little human being?"

But the strangest part was their own reemergence after just a few days in the hospital. They stopped at Wawa on the way home, and Amanda felt stunned at the ordinariness of customers and coffee. "I was thinking: I just gave birth to a baby, and you people are having lunch! Doesn't anybody know what I just went through?"

At home, the couple sat down to some lasagna Amanda had made a few days earlier. They poured glasses of wine. And then Leah began to wail - a kind of reveille, Isaac remembers, signaling the next stage of their lives.

Their relationship began six years earlier: a pub crawl on South Street with mutual friends; a spark they fanned with long-distance phone calls (Amanda lived in Boston then, and Isaac in Glenside); and occasional visits before their first actual date, the day before a friend's wedding.

Amanda was a bridesmaid, but she ducked out of a gals' gathering for manicures and instead took a ride on Isaac's Kawasaki 500. She wore a borrowed helmet and hung on tight.

Six months later, she packed up her 400-square-foot Boston apartment and drove, in a New Year's Eve blizzard, to a place she'd rented in Ambler. "I didn't want to live with a boyfriend before I got married," she says. "I was used to paying my own bills, cooking my own food, watching my own 'Sex and the City.' "

The proposal came in June 2010, while the two were visiting the San Juan Islands. Isaac had secreted a ring in his backpack through the airport security check, on a dayslong moving-truck ride from Chicago to Seattle (his brother and sister-in-law were moving west, and they'd agreed to help), and, finally, in his shorts pocket as the two hiked to a whale-watching spot over the Salish Sea.

Their wedding, in November of the following year, blended Isaac's Jewish background with Amanda's Catholicism: they had readings from the Old and New Testaments, a Kiddush cup and a unity candle, a rabbi and a priest. Later, they danced to a nine-piece band assembled by Isaac's mother, a percussionist; in a raucous hora, guests hoisted Amanda, Isaac, and their parents up on chairs.

"It was the most exposure I'd had to Jewish traditions," Amanda recalls. "When I was under the chuppah, I finally relaxed."

They'd already talked about children - not just wanting to have them, but wanting to instill the foundational values of both faiths: family connection, the comforts of ritual, the importance of being a good person.

They figured it might take six months to conceive. But a month after they began trying, Amanda sat on the couch one Friday - she was working four 10-hour days then - with a positive pregnancy test in hand.

She remembers the next nine months as "pretty easy." Isaac recalls that it wasn't always a placid ride: Amanda suffered queasiness, heartburn, and a few anxious stretches when her OB thought the baby wasn't growing at a healthy pace.

Before and after Leah's birth, advice streamed their way - from books, friends, and one of Isaac's mentors at work, a woman who counseled that parenting is exhausting and that each child is utterly different.

That bit of wisdom proved apt the moment Amanda realized she was pregnant again. This time, her morning sickness ramped up to daily vomiting; on a trip to New Orleans at 34 weeks, she coughed so hard she fractured a rib. Labor started three weeks before her due date and came on fast: from a single contraction before dinner to a breathless midnight trip to Einstein Medical Center Montgomery, with Isaac running red lights.

Owen was born 25 minutes after they arrived. But this time, with a midwife in attendance and no epidural, Amanda says, "it was a much quieter, intimate birth. . . . They put him right on my belly. I thought that only happened in story books."

Once again, their lives lurched into a new chapter. Compared to their 7-pound newborn, Leah seemed huge - "Oh, you're not my peanut baby anymore," Amanda recalls thinking. And while their daughter was tidy, purposeful, and calm, Owen could soak three outfits a day with drool and scream all the way to the Shore.

Sure, they'd had a baby before, but they'd never had to manage an infant and a toddler: how Leah, initially jealous of her brother, gave Amanda the cold shoulder; or how, despite their best intentions on a Sunday morning, it might take until 3 p.m. for all four of them to get out of the house.

They knew about the exhaustion, about days that would be measured, for a while, in three-hour increments, about frozen dinners from Trader Joe's that would take the place of tomato sauce made from scratch.

But no one - not the baby-manual gurus, not the been-there-done-that friends at work - really prepared them for the paradoxes of parenthood, Isaac says. How life becomes simultaneously more hectic and excruciatingly slow. How he yearns to immerse his kids in the world and protect them from it. How he craves every moment with Leah and Owen, even the ones that test his patience (and his eardrums) with piercing shrieks.

The truest thing anyone told them about parenting is that it is an exercise in flux. "Just when you think you can't handle it anymore," Amanda says, "it changes."


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