The Parent Trip: Catherine Nguyen and Alex Tablin-Wolf of Washington Square

Alex Tablin-Wolf, Catherine Nguyen, and baby Lillian.

THE PARENTS: Catherine Nguyen, 33, and Alex Tablin-Wolf, 33, of Washington Square
THE CHILD: Lillian (Lilly) Nguyen Tablin-Wolf, born July 11, 2016
HOW THEY FIRST CONNECTED: While studying abroad during law school — Catherine in the Netherlands, Alex in China — she commented on a photo he’d posted to Facebook of the Summer Palace in Beijing.

Catherine hid in her mother's house, just out of range of the threshold, watching Alex, clad in a patterned tunic and pants, prove his love in front of 150 relatives and friends.

It was all part of their Vietnamese wedding ritual: the groom's family's procession to the bride's parents' home, followed by customary "door games." Catherine - sequestered because the "official" permission to marry was still to come - peeked at her husband-to-be as he juggled a soccer ball with his feet and performed push-ups, stopping in between to nibble cupcakes that Cat's cousin had placed on the floor.

But Alex had already proved himself four years earlier - as far back as their first date, when he drove an hour to have dinner at the 10-acre Bucks County farm where Catherine lived with friends while working as a lawyer in Doylestown, her first job out of Temple Law School.

He remembers a velvety summer night and Catherine's homemade meal, orzo salad with roasted eggplant. She recalls his combination of laid-back confidence and old-school charm.

The relationship quickly shifted toward seriousness. They shopped together for furniture for Alex's Camac Street apartment. They spent Sundays foraging for groceries, making pasta or Vietnamese specialties, sharing weekly dinners with a few long-term couples.

In 2013, Catherine moved to Alex's place, bringing the Florida orange tree she had nurtured since it was a twig in a Ziploc bag. He proposed on a chilly spring Sunday - one of those easy, lazy days of food and music and hanging out - with a 1920s Tiffany ring, a round-cut diamond in a filigree setting, perfectly suited to Catherine's sensibilities.

"I'd probably been planning my wedding since I was 13 or 14," she says. "I'm super-romantic. I'd been collecting these pictures of old-style filigree engagement rings. I didn't want anything that was brand-new."

Their 2014 wedding was a weekend-long celebration in Seattle, where Catherine's mother lived: Vietnamese customs (explained to guests in a written program) on Friday, with a Jewish ceremony (translated and explained in Vietnamese) the next day. They honeymooned in Turkey, and, three weeks later, moved into a house near Washington Square.

"I was always open to having kids, but nothing specific about it," Catherine says. "After we got situated with the house, we were both on the same page: How about next year? Then, the next year, we said, 'How about now?' "

Within a month, Catherine emerged from the bathroom with two - just to be certain - positive pregnancy tests. What followed, she says, was a nine-month "cakewalk" distinguished mainly by a yen for grilled cheese sandwiches.

They chose Pennsylvania Hospital because they could work with midwives; a six-week prenatal yoga class and exhaustive reading about natural birth supplied Catherine with soothing mantras she could use during labor.

And when that time came, Catherine, who is typically gregarious, turned silent and meditative, barely speaking to Alex for nine hours while she repeated various affirmations, including the doula's phrase, "soft and loose," over and over in her head.

"I was happy. I felt wonderful. We didn't have to use any drugs or interventions," she says. Their daughter was equally serene - "quiet and alert, not really crying," Alex says.

Catherine's mom and Alex's parents flew in from the West Coast to help out. Still, the first weeks of parenthood humbled this high-octane couple, accustomed to exerting themselves at work, at the gym, and in the community. Feeding Lillian felt like a full-time job, especially when a lactation consultant provided a two-page list of strategies Catherine should use - all day, every day - to ease the baby's breast-feeding struggles.

"You have no sleep, and the baby is so tiny," Catherine says. "I would try all the things - different positions, the whole worksheet - and it would take me 45 minutes. It was so stressful, like I had all this homework every day, trying to feed her."

It helped to have a surgical procedure to release Lillian's tongue-tie. And it helped even more when Catherine found sisterhood in a circle of new moms who would converge at the Good Karma Cafe with their phalanx of strollers and slings, their anxieties and questions. Soon, they were meeting every day at one another's houses.

"All of us are working professionals," Catherine says. "And the kids were so young. We thought, 'What are we supposed to do with our time? If we stay home, we're going to lose our minds.' We're really lucky to have found each other."

It has been just five months, but Catherine and Alex have already grasped essential truths about parenthood: It's draining. And it gets easier. Lately, Catherine has had time to use her new labelmaker to mark every object in the house, including Alex's cellphone, with its Vietnamese name. She speaks the language to Lillian.

Parenthood has made both of them glance backward in gratitude. "It gives me so much more perspective about what my parents have done for me, and what Alex's parents have done for him. We're so grateful, now that we see what it takes to get through just one day, let alone 33 years," Catherine says.

For Alex, parenthood has been an exercise in "beginner's mind." No matter how many books he read, no matter how many anecdotes he heard, nothing could replace the hands-on instruction his daughter provided with every diaper change or feeding, "actually doing something you've never done before."

After Lillian's birth, Catherine learned the term trick baby - that is, the one whose conception, gestation, and birth is so uncomplicated that parents immediately yearn to have another.

"It was never a specific goal of mine to have kids," she says. But she was sold the moment the midwife placed just-born Lillian on her chest. The baby was cone-headed, bright pink, and she smelled, impossibly, of vanilla and roses. "Can you smell this?" Catherine kept asking Alex and the doula, leaning her head toward her daughter, breathing in deeply, as though she'd never get enough.


 

WELCOME TO PARENTHOOD!
If you’ve become a parent — for the first, second, or fifth time — within the last six months, email us why we should feature your story: parents@phillynews.com. Giving birth, adopting, or becoming a stepparent or guardian all count. Unfortunately, we can’t respond individually to all submissions. If your story is chosen, you will be contacted.