THE PARENTS: Mary-Jo Dooling, 43, and Jim Dooling, 47, of Lansdale
THE KIDS: Molly Elizabeth, 18; Jimmy Joseph, 16; Paige Elizabeth, born April 5, 2016
MARY-JO’S BIGGEST PREGNANCY COMPLAINT: Incessant snoring that drove the couple to sleep in separate rooms for the final two months.
Molly had just begun her freshman year at Temple University, and her brother was a high school junior, when their parents drove into town, took the pair to dinner at Max Brenner, and said they had something to discuss.
"Are you two getting a divorce?" Molly asked. They shook their heads.
"Who died?" No one.
"Are we going on a big vacation?" Not exactly.
Her mother took a deep breath. "We're pregnant."
Jimmy was so stunned, he had to leave the table for a moment. Molly thought it was a joke - until her mother began to cry.
This baby was not part of anyone's plan.
Sure, there was a time - back when Mary-Jo was a beach-tag inspector in Brigantine and Jim was a "shoobie" whose parents had a summer house - when four kids seemed like a fine idea.
Their first date brought fireworks - literally. It was the Fourth of July, and they nestled on the Brigantine beach as glittering peonies and girandoles flashed overhead. Money was tight; a big date meant pizza and Rolling Rock at a Margate bar.
"I chased him," Mary-Jo remembers. "He was different, not a local Brigantine guy." Jim proposed at a James Taylor concert on the Camden waterfront, and the two married - a beach-themed reception, with seashell centerpieces - as soon as Mary-Jo graduated from college.
Three months later, she was pregnant. "I was on the pill, but I tripped up, and it messed up my cycle," she remembers. "We did the test together. I remember Jim sitting at the kitchen table, head in his hands. He was scared about money."
Both had jobs - she was a teacher; he worked for a financial services company - but they didn't yet have a network of friends in Lansdale, and they had hoped to savor a few child-free years together.
They were walking around the King of Prussia Mall when Mary-Jo's contractions began. A long night of labor, two hours of pushing, and there she was - a serene newborn staring directly into her father's eyes.
"I had never really held a baby," Mary-Jo says. "We didn't know what the heck we were doing. We were so young."
They were at the Shore, in the fall of 1998, when Mary-Jo had trouble buttoning her pants. Jimmy was another surprise, born almost exactly two years after his sister. His father was so thrilled to have a namesake that he bought his infant son a dump truck that took up half the hospital bassinet.
The kids were different from the start: Jimmy was a more placid baby, an easy sleeper who was content to crawl; Molly stood and walked at 10 months. She favored hair ribbons and ballet. Her brother played baseball.
"We had a girl and a boy, and people said, 'You have the perfect family; don't mess it up,' " Mary-Jo says. The years spun by: schoolwork, soccer, trips to Disney World. Suddenly, their oldest was shopping for matching pillows for her dorm room at Temple, and they were driving her there to unpack.
"I did not feel well, but I kept it to myself," Mary-Jo says. The next morning, she bought a pregnancy test - a digital type that wasn't available 18 years earlier. "Up popped the word pregnant. I wedged myself in the corner of the family room behind a chair, called Jim, and said, 'You need to find a conference room and sit down.' I just could not stop crying."
This time, they were no innocents; they knew about the shredded, sleepless nights, the thousands of dollars they would spend on music lessons or travel sports. They'd just taken their first vacation without the kids, a dreamy week in Boca Raton, and were envisioning more trips like that. They could golf together, make some long-awaited improvements on the house.
The Sunday after Mary-Jo took that pregnancy test, the two headed for church. She was bleeding a bit, as she had during her early weeks with Molly. Might she miscarry, or was this pregnancy meant to be? "We prayed: God, just make an answer. The homily happened to be on abortion and how important life is. We both looked at each other: It's out of our hands."
At 20 weeks, they posted the news on Facebook and drew 200 comments: Are you kidding me? I just dropped my phone. How are you going to do this again?
This time around, they had help - not only from their teenagers, but from a web of neighbors, friends, and colleagues who delivered meals, advised them on up-to-date baby items, and threw five different showers.
Mary-Jo wanted no more surprises; this time, they learned the baby's sex while she was still in utero and scheduled a C-section on the first day of her 39th week. Molly remembers seeing her sister for the first time - "she was so tiny, wrapped up like a little burrito" - and Jimmy still reels when he does the math, figuring he'll be in his 30s when Paige graduates from high school.
For Jim, second-round parenthood is a time-twist of moments recalled and anticipated: the first time Paige will say her siblings' names, her first birthday, her first trip to Disney World. Jimmy thinks his little sister should take piano lessons; Mary-Jo hopes she'll do more chores. "I find myself just trying to live in the moment," Jim says.
What they know is that this child will nudge them all into new patterns. It has happened already, the first time the five headed out to dinner at Pizza Time Saloon. They couldn't cram into one car with the baby seat, so Molly and Jimmy drove ahead, then startled the hostess, a friend of theirs, by requesting a high chair. Paige slept through most of the meal, waking up with a cry just as they paid the bill, as if to remind them, "Here I am."