THE PARENTS: Arlene Cui, 35, and Eric Cui, 39, of Drexel Hill
THE CHILD: Zoë Erianna, born October 2, 2016
THEIR PRE-BABY SPLURGE: They scotched a planned cruise to the Caribbean (their families went without them) because of Zika fears and went to Europe instead.
Their rented station wagon sputtered to a stop on a mountain road in Nice. It was 95 degrees. And Eric had no clue what was the French for, “I put diesel in the gas tank by mistake and my pregnant wife really needs to pee.”
Thanks to Google Translate and the kindness of strangers, Eric and Arlene found a bathroom, a tow truck, and a replacement rental car. And, fortunately, this couple already had a long track record of collaboration: They worked together on a record label, a clothing line, and a real estate business before launching Project Baby.
Eric, a classically trained pianist who had been playing since age 3, was already writing music when a mutual friend introduced him to Arlene. She played him a demo track she’d written in her high school hallway, a teen-angst song titled “How I Feel.” She thought it was corny. He heard talent.
Soon, the two formed Jaxum Records (a made-up word that, for a while, was Eric’s catch-all term, like “whatchamacallit”); she wrote melodies and sang and he did the mixing and distribution. Later, the two bought a screen-printing machine and started the Dylanesk Clothing Co.
There were jaunts to Las Vegas for music conventions -- perhaps 50 such trips in 15 years -- and one unforgettable road trip to California during which they shared the flu. At some point, they realized their musical partnership had segued into something more.
After several attempts to propose (During a Philadelphia Orchestra concert? Nah, too public. Atop a mountain in Hawaii at sunrise? Too cold.), Eric finally slipped a ring into Arlene’s hand just as she, in mock-exasperation, had scooped up a chunk of black lava from a Maui beach and said, “I guess I’m going home with just this rock.”
About a year after their December 2014 wedding -- an unseasonably mild day, with a brass ensemble and a backdrop of swimming sharks at Adventure Aquarium in Camden -- Arlene left a positive pregnancy test on the sink with a note: “Hi Daddy; see you in a few months!”
She broke the news to her parents with a framed ultrasound image; two months later, the couple bit into cake pops -- pink! -- at a gender reveal party for family and friends.
Though friends had cautioned Arlene about the sweaty rigors of a summertime pregnancy, she managed to survive July and August by seeking air-conditioned rooms and periodic naps. Stints on the elliptical machine at the gym helped; late-night viewing of other women’s births on YouTube did not.
“I was fearful of the actual delivery process,” Arlene says. “I’d wake up three times in the night and just start thinking about what to expect during birth.”
Eric, who’d begun sleeping on the couch when Arlene’s assortment of pillows crowded him out of their bed, worried about what would happen after the delivery. “The scariest thing is walking out of the hospital with a child: Wow, it’s all up to you now. I’ve always been scared to hold babies; they’re so small, and I’m a little clumsy.”
During a checkup at Arlene’s 38th week, her blood pressure and protein levels were high. “You get to have the baby today!” the doctor at Lankenau Medical Center declared. What happened next was a three-day ordeal of various methods to induce dilation and labor, “crazy, nonstop contractions,” an epidural, and several hours of pushing.
Eric tried to boost Arlene by reminding her of the Spartan Race in which she’d hefted a 25-pound bag up a mountain. “I said, ‘The baby only weighs seven pounds. This is nothing!’ ”
“My eyes were on fire, I had a temperature, and I was shaking,” Arlene recalls. “It was tough, but I knew I wanted to get her out of there.”
When the baby finally emerged, Eric says, it wasn’t anything like the movies. Zoë was gray and shriveled -- but healthy and breathing. “I felt the final push when her whole body came out,” Arlene says. “I cried once I heard her crying: Oh, my gosh, she’s alive.”
Still, parenthood is a slow-dawning awareness. “It’s weird saying, ‘This is my daughter.’ I think, ‘Am I really a mom?’ ” Arlene says. For Eric, the reality of fatherhood amps up along with Zoë’s responsiveness: “You’re connecting more and more. As she grows, she starts looking like us -- I can see my eyes, Arlene’s mouth, some of my family members.”
They’re learning: that you can take a baby out to dinner, provided the venue is a bustling Vietnamese restaurant in South Philly. That you can catch up on Game of Thrones while she naps. That you can wiggle a tiny arm through the bunched sleeve of a onesie without fear of fracturing a bone.
“At first, you think: The baby’s so fragile; how do I lift her head without breaking her neck?” Eric says. “But the baby’s a lot stronger than you think.”
And so are they -- even when bludgeoned by fatigue from setting the alarm clock to ring every three hours; even when sleeping with a baby barnacled to their chests because it’s a fussy night.
“Sometimes you think: I started rocking at midnight, and now it’s three in the morning,” Eric says. “The other night, I fell asleep feeding the baby with a bottle. My phone had dropped on my face. I remember Arlene saying, ‘Let me have her.’ ”
They’ve watched friends embrace strict parenting regimens with inviolable nap times, and others who adopted an anything-goes approach. Arlene and Eric are still searching for balance.
On one hand, there’s the compulsion to look ahead: Do we have diapers and enough food? Should we get life insurance? On the other, a wish to dive deep into each moment: talking to Zoë, singing Disney songs to her, or snugging her into a front carrier while Eric plays the piano: Mozart, Bach, a bit of jazz. Sometimes, he says, she flashes a smile as the last chord sounds.
WELCOME TO PARENTHOOD!
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