THE PARENTS: Sissy Gault, 32, and Jon Gault, 33, of Spring City
THE KIDS: Ripley Muirhead, 4½; Landon Muirhead, born November 29, 2016
AN EARLY DATING MEMORY: October 2004 — the Yankees were trashing the Red Sox, and Sissy and Jon were making out at a sports bar in Manhattan.
Seven days after their do-it-yourself wedding — flowers in mason jars, curtains made from bedsheets, pint glasses for party favors — Sissy and Jon upended their lives one more time.
They'd already spent a few years living in New York after graduating from NYU, where their first date involved a "let's get classy" trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art followed by ice cream from a Mister Softee truck.
When Jon landed a job in New Hampshire, just a whisper from where Sissy had grown up, the pair swapped urban rhythms — walking in Central Park, sending the laundry out, rarely cooking a meal — for an outdoor-centric lifestyle. They bought a kayak. They skied and hiked.
Now they were moving again, to North Carolina, so Jon could begin a full-time MBA program at Duke University. Sissy didn't have a job. They'd barely unpacked. And then, on a December afternoon, Jon came out of a meeting to find five messages from Sissy on his phone.
"I didn't think we could actually be pregnant — I had an IUD — but I was starting to feel really crummy," Sissy recalls. "I have never been as shocked in my entire life," Jon says. "Our lives turned 180 degrees. I thought: Oh, my lord; how many things can you throw at us at one time?"
He bought a half-dozen books on pregnancy and started reading. Sissy managed to land a job in her field — contract research — when she was three months pregnant. Luckily, it was an easy ride. "It wasn't anything we would have chosen right then, but we were married, we were happy, and we rolled with it," Sissy says.
Jon was once again in a meeting — a 100-person seminar, this time — when a friend of Sissy's sidled into the classroom and tapped him on the shoulder: "Dude, you've got to go." It was the day before the baby's due date, and the doctor had ruptured Sissy's membranes by accident during an exam.
The labor was a family affair — in addition to Jon, Sissy's mom, her dad, and her best friend were there for the Pitocin-boosted contractions, the epidural, the urgent maneuver when the baby's arm got stuck and, finally, the moment Ripley emerged after nearly 24 hours of labor.
"She started to latch, and I thought that was incredible; she's 10 minutes old, and they come into this world knowing how to nurse," Sissy says. Those early days were sweet exhaustion: "They lay on you, you swaddle them, you change them, they nurse. It was a good segue into the whole adventure."
The baby was placid; it was everything else that made their lives feel unsettled. Where would they live when Jon finished his MBA program? What kind of work would Sissy find when they landed? In the midst of that turbulence, parenting became a tranquil island: cuddling a baby on long walks, watching movies while Ripley dozed in a Pack 'n Play.
"We probably assumed we would have a second, but we waited longer than I thought we would," Sissy says. They moved to the Philadelphia area, where Jon works in acquisitions for a business developer and Sissy is project coordinator for a contract research organization. They bought a house. Sissy's mother moved in with them.
"We were finally getting in our groove," Sissy says. "And we thought: Hey, man, I think we could do this again."
This time, she couldn't wait to share the news: She texted a photo of the positive pregnancy stick to her friends and close family. But this pregnancy felt different, chiefly because there was now a toddler in the picture — a fierce-willed 4-year-old who negotiates relentlessly about bedtime, screen time and the contents of her dinner plate.
"I remember sleeping on her floor on a camping mattress to get her to go to sleep. I was working full-time, as was Jon. You don't have time to be nauseous or tired; you just have to keep going."
With Ripley, Sissy had gone to the nearest OB practice and followed her doctors' advice. Now she wanted a different experience: prenatal care from midwives and an unmedicated birth.
Despite her preparation — she even took a class on advanced techniques in pain management — labor was "godawful … so much screaming. But I was older and more experienced when it came to Landon's birth, as opposed to showing up and having no idea what I was doing."
During Ripley's birth, Jon had remained safely in the "back of the bobsled" position, planting himself behind Sissy and holding her hands; at Einstein Montgomery Medical Center with Landon, he wanted to take in every moment. "I saw every graphic detail — that little alien coming out of there. I enjoyed seeing Landon come out and look around."
They're different parents this time around: no longer terrified to bathe an infant, savvy about how to soothe Landon when he cries. But Ripley is always a step ahead, yanking them into new parenting territory: How to manage the moments when Sissy is about to nurse and Ripley demands, "Hold me, Mommy!" How to make sure their effusive daughter is gentle with her baby brother. How not to neglect their dog, Dublin, in the chaos. "You hope you're giving everybody what they need," Sissy says.
In the midst of the tumult are sweet oases: weekend mornings when a still-groggy Ripley pads into their room, helps herself to the carton of chocolate milk they stash for her, and cuddles in bed with her parents and brother. Or the occasional night out, with Landon in his car seat, Ripley drawing on the paper table cover, and Sissy and Jon sipping beer.