THE PARENTS: Kaysaree Salgado, 24, and Brenda Huertas, 33, of Port Richmond
THE CHILD: Zoe Rae Huertas Salgado, born April 25, 2016
HOW KAYSAREE FED THE BABY WHEN SHE HAD TROUBLE LATCHING: She expressed milk into a medicine cup, then used a syringe.
Kaysaree was a dimpled 22-year-old with a self-described "old soul." Brenda was a tattooed "bad girl" with a rock-solid work ethic. They met online, through PlentyOfFish.com, and called their first meeting a "puppy date" - Kaysaree with her miniature pinscher, Prince, and Brenda with her pit bull, Charli.
That first encounter, which began at a dog park in Blackwood and ended with French toast at a Center City IHOP, led quickly to a second. Before long, Kaysaree had a designated drawer at Brenda's place in Port Richmond. Then a second drawer. A whole closet.
"It did feel quick," Kaysaree says. "But I wanted to be next to her every chance I got."
On Kaysaree's birthday weekend in 2014, Brenda took her on the Mural Arts Love Letter train tour. Afterward, as the two walked through the dim cavern of Suburban Station, Kaysaree spotted a local guitarist they'd heard at a recent concert.
Suddenly, the man began to strum and sing her favorite Sam Smith song, "Latch" ("You lift my heart up when the rest of me is down"). Then Brenda was on her knees amid the straggle of commuters: "Will you marry me?"
Kaysaree said yes. She said it again six months later, when the two spontaneously slipped into a county clerk's office in Las Vegas for a marriage certificate, then sealed their bond in a nearby chapel.
In her 20s, Brenda didn't think she wanted children. "I had a bit of a rough childhood, and I wanted to make sure I could provide a kid with a better life than I had." But Kaysaree, a lifelong nurturer who had helped raise her goddaughter, definitely wanted to be a mom.
With the encouragement of lesbian friends, the two consulted a fertility specialist - Kaysaree worried that her irregular cycles and previous ovarian cysts would make conception difficult - and began looking into sperm banks.
They agreed emphatically that their donor's heritage mattered. Kaysaree is three-fourths Puerto Rican, and Brenda was born on the island. But finding a Puerto Rican donor, especially one who would agree to be identified to any offspring once the child turned 21, required using a Manhattan sperm bank.
Brenda worried about the cost - not only of buying and shipping frozen sperm, but about the emotional toll as each month's IUI lifted, then dashed, their hopes. That happened four times. "It was very disappointing, but it taught me patience," Kaysaree says.
Finally, they upped the ante with an IVF cycle. It took eight drugstore pregnancy sticks and a blood test to convince them the procedure had worked. Kaysaree was thrilled. Brenda was panicked.
"When the digital test said "positive," that's when the fear came in for me: Providing. The maintenance of a baby. If my dog was going to like her," she recalls. "I had a friend who was having twins, and she lost one. You see all these things happening; every day was scary."
Kaysaree suffered hyperemesis; at one point, she was unable to keep down anything, even water, for three days. Then she developed low blood pressure that left her wobbly and faint. At 7½ months, she could no longer stand on her feet all day as a beauty manager for Sephora. "I went from weighing 118 to 170," she says. "I couldn't exercise. My joints were hurting. My belly was heavy. My ankles were swollen. I was nauseous all the time."
Home alone from 6:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. most days while Brenda worked (she's a Walgreens manager), Kaysaree filled her time pasting ultrasound images into a scrapbook and decorating the baby's room with a mash-up theme that reflected their two passions: Beauty and the Beast (Kaysaree) and giraffes (Brenda).
Zoe was a week late. The epidural Kaysaree had forsworn, then begged for, worked on only one side. "It felt like someone was chainsawing my leg off," she says. But after 12 hours and nine pushes, there she was: a 7-pound, 8-ounce infant with her mother's eyes and hair, her donor's ears and toes, her own singular voice.
"They pulled her out and put her on my chest. She let out this cry and peed all over me," Kaysaree recalls. "She was so beautiful, and I was so exhausted."
Motherhood has altered her view, Kaysaree says, underscoring the consequences of every action. "I'm more emotional. If I see things on TV - like if something happens to a kid - I'll just start crying."
Both women want a life for Zoe that is larger than their own: bigger than the Kensington blocks where Brenda grew up, more stable than Kaysaree's bounce-around childhood, from the Bronx to Staten Island to Harlem to South Jersey. They want their daughter to play and find her passion and do work that makes her happy.
Kaysaree hopes Zoe will someday be able to meet her donor, if she wishes. "A little part of me is curious. It would be nice to know the characteristics or features that aren't mine, what she received from his genes. He may be an amazing person; you never know."
In the meantime, there is the sweet tedium of the everyday: trips to the pool or nearby cafes loaded with car seat, stroller, diaper bag, and breast pump; early mornings, when Zoe gives a soft baby-chuckle and Kaysaree melts with love for her all over again.
Brenda managed to eke out two weeks off work after Zoe was born; she was startled by how difficult it was to go back. "I really didn't want to be at work; I wanted to be spending time with the baby, even if all she did was sleep."