The diagnosis -- following 10 failed intrauterine inseminations, three rounds of IVF, one "chemical pregnancy," and one blighted ovum that prompted an early miscarriage -- remained a nagging question mark.
"Unexplained infertility," the doctor said. And, after two years of blood tests and ultrasounds, injections with "long, terrible needles," and an egg retrieval procedure in which Nicole lost a lot of blood, she and Mark had to ask themselves whether their pursuit of biological parenthood made sense.
They'd driven back from a beach vacation for an appointment with their fertility specialist, who advised that any future egg retrievals be done in a hospital. Nicole had watched other women "graduate" from the fertility practice, leaving the office with smiles and sonogram images in hand.
"We drove back to the Shore, crying," Nicole remembers. "And we had a conversation in the car: What are we doing? What is our goal here? Our goal was a family."
Through Facebook, Nicole reconnected with a friend who'd endured multiple miscarriages and was now in the process of adopting. "It was the first time anyone had put that thought into my head: That there was another light at the end of the tunnel."
By the time Nicole and Mark had met on Match.com, both were in their 30s and starting to wonder whether marriage and children were dreams that would end in fulfillment or fizzle. "I felt like I was still waiting for the one person who was different from everybody else," Nicole says.
That man was Mark. They discovered a shared affinity for The Princess Bride and began heading their e-mails "Inconceivable!" Later, on a trip to Washington, they found themselves punting baby names back and forth. When Nicole said she'd always wanted to name a daughter Elena, after her grandmother, Mark replied, "Elena Michaels. That sounds nice."
They married in 2012 at St. Peter Roman Catholic Church in Merchantville. Mark remembers hearing the priest murmur while he mouthed, "You look beautiful" and, "I love you" to Nicole across the altar. Nicole remembers the swell of trumpets as they walked up the aisle, hand in hand.
"We began trying [to conceive] right away, because of my age," she says. Though the fertility specialist remained upbeat, the two rode a sine curve of rising hope and plummeting disappointment. "There were many tear-filled nights," Mark recalls. "Eventually, you start expecting failure."
Nicole, a fourth-grade teacher, had to leave school twice when she learned that colleagues were pregnant. She cringed through other people's christenings and baby showers.
Adoption meant a new path -- though not necessarily a smooth one. The first match happened quickly, just a few weeks after submitting their profile book (Mark calls it "your life in 10 pages") to A Baby Step Adoption; the birth mother was young, with one child already and a husband who was in jail. But as they talked on the phone, it became clear she wasn't committed to adoption; she wanted to breast-feed her baby in the hospital and hoped to name the child herself.
The next match was a woman in Kansas, a 45-year-old grandmother who called her pregnancy "a mistake" and didn't want to start over with an infant. But in that case, the birth father turned up -- he even posted a sonogram picture on his Facebook page -- and the pair recoiled from the prospect of a court battle they might end up losing.
In June, the third call came: A woman in Arizona who had eight other children, none of them in her care. Nicole and Mark sent her a letter. Then a batch of cookies. The social worker from A Baby Step provided updates: the woman was due in December. No -- whoops -- make that October. Then they learned that a C-section was scheduled for Sept. 8.
"We were over-the-moon excited, looking online for flights," Nicole remembers. They flew to Arizona on Sept. 7 and met the birth mother that night, in the hospital, after a frantic shopping trip to Marshall's for a woman they'd never even spoken to by phone: one bathrobe, size large; one pair of slippers, size medium; a hairbrush; a nightgown.
Mark dashed to a Burger King across the street and, not knowing the birth mother's preferences, bought one of practically everything on the menu. "It was very nerve-wracking," Nicole recalls of their improvised dinner. "But once we sat down with her, there was no lack of conversation. She was the sweetest lady. She asked what we wanted to name the baby. We wished her good luck in the morning."
Hours later, they were back at the hospital, clenched in vinyl waiting-area chairs while the social worker sent texts and snapshots from the operating room. The baby weighed six pounds, five ounces. He had a fuzz of dark hair. The delivery was uncomplicated.
But the next few days brought another dose of drama: a man -- could it be the baby's father? -- came to visit the birth mom and told Nicole and Mark, "It's hard to give up your blood."
"You could tell that he was a little sad, and he left abruptly," Mark said. They spent three days in a maternity suite near the birth mother's room, then repaired to a hotel -- not the jubilant family homecoming Nicole had envisioned -- with their newborn son.
From the last half-year's blur, a few vivid moments stand out: When the social worker brought them a stack of papers to sign, saying, "He's all yours," and they both burst into tears. Later, when a judge in Reading looked down at Mark as the two were declared Philip's legal parents and said, "That kid fits really well in your arms."