THE PARENTS: Alyssa McKnight, 35, and Erich Anderson, 32, of Claymont, Del.
THE CHILD: Rowan Charles, born June 7, 2021
HIS NAME: They tossed around ideas even before they were pregnant and both loved Rowan, an Irish name that, according to Alyssa, was “not too typical or too unique.”
The hike in Ricketts Glen State Park was their turning point. Alyssa had already said “I love you” to Erich a month earlier; she was starting to feel despondent that she might never hear those words in return. As they trekked toward the waterfall, she started to get teary.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Erich said when he saw her eyes crest. “But maybe this will make you feel better.” And he read her a poem he’d written, saying how much he loved her.
“The only reason I hadn’t made a move was that I was so nervous; this [relationship] was way too good to be true,” he recalls. “I eventually said to myself: OK, Erich, just calm down and trust her.”
They met online, through the dating app Plenty of Fish; soon they were swapping jokes, including a 10-minute riff on farm puns like “Mooove on over.” Erich felt nervous to meet in person — he was new to online dating — but their first rendezvous, for coffee, went so well that it segued into dinner.
He learned that Alyssa had lost 300 pounds following bariatric surgery the previous year, and that she had asthma. Immediately after their date, he threw away his cigarettes, jettisoning a nine-year habit.
“There was no hiding anything; there was no lying,” he recalls. “I thought: This is a person I could absolutely trust.”
That was 2017. The following April, they moved in together and found new rhythms to their relationship. Alyssa cooks; Erich cleans. He’s more savvy with money; she’s more eager for adventures. “We play off each other’s humor,” Alyssa says.
She was eager to move toward marriage — they talked hypothetically about who would be in their wedding party — but Erich was characteristically hesitant. There was a casual conversation in the car near the end of 2018 — ”When do you want to get married? Next year? OK” — but he officially proposed on Valentine’s Day at the Victor Cafe.
Alyssa helped design the ring, featuring a marquis diamond with Celtic knots, honoring the couple’s Irish ancestry. At their 2019 wedding, Erich recalls, “I was extremely nervous. The part where I had the most anxiety was right before I saw Alyssa come down the aisle, even though I knew she wasn’t going to run away at the altar.”
Kids or no kids: That was the question. This time, Erich was the sure one. “I’ve always wanted to be a dad,” he says. “I was waiting for the right person.”
It was Alyssa who equivocated. “It changes things. It’s a big expense,” she says. “We didn’t want to have kids if we couldn’t afford to give them everything we wanted to give them. In the end, we decided to try.”
It took a year. They were on the verge of starting fertility treatment when Alyssa texted a photo of a pregnancy test to three of her friends: “Is that a second line?” Erich was on a fishing trip with his brother when he got Alyssa’s message: “Can you please come home as soon as you can?”
His brother said, “She’s either pregnant or she’s leaving you.” At home, Alyssa gave him a card and a shirt that said “Dadalorian,” a play on The Mandaloriantelevision series based on Star Wars. “I remember looking at her: Is this for real?”
The pregnancy was a rough ride, with nausea so extreme that Alyssa had to start her maternity leave early. They went light on preparation for labor — no books, no videos, just a trust that “whatever happens, happens,” Alyssa says — but threw their energy into decorating: a Star Wars nursery featuring a Diaper Genie that looks like R2-D2, space-themed curtains and rug, and an accent wall depicting a scene from the movie.
Early in Alyssa’s third trimester, her doctors became concerned about the baby’s heart: It was enlarged and sometimes beat irregularly. They recommended a C-section at 38 weeks.
Erich recalls standing in the operating room at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, the seconds slogging past. “Just talk to me,” Alyssa said, so he told her about Maine, where they like to vacation. “I hear a nurse say, ‘I can see his head.’ That’s when I heard Rowan cry for a moment.’”
The couple barely got a glimpse — a blond, blue-eyed, 8-pound infant — before he was whisked to the NICU. When they saw their son next, he was in a tangle of wires and machines monitoring his heart and oxygen levels. Later, Rowan was transferred to the cardiac ICU at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; for three weeks, Alyssa and Erich stayed in a hotel and took an Uber to the hospital each day.
“It was the longest three weeks of my life,” Erich says. “I just wanted to take our little boy home.” Each time doctors thought Rowan might be strong enough to be discharged, his oxygen would plummet again. He was diagnosed with severe sleep apnea. He would rally, then crash, then rally again.
“It was not easy on my recovery,” Alyssa says. “I had to use pain medicine for longer than I would have otherwise. I was not able to rest.”
Meantime, nurses delivered the equivalent of baby-care boot camp: how to diaper, feed, and burp their son. And when it was finally time to leave the hospital, the couple missed that expert guidance.
“Wait. We have to take care of him 24 hours a day now?” Alyssa recalls thinking. “We don’t have nurses to take care of him? That was a little overwhelming.”
They learned to take turns at night so that one of them was able to sleep. They adjusted to the rhythms of every-two-weeks cardiac appointments that eventually eased to every two months. They use the diaper-changing technique the NICU nurses taught them.
“In my mind, we finally felt like a family because we had him home,” Erich says.