THE PARENTS: Cassidy Duckett, 30, and Sean Britt, 30, of Springfield
THE CHILD: Ella Benton Duckett-Britt, born April 28, 2021
HER NAME: Her names derive from both female and male family members, and they figure it’s flexible if Ella turns out to be gender-nonconforming or wants a less-feminine moniker. “She could be Ben or Benton or EB,” Cassidy says.
Cassidy figured out fast that Sean was the best artist in their college drawing class. So when the instructor asked students to pair up for an exercise in making charcoal portraits, he was her first pick.
“I have thin hair. I had acne. He made me look like I had this luscious hair and beautiful skin, with an appropriate-sized forehead. He contends the proportions were correct,” Cassidy says with a laugh.
And while she soon transferred from that school, the Appalachian Center for Craft, to finish her degree in art history at the University of Tennessee, the two continued to hang out.
“We could get each other’s jokes,” Sean says. They also tugged — in a good way — on each other’s temperaments. Cassidy’s confidence helped nudge Sean to do things outside his comfort zone, such as dancing with abandon in a gay bar they visited with a friend.
He helped her slow down. “He specialized in botany, and if we went on a walk in college, I’d say, ‘We need to get to the coffee shop,’ but he’d be crouching down and looking at the plants, looking at the bugs. Initially, it drove me insane, but then I realized: We need to look around.”
» READ MORE: Getting to know their baby
After college came adventures: The two worked on a Wyoming ranch, took a road trip across the United States, and backpacked through Europe before settling — at least, in a rented apartment — in Knoxville.
One day, while shopping for groceries, Cassidy said, “I think it would make sense for us to get married.” They did — a do-it-yourself wedding at an old grocery store that had been converted to an event space in a neighborhood called Happy Holler.
They served tacos and ice cream and had a “goofy little ceremony” officiated by a longtime friend. “It was very low-key and fun and very much us,” Cassidy says.
A few years later, when Cassidy decided to apply to law school, they zoomed in on Philadelphia as a city that was both affordable and the right size. They moved in 2018.
They’d talked about children and about a shared vision of multigenerational living. “I grew up with the idea that [extended] family was far away,” Sean says. “But I thought it was better for someone to grow up with lots of people instead of just a couple of opinions on how to live.”
When Sean was furloughed in spring 2020, and Cassidy’s law classes were all virtual, the pair decamped for her parents’ home in Knoxville and continued the conversation about child-rearing.
“As a woman, it’s hard to know when to have a child, especially when you’re starting a new career,” she says. “We had space and time with my parents to consider what we wanted to do next. My parents were clear: We want to help. We want to make this possible for you.”
» READ MORE: Bringing a clarity to their lives
So when Cassidy found her hand shaking as she clutched a positive pregnancy test last August, one day before starting her final year of law school, her parents soon sprung into action; they found a large house in Delaware County — enough space so that each couple has their own living room — and sold the Knoxville home where they’d lived for 25 years.
“They said, ‘This is our grandchild. We’re going to be here for you,’ ” Cassidy says. By March, the four adults were living together. Meantime, Cassidy endured some first-trimester nausea, some pelvic and hip joint pain, and the discomfort of being hugely pregnant.
In some ways, quarantine was a blessing: no subway commute; no need to carry an armload of law books around Temple’s campus. An inveterate planner, Cassidy used the time to furnish a nursery, research baby items, and watch a few birth videos online.
Sean took virtual classes in computer science, decided he liked it, and began a degree program at Temple last fall. He loved leaning in to hear the baby’s heartbeat. “To me, she was real but not real,” he says. “I was constantly excited to meet her.”
Cassidy bumped up her final exams so she could finish them by April 23 — a good move, because her labor began about a week before her due date. At the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, she had a stunning view of the city and “the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my whole life.”
An epidural, a nap, a half hour of pushing: Ella arrived just as an episode of House Hunters, a show Cassidy loves, was coming to its end. She watched the birth in a mirror that lowered from the ceiling. Sean had an even closer view.
“I’m basically holding Cassidy’s leg, and here comes her little head, the top of her hair. A second later, Cassidy pushed, and she was out. They had me cut the umbilical cord; my hand was shaking, and my arms had that prickly feeling: What is happening to my body? It obviously had a very visceral effect on me.”
Now they are five — plus the cat and the dog — a configuration that makes sense not only for their family but also for the planet, Sean says. “It’s an example for Ella of how we can share and people don’t all need to have their own space.”
What that means, day to day, is that a parent can hand the baby to a grandparent and then take a shower or read a magazine. It means Cassidy and Sean could reprise their Friday night date routine — in an abbreviated way, of course — with a recent jaunt, just the two of them, to pick up pizza.
“We knew Ella was OK and with her grandparents,” Cassidy says. “We parked our car on a side street and ate some of the pizza and then went home. We could just be two adults together, chatting and joking for a second. We have support; we have that space. It was a privilege to do that.”