THE PARENTS: Cristal Marte, 27, and Isaiah Bates, 25, of Camden
THE CHILD: Jordan Christopher, born Sept. 30, 2020
THE NAME: Isaiah didn’t want a “junior,” but he did want something of himself — in this case, his middle name, Jordan — for the baby. Christopher is the name of Cristal’s younger brother.
Cristal was the fourth woman to become pregnant in the pediatric office where she works as a medical assistant. “There must be something in the water,” she and her colleagues joked in the staff room.
When she showed Isaiah the drugstore test — the first one, then the next eight she took just to be certain — he grinned and said, “I knew it.” For several weeks, he’d been telling Cristal that something was different, that she smelled … well, like a baby.
“It wasn’t a surprise to me,” he says. “I was very happy.”
The two had talked about kids the way they talked about marriage: casually, vaguely, a plan for “sometime” rather than “now.” Cristal loved children — she began working as a nanny while in nursing school — and Isaiah had helped raise the twin sisters who were born when he was 11. “My dad wasn’t really in my life too much. I wanted a chance to do what he didn’t,” he says.
They just didn’t expect parenthood to come quite so soon. The pair met in 2017, when both were certified nursing assistants at a nursing home. Isaiah had just moved to the area from St. Louis to live with a cousin, and Cristal was assigned to be his trainer at work.
Their first date was to the Voorhees Diner. “To be honest, he was taking me more seriously than I was taking him,” Cristal remembers. “I was in nursing school, so I wasn’t really thinking of being in a relationship. He kind of reeled me in.”
Soon they were talking on the phone daily, going out to eat, watching Netflix. When the situation with Isaiah’s cousin turned sour — acrimonious enough that Isaiah considered returning to Missouri — Cristal’s support helped steady him.
“She was always there for me,” he says. “It’s not like I was in love with New Jersey, but I didn’t want to leave her.”
As for Cristal, she was initially charmed by Isaiah’s Missouri accent; later, she loved his warm personality, work ethic, and devotion to family.
She did not love being pregnant. The first trimester brought unrelenting nausea and aversion to any food but popsicles. Later, she developed gestational diabetes. Her feet ballooned with swelling — first the right, then the left. “I let everybody know: Unless I ask for advice, please don’t give it to me. I was not a happy camper when I was pregnant.”
Still, there were highlights, including the daylong gender reveal: first, an ultrasound, then a visit to a friend who took the sealed envelope, noted the contents, and released a banner filled with blue balloons onto the ecstatic couple. Both had hoped for a boy.
To prepare for labor and birth, Cristal relied on her training as a nurse, a rotation in obstetrics, and the memory of being present at the deliveries of her two godsons. She found a doula through Community Doulas of South Jersey and met with her several times via Zoom, asking about the swelling and sharing her hopes for an unmedicated vaginal delivery.
“She never made me feel I was asking too much,” she says. “She supported me in a real way.”
By late September, a week past her due date, Cristal recalls thinking, “This is enough. He needs to come out.” A Sunday-evening induction at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital led to contractions — first mild, then wrenching — and a stall at 8 cm that seemed to last an eon.
Nothing helped — not the breathing exercises she’d practiced with her doula, not the epidural. Cristal spiked a fever, and the doctor ordered a C-section.
“I was so ready for it to be done,” she says. “I barely remember him coming out. I just remember throwing up and being completely out of it.”
But Isaiah recalls every moment: his anguish as he watched Cristal in pain; his elation and tears when someone placed an infant in his arms.
Once at home, breast-feeding was difficult; Jordan screamed with hunger every two hours, but because he didn’t latch well, Cristal began pumping, feeding him bottles and supplementing with formula.
“Breast-feeding is the most challenging thing I’ve ever had to do,” she says. “I wasn’t producing enough milk, and I felt like my body was failing me.”
Isaiah remembers those early weeks as “a blur — trying to figure out what the baby wants and needs.” He works as a tattoo artist in Atlantic City, so he gets home from work around 2 a.m. and takes a stint with Jordan until the predawn hours, then sleeps from 5 to 10 a.m.
It helps that Cristal’s grandmother, who lived with her throughout Cristal’s childhood, also shares their home. She sings Dominican folk songs to Jordan, and the rhythms seem to soothe him. Cristal speaks only Spanish to the baby; she wants him to grow up bilingual, as she did.
As parents, Cristal and Isaiah want to replicate — and reboot — their own childhoods. Cristal remembers summers at the Shore; she’d like to take Jordan to Disney World. She also hopes to foster more open communication. “I want him to feel comfortable telling me anything, regardless of what it is.”
Parenting is reminding her, despite her experience as a medical assistant and a nanny, that every day calls for an open mind. “You’re still learning, every step of the way.”
As for Isaiah, he credits his mother with “teaching me everything.” Still, there was an absence, and he hopes to fill that gap for Jordan. “The biggest part is … knowing your dad is there. I’m going to be there for him.”
Perhaps Jordan already knows. Isaiah thinks about how the baby fusses when he tries to put him down. And he recalls one of his most gratifying fatherhood moments: He was at work, and Cristal told him that the baby had woken up, opened his eyes, and scanned the room as if to ask, “Where’s Dad?”