THE PARENTS: Dana Strauss, 36, and Eric Strauss, 38, of Swarthmore
THE KIDS: Maya Sophia, 3; Lily Faye, born March 23, 2020
THEIR NAMES: It appealed to the couple that all four of their names shared a cadence: four letters, two syllables, with a soft accent on the first. “Sophia” is for Eric’s grandmothers, both named Sylvia, and “Lily” is for his grandfather, Lawrence, and Dana’s great-grandmother, Lillian.
There was a string attached.
When Dana arrived home, arms laden with groceries, she found a cord extending from the knob through the living room and ending at the computer, where a card read, “Press PLAY.”
She did: There was a scene from The Wedding Singer, immediately echoed in-person by Eric: tuxedo-clad, walking down the stairs of their Fairmount rowhouse, and strumming his guitar to the very same song. He’d tweaked the final lyrics into a marriage proposal.
They wed the following October, in 2015, at the Horticulture Center: a choreographed first dance in a space that felt the opposite of a “wedding factory,” with a ketubah that captured their vision of marriage, an image of two trees intertwined and growing in the same direction.
The two met in 2009, on a birthright trip to Israel. He was the long-haired, scruffy guy snapping photos of everyone — he worked as a wedding photographer at the time — so when they happened to cross paths again two years later, Dana didn’t recognize the clean-shaven, short-haired guy calling her name on a corner near Rittenhouse.
But it wasn’t until their third encounter — a Facebook birthday message that led to drinks with friends and a spontaneous end-of-the-evening kiss — that the relationship began to click. Dana, just finishing art school to launch a career in motion graphics, was about to leave Philly for a job in New York.
Eric was persistent: "Let’s have lunch. Let’s get drinks. You have to eat, so let’s meet and go to dinner real quick.
“Our relationship continued to get closer and closer despite physically getting further apart,” he recalls. They binged on Sherlock Holmes episodes and met one another’s families (“He’s perfect!” declared Dana’s sister). When the friend who was caring for Dana’s cats couldn’t abide their mischief, Eric offered to build the animals a room in his basement.
“My boss said, ‘He must really love you,’ ” Dana recalls.
In March 2013 she moved back to Philadelphia, into the Fairmount home Eric and his father had spent several years renovating. After their wedding, they began “casually” trying to conceive. Six months later, Dana was pregnant, but after a 10-week ultrasound, a matter-of-fact physician delivered grim news: The fetus had stopped growing.
“We’d been keeping it a secret, so how do you say to people you love, ‘I was pregnant, but now I’m not?’ ” Dana says. “It was hard to have fallen in love with this tiny little bean and, in one second, have it taken away.”
The loss shifted their stance toward conception, Eric recalls, from “laissez-faire to more determined.” They were pregnant again four months later. “I was happy,” he says, “but I also approached it with trepidation: Now I know how fragile this is.”
At Dana’s 38-week checkup, the doctor noted some indications of preeclampsia and recommended an induction a week before her due date. That turned into a three-day saga: Pitocin, a labor that stalled at 6 centimeters, an unplanned C-section that left Dana in tears of pain, confusion, and, eventually, relief.
Eric felt certain that Dana would not want to repeat that ordeal. But he was wrong. “I’m close to my sister and my stepsiblings,” she says. “I wanted to make sure that whatever child we brought into the world had a friend with them to take through life.”
They talked through all the implications: the limits of their two-bedroom home, the challenges of public schooling, the appeal of a house with a yard contrasted with the coziness of their neighborhood, where Eric had spent 90 minutes passing a newborn Maya to the friends who welcomed them home from the hospital.
Finally, they decided: They’d “casually” try again, and if they became pregnant, they’d look for a house outside the city. Dana was pregnant by last summer, they found a place in Swarthmore and let Maya choose a nickname for her in-utero sibling; the name was “Ducky.”
The factor they didn’t plan on was the pandemic.
“I was petrified — not of the virus but of what it would mean for our world,” Dana says. “I was afraid of doing this alone, doing it without my family, without support.”
When Dana reported to Pennsylvania Hospital for blood work a few days before the birth, she held her breath in the elevator; by the time Lily was delivered, all hospital personnel were in masks.
“We came home [with Lily] toward nighttime, and that was the last we saw anybody for two months,” Eric recalls. No neighborly meal train this time; instead, he spent hours ordering groceries and more time disinfecting the packages when they arrived.
On Sundays, they’d take field trips to their new house — the interior still under renovation — and hang out in the backyard, which Eric had outfitted with a small swing set and sandbox.
The pandemic shrank their support network and forced them to slow down. Maya and her closest friend wept when their parents wouldn’t let them play together. “The world was right there, but we weren’t allowed to experience it,” Dana says.
Without activities — no music class, no welcome dinners with neighbors, no barbecue to mark Maya’s third birthday in July or Dana’s birthday in August — “I feel very stranded,” she says. “Like we’re moving, but we’re standing still.”
But then she looks at her girls. For the first few days after they brought Lily home, Maya ignored her new sister. Then she began fetching clean diapers and trying to teach the baby sign language. She even speaks for her, using a high, squeaky voice, ventriloquist-style, to tell Dana and Eric that Lily is hungry or tired or wants to play.