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Daily life is management, and jolts of joy, couple finds

“I remember being excited about all the not-exciting parts of being a mom — little moments, like sitting and reading with them, holding them, just connecting with this little person."

Hilary and Evan Cantiello with children Luca, left, and Elinor.
Hilary and Evan Cantiello with children Luca, left, and Elinor.Read moreAlyssa Pearson

THE PARENTS: Hilary Cantiello, 35, and Evan Cantiello, 35, of Overbrook

THE KIDS: Elinor Pearson, 3; Luca Antonio, born June 25, 2020

A POSTPARTUM OASIS: Camping out in bed for a week after Luca’s birth, not entertaining visitors but instead having picnics and watching Pixar movies.

Hilary’s master’s thesis was due on Monday. But on Saturday, Evan begged her to come to Reading Terminal Market. “I need you to help me find stuff,” he said.

She wept from anxiety on the way downtown. She felt baffled as Evan led her to the honey stand in the center of the bustling market and remained clueless even when two friends showed up, singing a song by the Old 97s.

“I was still not making the connection — I mean, what were the chances our friends would be there? Then Evan pulled out a ring.”

That was March 2011, nearly five years since the two met, on a summer Youth Ministry in the Wilderness course taught by Hilary’s father, a professor at Eastern University. She was her father’s teaching assistant; Evan was one of his students.

For two weeks, they were together nonstop: a van ride to Colorado followed by days of white-water rafting, hiking, and tent camping. At one point, when the weather suddenly turned stormy during a hike, and the group had to huddle in a rocky alcove, Hilary whispered to Evan, “Are you OK?”

“I was impressed by how thoughtful she was,” he recalls. “When we got home, I unpacked, and the first thing I wanted to do was call Hilary and go climbing with her.” Their first date was at a rock gym in Downingtown.

After graduation, they split up for a year — ”we were trying to figure out our independent lives,” Evan says — before getting back together in 2008. They married in October 2011, a day Evan remembers for the moment when he was supposed to speak his vows but felt so stunned that Hilary had to jostle his hand.

They had talked about all the ways of making a family: giving birth, fostering, and adopting. Evan had studied youth ministry and worked as an adviser at Covenant House, a shelter and transition program for youths. “One of the reasons I was interested in marrying Evan was because he cared for kids that weren’t his own,” Hilary says.

Evan, whose own childhood wasn’t always supportive or safe, says he saw himself in those struggling teens. “And I always knew I wanted to be a parent with Hilary.” After five years of marriage, they agreed to “let’s just see what happens.”

On the day Hilary took a pregnancy test, Evan recalls sitting in the bedroom, listening as she read the instructions aloud. Silence. Then a gasp. “I ran in. I think I knocked first. I remember picking up the test: a combo of total elation and complete fear.”

They were about to leave for Spain to visit friends, a trip Hilary remembers for the indulgences she couldn’t stomach. “I didn’t want to eat anything. I couldn’t drink the wine. I was so tired, taking naps every day.”

But the remainder of the pregnancy was healthy. At a Ryan Adams & the Cardinals concert, when the band struck a deep, loud, bass chord, the baby began kicking wildly, as if dancing in the womb.

Evan painted the house, tried to solve a wiring problem that resulted in accidentally punching through a wall in the nursery closet, and read The Birth Partner on the trolley, occasionally drawing curious looks from passengers who peered over his shoulder at the drawings.

“I remember being excited about all the not-exciting parts of being a mom — little moments, like sitting and reading with them, holding them, just connecting with this little person,” Hilary says.

She labored at home for 17 hours, long enough to binge-watch Parks and Recreation, pace the hallway, and finally, at 3 a.m., bundle in a blanket for the drive to Lifecycle WomanCare in Bryn Mawr. There, she labored in a Jacuzzi, closing her eyes between contractions. Before her final push, as the midwife and nurse helped her from the bed to a birthing stool, she paused, placed a hand on each of their shoulders, and said, “Thank you.”

The baby was born still in the amniotic sac on the night of the harvest moon.

“I was able to catch her. I turned to Hilary and said, ‘It’s Elinor,’ ” Evan remembers.

Those first weeks of parenthood brought a whiplash of emotions — lonely, exhausted stretches in the middle of the night and sublime moments in the early morning, when Evan snuggled Elinor inside his jacket, fed her a bottle, and sat with her until she fell asleep.

They wanted another. Last fall, Hilary visited an urgent care center for a persistent earache, and the nurse ordered a routine pregnancy test. “Umm … can we talk to you?” the nurse said afterward.

Hilary told Evan with a plate of Federal Donuts and a positive test stick; over the next weeks and months, they explained to Elinor how “mommy’s belly was going to grow, and our family’s going to grow.”

The first trimester was uneventful. Then COVID-19 came — news that Evan, who works at the Independence Blue Cross Foundation, had been following closely. Hilary is senior research coordinator at the Center for Mental Health at the University of Pennsylvania. In March, both began working at home.

Hilary’s water broke on the dot of midnight. In the car, a radio station played Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” back-to-back with Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It.” They delivered in the same birth center room where Elinor had been born — and, after a 7 a.m. shift change, with the same midwife and nurse.

Now, daily life is “a flexibility game,” Evan says, including one recent day when he managed a work emergency from his computer upstairs while Hilary dealt with a conference call, a nursing baby, and a toddler who refused to nap.

Then there are spontaneous jolts of joy. The other night, Elinor kept dashing up to Luca to declare, “I love you!” Each time, she coaxed a burst of giggles from her brother, who had just learned to laugh.