THE PARENTS: Jo Pierce, 32, and Michael Pierce, 35, of Conshohocken
THE CHILD: Margaret (Maggie) Leigh, born May 21, 2020
HER NAME: They used a spreadsheet to outline their options, deciding in the end on “Maggie,” just because they loved it, and “Leigh,” the middle name Jo dropped when she married. “We regifted it,” she says.
Michael wasn’t planning to check his coat — not with an engagement ring in a small box tucked into the inside buttoned pocket.
But coat-checking was the rule at the Barnes Foundation, their first stop on a Philadelphia day tour that he planned to cap with a proposal. “I thought the box would be visible if I put it in my pants pocket,” he recalls. “But you’re not allowed to walk through [the galleries] with your coat. I was sweating a little bit the whole time.”
After the museum, after lunch on Rittenhouse, after a walk on Addison Street where holiday lights were strung like bright beads, he finally dropped to one knee, managing to hit his hand on the way down.
“He started taking deep breaths. I knew something was about to happen,” Jo says.
That was Dec. 30, 2016 — three years after their first, less-than-memorable meeting at an annual concert that was a tradition for Jo’s brother and some colleagues of Michael’s.
“That first year, it was literally like a hello. We didn’t get a chance to talk,” Michael says. But at the Legwarmers concert the following year — Jo was costumed in aerobics attire, while Michael wore a Metallica T-shirt and a denim vest — “we hit it off and talked a little more.”
Jo was intrigued by his quiet humor and low-key style; he eschews Facebook and social media. Michael appreciated her “life of the party” energy, a complement to his own reserve.
He met her extended family at a cousin’s wedding. He moved into her Fairmount home, where the biggest challenge was growing accustomed to a cat whose mischief included knocking over water glasses at night and leaping from underneath chairs to nip the legs of people when they passed.
On New Year’s Eve 2017, a year after their engagement, they were married, at the Barnes. They recall freezing temperatures, a neighborhood photo shoot at their favorite spots, and Jo’s burst of joyful tears after they counted down at midnight.
“We knew we both wanted kids,” Michael says. “But we never said a specific number or timeline.” A month after their wedding, Jo began graduate school at Temple University, a two-year MBA program, and they wanted to wait before adding another responsibility.
In September of last year, Michael came home one day and could read the future from one look at Jo’s face. She’d been feeling lousy, she told him, and couldn’t wait to take the test. “We were like: What do we do now? I said, ‘I think we should go for a walk,’ ” Jo remembers.
The pregnancy was uneventful … until the pandemic hit at the start of her third trimester. Some of Jo’s prenatal appointments were switched to telehealth visits. Michael worried that he might not be permitted in the hospital’s delivery room. Jo stopped going to the grocery store. Mostly, they stayed indoors.
“So much was unknown at that point,” she recalls. “How someone infected with COVID would be impacted if they were pregnant, and how that would impact the baby.”
They read a few books on labor; they took an online birthing class; they peppered friends and family members with questions about infant care. Michael went for runs. Jo walked. They transformed their “catchall room” — it had been a roommate’s bedroom, then storage for out-of-season clothes — into a nursery with a woodland theme.
The baby was resolutely breech, so they scheduled a C-section for May 21 at Pennsylvania Hospital. “It didn’t feel frantic. We knew exactly when we were having a baby,” Jo says. And once Maggie was out, “it felt like a blur … such a balance between just being present in that moment and thinking, ‘Quick, get a picture.’ ”
No visitors were permitted at the hospital, but they came home to Jo’s parents, who had been quarantining in strict isolation for more than a month prior. They FaceTimed with other relatives and friends; people sent gifts and waved from the sidewalk.
Still, new parenthood was isolating and uncertain. “I’m an on-the-go person, so not operating at full capacity in those early weeks was really challenging for me,” Jo says. Despite the books they’d read, they felt stricken with questions: “Are we doing this right, and are we doing it safely? How should she sleep? What should she wear?”
“I remember, at least in the very beginning, not wanting to put her down. I wanted either me or Jo to be holding her,” Michael says. “I couldn’t stop watching her. I was a bundle of worries.”
The urge to cradle Maggie constantly, Jo says, was partly a concern for safety and “partially thinking: We’re never going to get this moment back. The days go so fast in the beginning.”
For a long time, Michael counted Maggie’s age in days: 6, 27, 54, 89. He didn’t stop until he reached 100. Around that time, they moved from Fairmount to Conshohocken, to a family house that had become available.
They miss the old neighborhood: Kelly Drive, sidewalk cafes, the Barnes, the young families whose kids would play together, pre-COVID. “It was bittersweet to leave that,” Michael says.
Parenthood and the pandemic have changed their lives in other ways. “There were so many things I’d plan my week around that now are not even on the radar,” Michael says. It’s a banner day if he can coax a chuckle by using his Cookie Monster voice. It’s worth waking up, Jo says, to see Maggie’s morning grin, an expression that indicates, “Wow, you’re here, too!”
“When we’re feeling so sleep-deprived, or out of control, or thinking, ‘What are we doing?’ we try to maintain a perspective that she’s really healthy and doing really well,” Michael says. And when the pandemic finally ends, they want to celebrate — a big room filled with family members and friends, close enough to hug.