Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Focusing on the upside to pandemic parenting

Both had passed the relative test, with a dual-family Passover gathering in Arizona, where Katie’s mom lives.

Katie and Phil with baby Madeleine
Katie and Phil with baby MadeleineRead moreElana Congress

THE PARENTS: Katie Congress, 35, and Phil Goldhar, 32, of Fairmount

THE CHILD: Madeleine Dawn, born March 23, 2020

THE GENDER REVEAL: On a Thanksgiving trip to Arizona last year, the couple asked the woman who had made their wedding cake to bake a small one — they didn’t yet know the baby’s sex, themselves — so the whole family could be surprised when they cut it.

The baby wasn’t due until April 2. But on the weekend of March 21, Katie felt a sudden urge to cross items off her to-do list. She and Phil finally ordered a wedding photo album. They finished their taxes. They set up the nursery.

At midnight Sunday, Katie woke up to drenched sheets. She texted a friend who works nights as a labor and delivery nurse: “I think my water broke. I don’t know what to do.”

Outside Jefferson Hospital, tents were set up so non-COVID-19 patients wouldn’t have to enter the emergency room. An employee suited head-to-toe in personal protective gear walked the couple to the elevator. Then they spent the night pacing laps in the hallway, checking work emails, sipping the coconut water Katie had packed, and using Phil’s iPad to watch Little Fires Everywhere.

Both had been open to children — maybe two, like Phil’s family, or perhaps three, like Katie and her sisters. “I wanted to create something between the two of us, to contribute to our little family unit,” Katie says.

Phil has fond memories of his own dad, a professor, being the only father to tag along on grade school field trips. “I could tell he loved it. I wanted to do that stuff. I couldn’t imagine not being a dad.”

The two met at a couple of mutual-friend parties in late 2014. Katie was about to leave for a trip to India — a friend’s wedding followed by a yoga retreat — and she texted Phil, including a photo of the bridesmaids in their new saris, while there.

» READ MORE: Julie and Nate Overly open their home and hearts with adoptions

When she returned, they met for dinner on a Sunday night. The following Friday, Phil came to her apartment — he wasn’t dissuaded by the hacking cough she’d picked up from pollution in India — and the two watched a movie. Two days later, they wandered Reading Terminal, bought groceries, and cooked together.

For Valentine’s Day, Phil surprised Katie with what he hoped would be a luxurious wine-and-cheese-making experience in Pennsylvania farmland; actually, it was 14 degrees outside, and only one of the cheeses set fast enough for them to sample it. In April, they traveled to New Orleans: a weekend of jazz, beignets, and saying “I love you” for the first time.

“Katie loved to travel, and that really intrigued me,” Phil says. “I’m maybe a little bit more of a planner, and she’s more carefree.” Katie was impressed by his attentiveness and generosity; when the two traveled to Hawaii for a wedding, Phil made coffee each morning for Katie and all her friends.

Both had passed the relative test with a dual-family Passover gathering in Arizona, where Katie’s mom lives. They were planning a trip to Bali and Hong Kong. But the Saturday after Election Day 2016, Phil sent Katie a calendar invite to do “something” in Washington Square Park.

The park was nearly empty, except for one man slouching on a bench: the father of a mutual friend, his camera hidden, ready to snap pictures as soon as Phil proposed. They were married in Arizona, a weekend-long fest that included a group hike and a welcome barbecue for 150 people.

Katie wasn’t ready for children; first, she wanted to run the 2018 Philadelphia Marathon. But by July of the following year, she was squinting at a pregnancy test — was that two lines? — in the middle of the night.

Despite persistent nausea in the first trimester, Katie managed a 22-mile overnight hike on another trip to Hawaii. She continued exercising, going to the office and to spin classes even as COVID-19 began to dominate headlines.

» READ MORE: Jennifer and Michael Kitchen, in their bubble with a toddler and a baby

When they arrived at Jefferson, doulas were still permitted in labor rooms, and birth partners could come and go from the hospital at will. Phil dashed across the street to get Katie a Wawa bagel with cream cheese; the doula used a heating pad and massaged Katie’s lower back.

She was on a portable IV to deliver Pitocin and penicillin since she’d tested positive for Group B strep. Sensors on her belly kept slipping every time she moved. But finally, after two hours of pushing, “I felt her shift, starting to come down more. The doctor said, ‘We can see her head.’ I reached down and could feel her hair. I’d done a lot of prenatal yoga, and the breathing really helped. I was able to keep myself calm.”

When Madeleine was on her chest, umbilical still attached, “I really thought I would cry,” Katie recalls. “But it was more like relief. It was amazing — to see this little baby, a real baby, just after coming out.”

By the time they left the hospital, the pandemic had changed everything: Katie’s mother had managed to fly to Philadelphia but was quarantining in an Airbnb, while Phil’s parents had postponed their trip. Sleep-starved and bombarded with conflicting advice (“keep the baby indoors … no, take her outside”), Katie and Phil snapped at each other in frustration.

“Regardless of a pandemic, it’s really hard on a relationship. We needed to work out a routine so we weren’t both awake all night,” Katie says. “It’s an adjustment: how your body and your life are not really your own anymore.”

Phil laughs ruefully at his pre-parenthood vision of lazy Saturdays, getting coffee with a newborn in a front pack. “That’s not the reality,” he says.

Both think back to good counsel they received — a friend who told Phil, “I release you of any guilty feelings about giving your kid a bottle” and the email from Katie’s sister-in-law reminding her that “it’s OK to mourn your prior life.”

And there is a golden side to parenting through a pandemic. “We’ve been able to have so much time alone with her,” Katie says. “Also, everyone’s previous life changed at the same time. It’s not like we were missing things.”