THE PARENTS: Kendra Berry-Stankovich, 31, and Michael Stankovich, 31, of Eagleville
THE CHILDREN: Wyatt Benjamin, 6; Isabel Grace, 4; and Danica Joy and Quinnlyn Rose, born Feb. 20, 2020
HOW IT ALL BEGAN: They were watching Polar Express with friends just before winter break in 2008; Kendra snuggled up to Michael, and he reached for her hand. “We were just friends,” he says. “And all of a sudden: No, we’re more than friends.”
This is how Kendra fed her infant twins in the time of the coronavirus: She pumped at home, filling a freezer with baggies of milk, then drove some of it to Einstein Medical Center Montgomery.
In the lobby, a nurse checked her temperature; someone else came downstairs with a bin and wiped the baggies with antiseptic. Then Kendra got back in the car — Michael and the older kids were waiting — and drove home, trying to explain the unexplainable to Wyatt and Izzie:
“Why can’t we go to the playground?”
"Why can’t we go to Chick-fil-A?
“Mommy’s stomach is empty, but where are the babies? Why can’t we see them?”
“The first time I had to do it, I was almost in tears,” Kendra says. “I was in the hospital lobby, I could see the pathway to the NICU. I thought: I’m right here, but [the babies] have no idea.”
There was a period — a long one, after Izzie’s birth — when Kendra and Michael couldn’t fathom having another child. They’d used IVF to conceive Wyatt because Kendra’s polycystic ovary syndrome made an unassisted pregnancy unlikely. They had frozen two embryos and had two implanted, hoping for the twins Kendra had always wanted.
“We saw two little gestational sacs, and I was so excited. I started looking at double strollers, double bassinets.” Then, after her eight-week checkup, while the couple distracted themselves with pizza at the King of Prussia Mall, the clinic called: Just one heartbeat. Just one baby.
“I remember sitting there in silence, praying: Please be wrong. Please be wrong,” Kendra says.
Wyatt’s birth was early and quick. Following a night of “uber-nesting” during which Kendra insisted on assembling the baby swing and changing the tub nozzles, she arrived at Einstein already 4 centimeters dilated. She pushed for 12 minutes.
“Toward the end, the midwife grabbed my arm: ‘You’re going to catch the baby!’ ” Mike recalls. The baby was fine — 6 pounds, alert and calm, breathing well on his own.
Two years later, they were considering another round of IVF when Kendra felt slammed with fatigue and grabbed a pregnancy test from the Dollar Store. Three tests later, they were convinced.
That milestone also marked the start of an emotional downslide. Kendra worried about the family’s finances; she was losing weight and felt overwhelmed by parenthood. Once, she thought about driving off a bridge. “The only thing that kept me from doing it was that I was pregnant and I wanted the baby to have a chance.”
After Isabel was born — another quick labor, just after a January blizzard — Kendra had a brief period of equanimity. Then there was a morning when Izzie was wailing and Wyatt had smeared the contents of his diaper on the nursery walls.
“I totally zoned out; I was having a really bad anxiety attack,” Kendra says. It took four hospital stays, several rounds of intensive outpatient treatment, medication, and weekly appointments with a therapist to tame her suicidal thoughts and regain her balance. Wyatt spent the summer of 2016 with his paternal grandparents, while Kendra’s mom took care of Izzie.
It wasn’t until the following fall that Kendra felt herself turn an emotional corner. “I started feeling like I wanted to become a mom again.” They brought the kids home gradually: Wyatt first, then Isabel. The couple sold their house in Norristown and moved in with Kendra’s mom to be closer to the help she still relied on.
Last summer, they began thinking about those two remaining embryos. “These were lives in waiting, just frozen in time,” Kendra says. “I felt like they both needed the opportunity to thrive.”
Friends and family were concerned, even skeptical: What if all the kids are crying at once? What if you have another relapse? But Michael had watched Kendra work hard to find stability as a person, as a parent. “I tried to stick by her: If you feel you’re ready, then let’s do it.”
This time, both hearts kept beating. This time, Kendra thought, she’d be there for all the infant milestones. That resolve powered her through a physically taxing pregnancy, including surgery at 26 weeks to remove a periurethral cyst.
The pains she was having at nearly 31 weeks didn’t alarm Kendra: They’re just Braxton Hicks contractions, she told her sister on the phone. Even at Einstein, where she had to grab the wall near the elevator, she assumed a triage nurse would check her and send her home.
Instead, 20 minutes after she arrived at the hospital, she delivered Danica. Quinnlyn, who was breech, came by C-section half an hour later, her umbilical cord knotted around her neck. Kendra and Michael saw them in the NICU near midnight — infants with GI tubes and CPAP masks, their bodies the size of their mother’s hands.
They learned a new routine: daily visits to Pennsylvania Hospital, where the girls were briefly transferred, to hold the babies and change their minuscule diapers. Two weeks later, the babies were back at Einstein. Then a nurse called, one Friday evening, in tears: Because of COVID-19, the medical center was under lockdown. No more visits. Not even to the NICU.
“It was a weird, strange period. I had to grieve what I had imagined to be my birth experience, the kids meeting each other, bringing the babies home,” Kendra says. “I had to mourn what I had anticipated and dreamed of.”
The couple’s courtship in 2008 — goofing around at the Art Museum during College Day on the Parkway, followed by a winter break of hours-long telephone calls — seems both ancient and prescient. It was during those conversations that they first discussed children and bantered about their names.