THE PARENTS: Mo Manklang Kingston, 40, and Brendan Manklang Kingston, 40, of Frankford
THE CHILD: Rex Gabriel, born Sept. 27, 2021
HIS NAME: Both were drawn to gender-neutral first names, and Gabriel is the middle name of Mo’s older brother, who died 20 years ago. “I really wanted to honor him,” she says.
Mo charts her gestation not by months, but by foods: There was the tofu stage. The pierogi period. The cheesesteak craving. And the stretch when she had an appetite, but hearing Brendan name menu possibilities — ”how about tacos for dinner?” — made her gag.
Mostly, she says, “I loved being pregnant.”
Conception hadn’t come easily. They’d tried on their own for four years, then sought help from fertility specialists for two rounds of intrauterine inseminations, neither of which worked. A round of IVF yielded not a single viable egg.
Their insurance would cover one more cycle. “I have an arrogantly hopeful take on most things: Oh, it’ll work out,” Mo says. “When it didn’t work for the IUIs and the first IVF, it was really difficult.” She hates needles, so the two would play the “Weird Science” song during each at-home injection.
The statistics cited by their doctors didn’t inspire hope. “It seemed so unlikely,” Brendan says. “OK, we have the egg, but will it attach? If it attaches, will it stay?”
Mo had already taken a batch of pregnancy tests when the clinic called. It was March 2021, so COVID-19 caution restricted any celebration; they ate dinner outdoors, by themselves, and called family and friends to share the good news.
Earlier in their lives, neither had been sure they wanted kids. Both had endured difficult relationships; Brendan was in the process of divorce when they met, and Mo was coming out of a wounding breakup.
They met on a Philly improv team called Skeletons Etc. For months, they actively tried not to fall in love. “We didn’t want to mess up the group vibe,” Mo says. “But when you’ve been through enough bad stuff, you immediately know what you want when you find it.”
They made each other laugh. They commiserated about their respective heartbreaks. They shared a yen for “strange, offbeat things” — Halloween and Harry Potter and an obscure Norwegian film called Trollhunter. There was that night — Aug. 30, 2014 — when they stayed up talking until daybreak.
“At some point, I thought: You only find the perfect person once. I have to stop pretending this isn’t going to happen,” Brendan says.
When Mo’s lease ended, they moved in together. And in November 2015, they traveled to Thailand — Mo is half-Thai and half-Filipina — for a festival, Loy Krathong. “I could tell that Brendan also fell in love with the culture, the country, the food, the way of life,” Mo says. “That meant so much to me.”
While she’s typically the trip planner, in February 2016 Brendan arranged a weekend in Rehoboth Beach, Del., with a side trip to Assateague Island to see the wild horses. Mo remembers trudging along a gray, dreary beach for hours, wondering if they would ever stop walking or see a wild horse.
Finally, Brendan dropped to one knee in the sand. A stranger walking several hundred feet away shouted “Congratulations!” They left the beach with piles of driftwood — mementos, Mo said, and material for future art projects.
“We have it around the house,” she says. “I made a jewelry hanger out of one piece. I kept thinking: He’s going to retract [the proposal] because I’m forcing him to carry a lot of driftwood.”
They married three days before the 2016 general election; a friend ruefully referred to their wedding later as “the last time we were all together and happy.” For weeks, the couple had strung LED candles on cords to replicate the “floating candle” images in Harry Potter films; upon arrival at Christ Church Neighborhood House, the cords had become an impenetrable tangle, and members of the wedding party had to unknot and redo them.
Their first dance, with every guest joining the chorus, was to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” And at the reception, in lieu of cake, they had a local ice creamery create a custom flavor, a chocolate-coffee-beer-inflected treat they dubbed “Kingklang Jawn.” Guests could pair it with a variety of cookies for ice cream sandwiches.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to have kids,” Mo recalls. “But Brendan is really funny; he often looks like a big kid when he’s dancing. One of those times, I looked at him and thought: I want to make a little version of you.”
Brendan initially shared her ambivalence about parenthood. “But getting older, and being in a relationship where I felt really happy, I thought: This isn’t a bad idea.”
The baby was due Nov. 10, just after their five-year anniversary. By mid-September, Mo was starting to dilate; she spent a few days in the hospital, with steroids and magnesium and a realization that the baby could arrive at any time.
A few days later, while at a Saturday lunch with a friend, her water broke. Contractions became intense on Sunday; Rex arrived at 1 a.m. Monday. During labor, they distracted themselves with comedy sketches, or Brendan would improvise a little dance between contractions.
“I’m not the kind of person who wants to get visceral,” Mo says. “But when it was actually happening, I said, ‘I want the mirror.’ Nothing has made me more amazed at the human body, at my own body, than that.”
Rex was big for a preemie — 5 pounds, 11 ounces — and initially needed breathing support, as well as time in an incubator to control his body temperature and a light to treat jaundice. For more than two weeks, they parented in shifts; COVID protocols meant only one parent in the NICU at a time.
And the week they brought Rex home, Brendan’s cat needed dental surgery to remove all his teeth. Their roof had sprung a leak that burst through the living room ceiling. Nothing was baby-ready in the house.
But years of improv had schooled them: to communicate, to be vulnerable, to trust, and to support each other. “You never run out of lullabies,” Brendan says. “You just make them up.”