THE PARENTS: Cortney Sze, 33, and Ken Sze, 34, of Northern Liberties
THE CHILDREN: Kenneth (K.J.), 20 months; Kaden, born Sept. 27, 2019
A PARENTHOOD “AHA”: Seeing other adults in a different light, Ken says. “I look at people who are parents and think: I know what you went through.”
She was the girl eating pizza in the corner of the boisterous club. He was the tallest Asian man she’d ever seen. And their first date, after that 2008 party, was anything but a typical collegiate night on the town: Ken picked Cortney up in a rented, gold-toned Crown Victoria, a single red rose in his hand, then took her to Devon Seafood Grill.
Never mind that he’d forgotten his credit card and had only $20 on hand. He frantically texted his best friend, who dashed to the restaurant and rescued him with a wad of cash. After that, there were more dates, more upscale restaurants; though both were students — he was studying finance at Drexel while she pursued a degree in nursing at Jefferson — Ken had a well-paid internship at a finance firm.
“I was attracted to Ken because he was really easy to talk to,” Cortney says. “He was a gentleman. And he dreamt big; the idea of opening a restaurant was always on the table. I’d never met anyone — romantically or as a friend — who could reach that large.”
They graduated. They traveled. They discovered one another’s quirks through living together: Ken’s tendency to leave stray socks around the house, Cortney’s habit of filling rooms with clothes. On a 2012 trip to Bermuda, while relaxing at an outdoor pool, Cortney was startled to see a waiter bring two glasses of champagne and a small blue box. “This little box came in the mail for you,” he deadpanned.
“I was so confused. I turned around, and Ken was on his knee.”
Both their families wanted traditional weddings — albeit, from two quite different traditions. Their first, at the Kimmel Center, was a black-tie affair for 150 people. A week later, they celebrated in Flushing, N.Y., with what felt like Ken’s father’s entire Chinese village: 450 people, a king crab and suckling pig on each table, a cocktail hour featuring Peking duck, scallops, and sushi.
What both remember is a singular, near-private moment. Ken thought the “first look” would be a hokey photo op. “But I was standing there, looking out the window. Cortney came up to me. We were holding hands, but with our backs to each other. Then the photographer said, ‘Turn around at the same time.’ I got a little emotional.”
They wanted children, but not quite yet. “I was enjoying myself: work, dinners out, going on vacation,” Cortney recalls. “One morning I woke up and thought: Now I’m ready. I really want kids right now.”
She became pregnant, then miscarried. Then it happened again. “I have a medical background, so I was trying to figure out why, why,” Cortney says. “It was devastating to have two miscarriages. But we saw an amazing doctor, and he reassured us after all the testing that it was just bad luck.”
With the next positive pregnancy test, Cortney worried: Would this one stick? “We were both really excited and really scared. I didn’t believe he was going to come out OK until I saw him.”
Her pregnancy was easy; the rest of life was a hectic blur. Ken was hustling to launch that long-dreamed-of restaurant, Tuna Bar, and Cortney had left nursing to open a boutique called The Geisha House. They were too busy for childbirth classes.
The baby — a boy, they’d learned — was a few days late when Cortney went to Pennsylvania Hospital for a routine stress test. “The nurse came back and said, ‘You guys ready to have a baby today?’ I was induced. Twelve hours of labor. I pushed for 40 minutes.
“Ken was massaging my hand and trying to whisper jokes in my ears during active labor. I said, ‘It’s not funny right now.’ ”
But at the moment KJ emerged, Ken stepped up: holding Cortney’s leg, helping ease the baby out. “It was amazing. Just a rush of emotion. I was right in there,” he recalls. “It was no joke.”
Though Ken considers himself a tenacious self-starter, a hard worker who can survive on minimal sleep, nothing prepared him for the body-slam of early parenthood. “I didn’t expect sleep deprivation to be that severe. It’s a real thing. I was so tired: KJ crying every hour, not sleeping.”
Cortney, meantime, found her lifelong anxiety amped up by postpartum hormones. “I’ve always had anxiety; it’s been a benefit for me, a push to get stuff done. But with the baby, it felt so out of control. There was a lot of crying.” Talking about her distress with friends and physicians, and starting a course of antidepressants, helped.
Then, they were stunned by another positive pregnancy test. The boys would be 17 months apart.
The pregnancy, Cortney says, was “seamless,” and the delivery — another induction, with 15 hours of labor — felt like déjà vu. They weren’t sure how much KJ understood about having a sibling — he’d been indifferent to the diapered doll Cortney bought him — but he responded in typical toddler fashion, alternating gentleness and jealousy.
Now, Cortney says, life is “crazy-ville” with two kids and two businesses. “I feel completely overwhelmed a lot of the time. I have some good days, and some horrible days. I struggle with anxiety, still. From morning until night, it’s just balancing everything — I’m breast-feeding Kaden and trying to watch KJ and answering email or doing Instagram posts with my one free hand.”
Ken lingers with KJ each morning until it’s time to leave for work, and he comes home each day during the restaurant’s slack time, from about 2 to 5 p.m., to be with the family. It helps that both his mother and Cortney’s live nearby.
Parenthood, Ken says, has bolstered his respect for his own parents. For Cortney, it’s been a cue to change her frantic pace. “Parenthood taught me to be present, to just slow down, to appreciate time in a different way.”