THE PARENTS: Rebecca Barber, 32, and John Barber, 32, of West Philadelphia
THE CHILD: Theodore (Theo) Joseph, born Oct. 8, 2019
HIS NAME: “Theodore” came from a list of literary names — they like the fact that it yields nicknames “Theo” or “Teddy” or “Ted” — and “Joseph” is for both the baby’s uncles.
John gets queasy at the sight of blood; he figured on averting his eyes during the actual delivery. But he wasn’t prepared for the bloodless, dizzying moment when a medical team tried to manually flip their still-in-utero baby out of breech position.
“There were three doctors pushing on Rebecca’s stomach,” John recalls. “I could hear her blood pressure and the baby’s blood pressure. After they tried a couple of times, both blood pressures dropped. That was a scary moment.”
Next stop was the operating room, where the baby was delivered — a five-pound, nine-ounce peanut — at 37 weeks. John announced the sex. They said his name aloud. Then, while doctors worked to suction fluid from the infant’s lungs, John snapped a photo on his cell phone and showed it to his exhausted wife.
“I didn’t get to see him in the flesh for 45 minutes, which was really sad,” Rebecca says. “When John finally brought him over, he immediately grabbed my glasses.”
For John, that was the moment when the hazy prospect of parenthood turned sharp. “It went from this thing that was in Rebecca’s belly, from an idea … I mean, we’d seen ultrasound images, but it didn’t feel real until that moment.”
The two had talked for years about wanting kids. Each has a younger brother — coincidentally, both are named Joey and are just a few months apart in age. But Rebecca and John were young — 19 and 20 — when they met, and during the first four years of their relationship, they lived miles apart.
Rebecca was a freshman at Drexel when a friend said he was bringing some high school buddies to the spring jam featuring the band Jack’s Mannequin. “I thought [John] was cute. But he was a friend of a friend. I didn’t think I’d ever see him again,” she says. When John returned to school — he was at American University in Washington — the two began chatting via AOL Instant Messenger, a commitment in those pre-cell phone days because it required both to be parked in front of their computers.
They arranged their class schedules to have Fridays off; they frequented the Chinatown bus that shuttled from Center City Philadelphia to the heart of D.C. Three-day weekends meant hanging out with his frat buddies or her roommates, watching movies and Top Chef.
The relationship felt serious from the start, Rebecca recalls, and grew more so when John moved to Arkansas for 10 months after college graduation to work on a U.S. Senate campaign. When he returned, the two lived together for the first time. “It went shockingly smoothly,” Rebecca says. “We were excited to be in the same place with each other and start our professional careers.”
John proposed over vegan pizza in their apartment — he’d planned on dinner out, but Rebecca was exhausted after a long day at work and refused to budge. They were married in 2015, at the National Museum of American Jewish History, where a longer-than-planned cocktail hour left the two stranded on the bottom floor of the building, without their phones, snacking on the hors d’oeuvres someone had brought and waiting for a summons to join the party.
“It was weird, but nice to have time to sit and think about the ceremony,” Rebecca says. When they finally joined the reception, they didn’t even have time to sample the blueberry pie they’d ordered in lieu of cake. The caterers sent one home with them, in a bag, and the pair left it sitting on the table during their 10-day honeymoon in London. It was a sticky June, and they’d left the air-conditioning off.
“We came back and thought, ‘What died in our house?’ ” Rebecca says. The pie — intended to be frozen and savored for their first anniversary — had rotted in their kitchen.
They weren’t quite ready for kids: On their agenda were trips and concerts, graduate school, and, for Rebecca, 20 ultra-marathons, including three 100-mile races.
Once they began trying, she was pregnant within a month. “I was really excited, really nervous, really hopeful,” she recalls. After the initial moment of disbelief, John says, “I knew our lives would be different, but I did not have an understanding of how different they would be.”
The pregnancy was smooth, physically and emotionally, until they learned the baby had fetal growth restriction, a condition that can result from placement of the placenta; doctors advised an induction at 37 weeks. Throughout, it helped Rebecca, whose graduate degree is in public health, to read evidence-based advice about pregnancy.
“We’re both over-thinkers,” she says. “We had to find a balance between being educated and thoughtful, and not reading so much that it caused anxiety.”
They chose Oct. 8 as the baby’s arrival date. And after a few tears when the attempt to flip the baby internally didn’t work, Rebecca made peace with having a C-section. “I thought: The thing that matters is that our baby enter the world healthy.”
Recovery was difficult: She wasn’t supposed to climb stairs or lift anything heavier than Theo. She supplemented breastfeeding with pumped milk fortified with formula.
They were just finding their rhythm — both of them working, and Theo in day care — when the coronavirus hit. By late March, life meant a consult each morning — “what’s your meeting schedule?” — before a day of, as John puts it, “tossing the baby back and forth between conference calls.”
“There is no blueprint for this. There’s no easy way,” Rebecca says. But there are, even in the midst of a pandemic, golden moments: family dinners that remind them of their own childhoods, or the memory of a four-generation family gathering last Thanksgiving.