THE PARENTS: Sherrie Wilkins, 39, and Alan Wilkins, 32, of Willingboro, N.J.

THE KIDS: Ailani Faith, 13; Lily-Jean Joy, 2; Alan Caleb Jr., born Oct. 4, 2021

HOW SHERRIE TOLD HER 5th GRADE STUDENTS SHE WAS PREGNANT: With a pretend spelling test that included the words “Your. Teacher. Is. Having. A. Baby.”

The box on the bed had a package of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups on the top and a pair of baby shoes inside.

Sherrie got the message. Those tiny shoes signaled that Alan was finally ready.

The two had a practice of writing in journals and leaving them under one another’s pillows, and Sherrie frequently wrote about her yearning for children.

“Alan was like: Whoa. Let us just adjust to being married. We talked about it for five years. I’d said I wouldn’t ask him anymore. But one day, I was going to bed early, and there was this box on the bed. I knew that was him saying, ‘OK, we can try to have our first baby.’ ”

Sherrie was already a mother when the two met, co-parenting her daughter, Ailani, with the child’s father. She knew Alan’s parents from church, and his mother asked from time to time if Sherrie would consider dating a younger man.

Then Alan’s mother volunteered him to help Sherrie move supplies into her fifth-grade classroom before school began for the year. He not only helped her transport the boxes, but he also stayed all day to unpack them, then lingered in the parking lot long enough to exchange numbers.

“I thought he was nice, but I wasn’t too attracted when we first met because of the age difference,” Sherrie says. “He was just getting ready to be a teacher, and I was already established in my career.”

Alan, too, was initially deterred by the age gap and the fact that Sherrie had a child. “Then I had a conversation with myself — well, with myself and God — in the car, asking, ‘What’s really the issue?’ And there was no issue. I knew what I felt. You can’t deny that.”

They talked on the phone and played Words with Friends online. Soon they were texting every morning. Their first date, on Christmas Eve, was at a Ruby Tuesday in Willingboro.

“I remember leaving and thinking: I’ve never been on a date like that, where the conversation was so fluid, where I didn’t feel uncomfortable,” Sherrie says. They shared a passion for teaching, along with their faith. And both were committed to an old-school courtship that included remaining celibate.

Sherrie saved his number in her phone as “Alan sweetheart.” Still, she waited seven months before introducing him to Ailani. “I wanted to make sure that this relationship was going to lead to marriage,” she says.

When she did bring the two together for an ice-cream date, she noted Alan’s respectful attention to her daughter. “He was keen to listen instead of trying to impress. He was just being in the moment.”

There was no pop-the-question event; instead, there was a series of conversations and a round of premarital classes offered by their church, in which they discussed everything from household chores to childhood trauma.

For Sherrie, those talks were affirming: “OK, this man knows every single thing about me and my life, and he wants to marry me, still.” They wed in January 2015 at the Presbyterian Church in Morristown — a small ceremony with Ailani as “best girl.” Her biological father walked her down the aisle.

“I wanted her to know: We are in this thing. This is us. This is family,” Sherrie says.

Alan was on board with the prospect of more children. Just … not quite yet. “I wanted to live together, see how we are together. And I didn’t feel confident financially.”

Later came Sherrie’s turn to signal him. She’d always said that if she became pregnant, she’d cut off all her hair. Alan was playing the piano at a Wednesday night service when he turned and saw Sherrie in her usual spot in the pews, smiling, her braids shorn. “I was like: Oh, this is really happening.”

The pregnancy was smooth. The two were in a birthing class when the instructor said, “Now pretend your wife is having a contraction; what are you going to do?” Sherrie whispered to Alan, “I’m having real contractions.”

They went straight to Virtua Memorial Hospital. And when Lily-Jean was born, Alan took out his phone and cued up a rendition of “Happy Birthday” that he’d created and recorded on saxophone and piano, just for her.

“We were sure we wanted another baby,” Sherrie says. Lily-Jean was about 15 months old when Alan called up to the bathroom, “Are you OK in there?” and Sherrie emerged with a positive pregnancy stick in hand.

This pregnancy felt more fraught, not only because of COVID. When the couple enrolled Lily-Jean in an at-home day care, Sherrie felt an intuitive twinge of worry — enough to leave her cell phone in her daughter’s diaper bag to record what was happening. Later, she listened to the caregiver yelling at children and hitting them while Lily-Jean sobbed in the background.

They reported what they’d learned to the county; the day care was shut down. But the whole situation reignited Sherrie’s anxiety. It wore on Alan, too. And when it was time for this next baby’s birth — a difficult one, with ferocious pelvic pain and a long labor — all his pent-up stress spilled out. It was the first time Sherrie had seen her husband cry.

Sherrie says she’s learned tenacity from Ailani, her first-born. Lily-Jean is “a little spitfire; she has this joy about her.” And baby Alan Jr. is “my little bit of peace.”

As for Alan, fatherhood means saying yes to Chick-fil-A this one time because Ailani and Lily-Jean are asking. It means guarding his own health for his children’s sake. It means driving the longer route to gymnastics practice on a drizzly day because his kids are in the car and safety matters more than speed.

“Parenthood makes you more selfless,” he says. “It makes you more aware. It makes me take my time.”