THE PARENTS: Sophie Foster Fink, 34, and Bryan Nichols, 33, of South Philadelphia
THE CHILD: River Foster Nichols, born Jan. 20, 2020
HIS NAME: They wanted something gender-neutral and “outdoorsy,” a name that would be “unusual but not incomprehensible,” Sophie says.
She had him from the moment she dumped the smoothie on her foot.
It was their second date, a walk with Bryan’s boxer, Izzy, who was delighted to slurp the liquid from Sophie’s shoe. Bryan was equally charmed — not by the gaffe itself, but by Sophie’s nonchalant response to what could have been a major embarrassment.
Afterward, the two walked down to the Schuylkill and sat on a bench, talking; when Bryan stood up to leave, she said, “Can you kiss me?”
“That’s really how our relationship’s been,” Bryan says. “We take turns leading. We take turns sharing things.”
They found one another online, and Sophie felt nervous, when they met in person for drinks, about disclosing her previous marriage. “I said, ‘I should mention that I’m going through a divorce.’ Bryan said, ‘Oh, I did that, too.’ We high-fived across the table and never looked back.”
They dated medium-distance (she was in Fairmount; he was in South Jersey) for a little over a year before moving to a cramped apartment together. The next milestone was not marriage, but a house.
Though Bryan had started wearing a sparkly reddish-brown silicone ring on his wedding finger — ”to show the world I was committed and there was someone special in my life,” he says — neither he nor Sophie felt compelled to marry.
But they knew they wanted kids. During a trip to Maine at the end of 2018, they Googled “questions to ask before having kids” and found a long list of conversation-starters about religion, schooling, and discipline. On nearly every item, their thoughts aligned.
They began trying to conceive in early 2019. Sophie was pregnant within two months, then had an early miscarriage. “I fell apart first, and Bryan took care of me. Then he fell apart after I was back on my feet, and I took care of him.”
In May, on a trip to Oregon to visit Bryan’s family, Sophie began feeling nauseated. One morning, she sneaked from the living room where they were sleeping into the bathroom, CVS bag in her hand. The test was positive; she winked to let Bryan know the good news.
“But I was so freaked out and excited that I had dropped the instructions in the bathroom. So that was that. It’s a joke in the family that I can’t keep a secret.”
The nausea continued for 12 weeks — Sophie subsisted mostly on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — then yielded to a healthy second trimester and a difficult third one, when the baby wedged into a sunny-side-up position with his feet under Sophie’s left ribs and his head jammed diagonally toward her hip.
She’d planned on working until near her due date, but after 38 weeks, the pelvic and back pain became unbearable. Still, she hoped for an unmedicated delivery at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery.
When she arrived at the hospital, after laboring overnight, having her water break, and experiencing ferocious contractions, she was just 2 centimeters dilated. Another eight hours of hard labor yielded only a centimeter of progress.
“Ultimately, I got an epidural,” Sophie says. “It allowed my body to actually relax and dilate.” But after several hours of Sophie pushing, the baby was stuck behind her pelvic bone. Doctors began murmuring about a C-section. So, with the midwife’s encouragement, Bryan’s support, and a soundtrack of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” and the Rocky theme song, Sophie bore down.
“I displaced my tailbone. It took 40 hours. But we did it,” she says.
The midwife put River on her chest: a 7-pound, 12-ounce infant with a “faux-hawk” of brown hair like his father’s, large blue eyes, and a nose smooshed sideways from his cramped position in the womb. “In very typical River fashion, he just looked at me,” Sophie recalls. “He lifted his little head and took it all in.”
For Bryan, who caught the baby, it was a moment of deep reckoning. “Sophie had been feeling him kicking, but this was really my first interaction with him. The physically hard part, the marathon of labor and delivery” was over, he says. “Having a baby and raising a baby wasn’t going to to be a straightforward, easy thing. But it was a connected feeling: If we can do this, we can be parents.”
The journey has called for continued, intensive teamwork: when River had trouble feeding due to a tongue-tie; when he did not sleep for more than 45 minutes at a time for the first six weeks; when he hated being swaddled or put to sleep on his back.
Or when the pandemic came, and their postpartum plans were upended; no more in-person moms’ group or lactation consults, and a premature return to Sophie’s clinical psychology practice after Bryan, a physical therapist, was furloughed.
Sophie keeps in constant touch, by text, with a few other new moms in the neighborhood; occasionally they venture to the park for a socially distant play date on separate blankets.
Bryan spends three weekdays with River from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. while Sophie works; he supplements her nursing with “pocket milk,” their term for the bottle he keeps close at hand. “I’ve been able to spend a lot more time with him than I normally would,” he says, and their nontraditional division of household labor continues; on any given night, Bryan might cook and do dishes while Sophie hauls out the garbage.
Both of them keep a “feelings book,” a small journal in which they jot messages for one another about the stresses, joys, and anxieties of their days. Parenthood, and the pandemic, have clarified their priorities and bolstered their partnership.