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Having their children safe at home is all that matters

Parenthood, Kenneth says, has girded his patience and shifted his perspective.

Kenneth and Tamara with children Kaston and Taalyn, celebrating Kaston's 4th birthday at Sahara Sam's.
Kenneth and Tamara with children Kaston and Taalyn, celebrating Kaston's 4th birthday at Sahara Sam's.Read moreTara Paton

THE PARENTS: Tamara Etheridge, 32, and Kenneth Campbell, 31, of Atlantic City

THE KIDS: Kaston Kase, 4; Taalyn Kase, born Oct. 19, 2020

THEIR NAMES: Kenneth invented “Kaston” from “Kas,” the nickname of a rapper he met while Tamara was pregnant. He also made up “Kase.” Tamara devised “Taalyn” to echo the name of their first child, who died a few weeks after birth.

Tamara was the reserved one, the sophomore who made a quiet first impression when Kenneth met her in a campus bookstore at Delaware State University. Eventually she opened up, and their friendship became a kind of lifeline: They went food shopping and clothes shopping together. Watched movies. Talked.

“I found her very interesting,” Kenneth recalls. “I was drawn to her from the very beginning.”

“He was somebody I could rely on if I was stressed about school or family,” Tamara says.

She knew it was serious when Kenneth showed up in a suit for her graduation, then picked up the tab for lunch with her parents afterward. “He moved in with me, and then everything took off after that.”

One night in 2015, they hung out with friends at an outdoor bar. Tamara had one margarita. The next morning, she was vomiting. “My sister said, ‘Maybe you should take a pregnancy test.’ ”

Now it was Kenneth’s turn to be quiet. “I had to sit down for a second,” he remembers. “I gave her a hug. I walked out of the room. I knew things from this point on would be different. I was extremely happy, but at that moment, I couldn’t express happiness because of the nervousness, the fear, and the shock.”

It was a rough pregnancy: nausea, high blood pressure, and anxiety on Tamara’s part, then an emergency C-section at 25 weeks because of intrauterine restriction. The baby weighed one pound.

“It was shocking when I saw her for the first time,” Tamara says. “She could literally fit in the palm of your hand. I wasn’t able to hold her because she was intubated. I could touch her head and her feet.”

Sometimes Kenneth’s friends and relatives have to remind him what that time was like: You went to the NICU every day. You did everything you could. Nothing else mattered. Tamara remembers it as “an out-of-body experience. I was scared. Stressed. Feeling alone.”

Taali died at a month and a half. They had a graveside funeral in Atlantic City, where Tamara grew up.

“Initially, I just felt … through with life,” Kenneth says. “I just wanted my baby to have life, to see things, to experience things other than the incubator. But that didn’t happen.”

“We weren’t going to have any more kids until later on,” Tamara says. “But I ended up getting pregnant in July of the next year, with my son.” Both she and Kenneth were on edge throughout the pregnancy; Tamara changed her diet, cutting back on meat and loading up on fruits and vegetables. She walked for exercise.

Heading into labor — doctors ordered a C-section at 37 weeks because Tamara’s amniotic fluid was low — was “nerve-racking,” Kenneth says. “I just tried not to show her how scared I was.”

But this birth was more routine: Yes, Kaston was small (4 pounds, 5 ounces), but he breathed on his own, and they could hold him. “I remember him yelling,” Kenneth says. “His eyes were open. He was so small and had the roundest face I’d ever seen. It was: Wow. He’s here. He’s healthy. I just have to make sure I protect him to the fullest.”

The couple figured they were one and done. But last spring, at a regular gynecological checkup, the doctor stunned Tamara by saying, “You’re pregnant.”

This time was different, not only because the pandemic meant Kenneth couldn’t come to most prenatal appointments. Tamara had trained with Community Doulas of South Jersey when Kaston was 2; she had more knowledge about pregnancy and birth now, and the confidence that came with helping other women deliver their babies.

She’d studied anatomy and child psychology in college, but the doula training was more intensive: seven days, all day, surrounded by women who talked about birth as an experience of empowerment and strength.

“It’s amazing to be with [laboring] women and make them comfortable,” she says. “Being able to be in the room watching the babies come earth-side.” This time, she would have her own doula. “I was way more confident going into labor. I wasn’t as scared. I knew how the hospital system was set up.”

Still, Kenneth couldn’t shake the anxiety that lingered from having lost their first child. “It’s always at the back of your mind. It came to the point where I couldn’t take the fear anymore, so I just had to relax and put it in God’s hands.”

In October, Tamara had contractions on and off for a week; they intensified on her due date. Once at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, everything seemed to shift to slow motion. The baby’s heart rate dropped, prompting another C-section. Taalyn was bigger — 8 pounds — and healthy.

“She was so beautiful,” Kenneth says. “And she was loud. Very loud.”

Now, parenthood is a daily challenge, despite a robust support system that includes Tamara’s mom, her grandparents, and members of Kenneth’s family. Kaston sometimes has meltdowns when Tamara can’t tend to him right away;Tamara savors rare moments of peace.

Then there are times like last Christmas Eve, when she was getting dressed, both kids were on the bed, and Taalyn was crying because she’d lost her pacifier. “Kaston looked for her pacifier and put it in her mouth. He made sure she didn’t drop it.”

Parenthood, Kenneth says, has girded his patience and shifted his perspective. Even the chaotic weeks of infancy with Kaston felt like a blessing: “We had our son home, he was healthy, crying, smiling, his mom was happy. Nothing else mattered.”

That hasn’t changed, now that there are two. “I love making them smile. I love seeing them grow.”

Tamara thinks about their recent trip to Sesame Place, an adventure both kids loved. “I told Kenneth yesterday that every place I traveled, I want my children to go. Plus more.”