THE PARENTS: Courtney D’Avella, 31, and Mark D’Avella, 33, of Glenside
THE KIDS: Oliver Gregory, 2½; Violet Jean, born September 28, 2018
BEST PRE-PARENTHOOD ADVICE: From a man Courtney met while pregnant — a stranger who asked if this was her first child then said sincerely, “My kids are the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s such a joy.”
In the end, neither one was fully present for the arrival of their first-born child.
Courtney had developed HELLP syndrome, a life-threatening pregnancy complication. Because her platelet count was low and the risk of seizure was high, doctors ordered an emergency C-section under general anesthesia.
Mark waited anxiously outside the operating room. “That was one of the hardest parts of the day,” he remembers. “They said, ‘You’ll hear the baby cry, someone will come get you, and then you can come in.’ ”
It didn’t get easier after the birth. Yes, Oliver was healthy, but Courtney’s liver and kidneys were failing; her skin turned yellow and she drifted in and out of consciousness.
“There was a point when Mark wasn’t sure I would ever meet Oliver,” she says. “He was trying to show me pictures of Oliver on his phone.” After five hours, she recovered enough to breast-feed the baby. And after a day in the surgical ICU, the three moved to the postpartum wing of Abington Hospital.
“That’s when I felt like we started our lives together,” Courtney says.
She and Mark had known each other since preschool in Glen Gardner, N.J. They were friends in high school but didn’t start dating until college.
“I do remember thinking, when we were just friends, ‘Oh, he’s going to make someone very happy someday,’ ” Courtney remembers. “Right after I went through a breakup, I just felt like I needed to connect with him again.”
As students at the University of Delaware, their dates were low-budget: lunch in the dining hall or treats from the dollar menu at a Burger King drive-through. They graduated, they got engaged — Mark wrangled a “film preview” at a local movie theater, a satirical thriller starring himself in disguise and ending with a proposal — and moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Ewing.
“We look back on that time very fondly,” Courtney says. “It was just … simpler.” They married in 2012, a crystalline September day. Courtney rasped through her vows — she’d lost her voice to laryngitis after her bachelorette party — but both relished the mingling of family and friends.
There was a time when Mark, one of seven siblings, wanted a large family — maybe four or five kids. Courtney agreed; she loved the tumult of dinners at Mark’s house when they were young. “But then, as the years went by, that number went down and reality kind of sunk in.”
It took a year to conceive — “a good lesson,” Courtney says now, “in not being able to control everything.” For her, frustration and disappointment were spurs to seek community through Google forums and conversations with friends.
Mark’s hopefulness never faltered. “We weren’t in a rush. I was optimistic: We’ll try again. We’ll get it next month.”
When Courtney finally saw the positive pregnancy test, she felt light-headed. Then she fetched the Chewbacca T-shirt she’d cached away for just that moment — a souvenir of “nerd culture” and the Star Wars movies they both loved.
“She woke me up and handed me the T-shirt,” Mark remembers. “It was one of two times I felt overjoyed with happiness.”
The pregnancy was uneventful — “nothing beats stretch pants,” Courtney jokes — until the end, when she was two weeks overdue, developed high blood pressure and a headache, and got the diagnosis of HELLP syndrome.
It was difficult afterward to reconcile the joy of having an infant with the harrowing experience of his birth. “I kept saying, ‘I have this healthy baby; why do I feel so sad?’ ” Courtney recalls. “I was not giving myself permission to grieve the experience.”
Having a second child was a definite yes. “I wanted another shot at giving birth,” Courtney says. This time, it took only a month to conceive. Courtney made a new page in one of Oliver’s alphabet books — “B is for Big Brother, which you will be in September,” she wrote — and suggested Mark read it out loud one day after nap time.
As her belly grew, Oliver would nuzzle close and offer kisses, but when his parents asked, “Do you want a baby to come live with us?” he’d say, “No.”
Courtney hoped for a vaginal birth this time; she was induced at 41 weeks and reached active labor, but Violet was face-up in the womb and unable to descend. At least this time, Courtney was conscious and able to see what was happening through a transparent drape. “Even with an epidural, you’re able to feel the tugging and pulling. So I was more part of the birth experience,” she says.
Mark had planned to announce the baby’s gender. He peered through the plastic drape without his glasses on at infant genitals swollen from birth. “It’s a boy!” he declared.” Doctors said, “Look again.”
Although the hospital experience put the couple on edge — was this going to be like Oliver’s traumatic birth? — the recovery was easier. Mark had nine weeks of paternity leave, and Courtney felt stronger, especially after a postpartum blood transfusion.
Now, their hard moments are par for the parenting course: Oliver begging Mark not to leave for work, or Courtney nursing Violet when Oliver trots up with poop on his hands. There are counterpoints, too: giggling on the floor with Oliver or hearing him ask for “Ila” when he first wakes up.
What’s changed most for Courtney is her thirst to connect with people.
“Up until trying to have Oliver, I didn’t have a lot of hardship in my life,” she says. “I was fine doing things on my own. But after Oliver was born, I started to reach out to other moms. I met people who suffered miscarriages or infertility or struggled with breast-feeding or other kinds of loss.”