THE PARENTS: Julie Jesneck, 38, and Tom Kelley, 39, of Cedar Park
THE CHILD: Calvin Finley, born Aug. 8, 2019
HIS NAME: They love the flexibility of “Calvin” with its multiple nicknames: “Cal,” “Calvie,” and — for those irascible alter-ego moments when he refuses to nap — “Vinnie.”
He got as far as “Will you …” before she tackled him, right there in the snow by the frozen lake, and said yes.
The enthusiasm wasn’t a surprise. But the decision to wed was; Julie had been frank from the start of their relationship that she was emphatically uninterested in marriage or children.
They met at a regional theater in Louisville, Ky., where Tom was an apprentice and Julie, fresh out of the Juilliard School, was headlining in a show. The first time she spotted him — dressed in coveralls and pushing a piece of scenery — “I just remember being struck by this person who seemed so open and familiar.”
Tom felt the same way: a frisson of interest from the first time he heard someone mention Julie’s name. “When I saw her, it felt like there was some sort of history already between us.”
Within six weeks, they were living together in Providence, R.I., where Julie’s show was in its second run. For years, they lived the peripatetic life of actors: some time in Brooklyn, docked on a friend’s living-room futon; two years apart when Julie pursued regional theater and Tom attended graduate school in Boston; six more years in Brooklyn, in a place of their own.
Julie, the youngest of three siblings, was raised by a single mother. In her mind, marriage did not promise lifelong happiness, and children seemed like tireless work. “But about five years into our relationship, it became clear that marrying Tom was very different from my idea of marriage from my childhood. Tom was so different from anyone I had dated before — genuinely open and kind and caring and healthy.”
“We had a lot of conversations, dismantling our own preconceived notions and stereotypes around marriage,” Tom says. “We talk about this third entity that is ‘us’ as a thing that needs attention, that needs to be seen and heard.”
They wed in 2010, in a small art center in Ephrata, near Tom’s extended family. They created handmade invitations, and Julie sewed her own dress. The aisle was a grassy pathway. Guests sat where they pleased. And in lieu of vows, the friend who officiated read letters that Julie and Tom had written to each other, but didn’t share before the ceremony. During the years both were hustling for work in the theater, while trying to manage daily life in New York, children seemed out of the question, both practically and emotionally. But Julie began to wonder, watching older actors who seemed ambivalent about their childlessness: If they opted not to have kids, was that the “small choice"?
Tom loved teaching improv to children; he cherished being an uncle to his sister’s kids. Maybe that would be the extent of his connection to the next generation. But when Julie began asking questions about career and parenthood and possibility, his fantasies of fatherhood surged back.
“We looked at each other: Maybe now is the time. [Parenthood] feels like the most magical thing we can do while we’re here, to create life in this way,” he says.
Like their early courtship, the next phase happened fast: two pregnancies, two early miscarriages, finally, a third, viable pregnancy, all in the space of a year. They describe that time as sobering, humbling … and clarifying.
They learned that they wanted something different from the just-business approach of the obstetrics practice they used. They learned that Julie’s blood-clotting factor was a shade high, a condition remedied — ironically, she says — by taking a daily dose of baby aspirin.
And when they were pregnant for the third time, a health crisis for Julie’s mother shoved their priorities into stark relief; the two decamped for Iowa City to care for her. “It was a reminder of what’s important in life,” Tom says. “It gave us a means to just be together, in a crisis, which made us think, ‘We’re ready for this.’ ”
They drove back from Iowa through the polar vortex to get home in time for a Valentine’s Day sonogram. There was the baby’s profile, its percussive heartbeat. They moved to Philadelphia, found a midwife practice, and prepared for what Julie calls “the enormous sacred marathon” of birth.
Because of the miscarriages, they say, this pregnancy felt different from the start, when Julie had an intuition that “maybe we’re not alone here” and took a pregnancy test. With the first conception, they’d been giddy. The second time, more wary. This time, “It was just gratitude for another opportunity,” Tom says, along with intimacy knit from their shared sorrow.
The baby — they didn’t know the sex — was in no rush, and at 42 weeks, Julie’s midwives insisted on induction. The labor — 26 hours of it, including a six-hour stretch of blinding pain — stunned them with its intensity. Then, Calvin’s first gulp of air included a swallow of meconium, which led to a 13-day stay in the NICU at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery while his lungs matured and healed.
Julie learned to breastfeed an infant who had wires pasted to his body; they learned to cuddle him without setting off alarms. The nurses guided them through “baby-care boot camp,” teaching them to swaddle and bathe Calvin.
Finally, they brought him home: balloons. No monitors. A routine guided by their son’s needs and not the NICU schedule. “Because we had that experience, I don’t take it for granted, ever, that we get to be here in our space with him,” Tom says.
For Julie, Calvin has been a prompt to rethink her career, the hustle of acting, her whole approach to life. She still has the notes from their baby shower, when Tom’s sister asked people to write words of wisdom on index cards. One says, “This, too, shall pass.” The phrase is a comfort, and a call. “I go back to that on a daily basis,” Julie says. “Love big, because this is it.”