THE PARENTS: Natalie Catin-St. Louis, 39, and Numa St. Louis, 39, of Mount Airy
THE CHILD: Nia Mandela, born May 1, 2019
BEFORE SHE WAS BORN: Numa looked forward to “being a dad — to feeding her, holding her, loving my little one.” Natalie felt excited and nervous about the baby’s arrival, and eager to “walk without waddling.”
She fell in love with Philadelphia while she was falling in love with him.
After meeting at a mutual friend’s wedding in Atlanta — “we had a long conversation, and I was in awe of her brilliance,” Numa remembers — the two embarked on a short-distance relationship that brought Natalie from New York to Philly for frequent visits.
They also discovered that they’d actually met before that wedding, at a Victoria’s Secret store in Rockland County, when Natalie was a sales rep and Numa had a summer job, toiling in back as a stock boy.
Their first official date was to hear then-candidate Barack Obama speak — an ebullient campaign rally before the 2008 primaries. Natalie was volunteering for the campaign that weekend. “It was a beautiful setting. Perfect weather. Very energizing and inspiring with Obama. Afterward, we had drinks and talked.”
On other visits, Numa introduced Natalie to Philly’s parks; they’d hang out with a bottle of wine and he’d read aloud — books on spirituality, The New Jim Crow, The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
“What attracted me to Numa the most was the fact that he was a reader,” Natalie says. “He was into geopolitics. We had great conversations that lasted for hours.”
When Natalie moved to Philadelphia in 2009, a series of snow days that winter kept them housebound, playing Nintendo; in the spring, they went to soccer games, restaurants and plays. “He literally became my best friend,” Natalie says. “We were like tourists in our own town.”
At Natalie’s father’s 65th birthday party, Numa dropped to one knee and asked Natalie to be his queen. She remembers waking up the next morning, looking at the new glint on her hand and thinking, “Oh, that really did happen.”
Their engagement and 2012 marriage meant more opportunities to show off their city to friends and family from Europe, Canada and Haiti: an engagement party at the Belmont Mansion, which was a stop along the Underground Railroad; a wedding at the Water Works and a trolley ride to their reception in Northern Liberties.
As a teacher, then a school principal, Natalie had always said, “My students are my kids.” But when she met Numa, she thought his integrity and intelligence would make him an exceptional parent. “I could definitely see myself being a mom with this man,” she remembers. Numa thought the same when he witnessed her selfless dedication at work.
It took nearly three years to conceive. “There are moments in life that test you,” Natalie says. “People would say, ‘Be patient. It will happen in time. Just let go.’” Though the two were private at first about their fertility struggles, Natalie gradually began to open up, finding confidence and comfort in sharing their story.
“It was taxing,” Numa says. “Emotionally heavy. I’m forever the optimist, and at times, it almost dampened my natural sense of optimism.”
Finally, in August 2018, a nurse from the fertility clinic called Natalie at work: “Are you sitting down?”
Natalie stepped into the hall. “She said, ‘You’re pregnant.’ I asked her to check again. She called back in an hour: ‘Nat, it’s positive.’ I came in [for an appointment], and we saw the little sac.”
For several months, they kept the news a secret; tears, hugs and laughter surrounded them when they told family members at Thanksgiving. “I had a great pregnancy,” Natalie says, bolstered by the support of relatives, colleagues and Numa, who cooked dinner when she came home drained from work.
They took classes to prepare for labor, birth and infant care. They hired a doula. They read books and blogs, including one that reminded Natalie of the profound identity shift that comes with parenthood. “It mentioned the idea that it’s OK not to feel the same. You’re not the same. You’re a different person.”
As inveterate planners, both Natalie and Numa were eager to know the baby’s sex. Immediately, they began to devise a name steeped in meaning: Nia, one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, meaning “purpose,” and Mandela, for the former South African president who, to Numa, embodied “grace, humility and intellectual powers.”
The birth was induced — and long, 18½ hours, followed by a stall at 5 centimeters and finally a C-section at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Numa cut the umbilical and held Nia skin-to-skin while Natalie, still groggy from anesthesia, marveled, “I couldn’t believe that human came out of me.”
For two weeks, they were buffered with help from both of their mothers. “After that, it became real,” Numa says. “Everybody was gone” except for the three of them and their “first child,” a Cavapoo named Scrapper.
Now Nia naps in a nursery decorated in bold red, black and white, with gold dresser knobs and a “Dream Big” theme. Numa imagines his daughter as a future Renaissance Woman — doing karate, playing soccer, studying dance. They’re both delighted with the way she grabs for her bottle, the distinct cries that signal “I’m hungry,” “I’m tired,” “I’m wet.”
“She wanted to be independent so early,” Natalie says. “If she wants something, she’ll grab it and put it in her mouth. She’s trying to lift herself up and roll over. We’re seeing her personality already come through; I think she’s going to be feisty. She’ll advocate for herself. She knows what she wants.”
All day, they compartmentalize: Natalie full-on as principal of Nebinger Elementary School in South Philadelphia, Numa as a district representative for U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans. At 7 o’clock each weeknight, Natalie’s phone automatically switches to “Do Not Disturb” mode so she can focus on “sacred time” with her family.