THE PARENTS: Sarah Leaman, 31, and Ben Leaman, 37, of Abington
THE KIDS: Claire Avery, almost 3; Emma Rose, 11 months; adopted November 16, 2018
WHAT THEIR KIDS HAVE TAUGHT THEM: “I am more flexible and can let things go,” Sarah says. “I’d say it’s made me less selfish,” says Ben. “And now I have more to look forward to.”
She was the woman with the wild little terrier named Bailey. He was the guy with the chill Rhodesian ridgeback named Kalia. They met at the dog park in Millersville, Pa., during the summer of 2009, before Sarah’s junior year in college.
And when — after several dog park encounters — Ben asked her to go hiking at a nearby nature preserve, Sarah had to buy a pair of sneakers. “It was my first-ever hike,” she says. “It was good.”
Good enough to hang out every day after that. When Ben decided to propose in 2013, he wanted to re-create that first-date hike. He invited his longtime roommate to come along with his own dog; the men kept hinting to Sarah that she should dress up a bit.
“I said, ‘We’re going hiking.’ I wore a tie-dyed shirt and jeans.” When Ben proposed on a scenic overlook, with his pal taking pictures, he had to convince Sarah that it wasn’t a stunt.
They were married in a former pickle barrel factory in Kensington — just the rustic vibe they craved, with pulled pork on the buffet and a toast from the best man (same guy who snapped the engagement photos), who seemed more nervous than they were.
From a young age, Sarah says, “I wanted to be married, I wanted to own a house, and I wanted to have kids.” Ben envisioned being the father of “tough girls” who would roughhouse and play. They tried to time a pregnancy so Sarah’s maternity leave — she teaches special education at a private school — would segue into summer break.
They got lucky. After a month of trying, Sarah took Ben to Panera, where they’d had conversations about parenthood, and gave him a card that said, “Daddysaurus Rex.”
“I thought we had missed the window for ovulation, so I was surprised and shocked. Extremely happy,” Ben says. “Then Sarah started taking pictures, so I tried not to be teary-eyed.”
During the first trimester, Sarah read about pregnancy diets rich in organic fruits and vegetables; the only thing she could stomach was Froot Loops. But after 12 weeks, the nausea eased. She learned about breast-feeding and baby-wearing, about theories of attachment parenting that aligned with their own instincts: listen to the baby and have empathy for her needs.
She hoped for a natural delivery. But a week past her due date, doctors wanted to induce. There was just one problem: Holy Redeemer Hospital didn’t have a maternity bed. Sarah and Ben would phone each morning at 6 — any vacancy? — then call back at 9, then again at 11.
“Finally, one day they called and said, ‘We have a bed!’ and we rushed to the hospital,” Sarah recalls. As they were signing in, the hospital CEO appeared: “Are you in labor right now?” Uh, not yet. “Would you like to be filmed for a new video for our website?”
“We agreed to it as long as I didn’t lose the bed,” Sarah laughs. So they left the hospital and walked in again, hand in hand, a red-and-black duffel slung over Sarah’s shoulder, as the cameras rolled.
She labored for 12 hours, soon finding that Pitocin-fueled contractions were too fierce to endure without medication. “They had this little meter hooked up, monitoring her contractions,” Ben recalls. “Before she got the epidural, they were little wiggles on the chart, and she was sitting on the chair, groaning and sweating. After the epidural, they were huge up-and-down hash marks, and she was sitting there, calm as can be.”
There was another unforgettable moment after Claire was born: The baby was grabbing one of Ben’s fingers in her small, fierce fist while Sarah had his other hand in a vise grip as doctors did some painful post-partum massage.
“Shortly after we had Claire, I knew in my heart that I wanted to adopt the next child,” Sarah says. “I had a great pregnancy, and I loved Claire, but I felt like my love for her wasn’t dictated by biology.”
They began to work with Open Arms Adoption Network when Claire was 18 months old: paperwork and a profile book, trainings that explored the perspective of birth mothers and helped them prepare to discuss adoption with relatives, colleagues, and strangers who might ask clumsy questions: “Where did you get her? How much did she cost? Who’s her real mom?”
Sarah worried that birth parents wouldn’t favor their family because they already had a child. But in Ben’s mind, that was an asset. Their profile book showcased their closeness: the threesome going apple-picking or wearing identical pajamas at Christmas.
Two months after “going live,” they got a phone call: An infant girl, born full-term but with some digestive problems that might keep her in the hospital for a month. Were they willing to parent?
The answer: absolutely. They met Emma — a tiny, dark-haired infant with a feeding tube — at Inspira Medical Center in Vineland. “We held her for six days straight: a lot of love and baby snuggles,” Sarah recalls. After six days, doctors said Emma was ready to go home.
This time around, they felt more confident as parents. Ben didn’t worry that he’d break the baby each time he dressed her; Sarah trusted her own instincts over a baby care book or a friend’s counsel. It helped that Emma is calm, a reliable sleeper whose easygoing temperament runs counterpoint to Claire’s goofy, high-energy theatrics.
They tell Emma’s story all the time: How her birth mom loved her, how they have the same button nose. Every two months, they mail a packet of photos and a letter; someday, perhaps, they’ll meet.
“We bring up Emma’s birth mom a lot,” Sarah says. “Sometimes, people judge her. I try to show them our perspective: that she did something that was very selfless.”