In the buttoned-up world of Archmere Academy, a Catholic prep school near Wilmington, Lauren and Terence were on the fringe: deadheads with Birkenstocks, beads, and a penchant for hanging out in the woods instead of cramming for the SATs.

They were best friends who harbored secret crushes on each other. "I knew the first time I saw her, sitting on the couch at a party, talking with friends," Terence says. "But when you're 15 or 16, you're not really capable of processing an emotion that strong."

Figuring it out took years. When Lauren went to college in Tucson, Ariz., Terence drove out and professed his love for her. They toured the United States in a 1979 Lincoln Continental they'd bought for $400, landing in New Orleans after the car broke down.

Their relationship fractured for a while, too: Terence worked offshore as a deckhand, then a commercial diver, and Lauren returned to school to study Chinese medicine and acupuncture.

"On Christmas breaks, we'd go home to our parents' houses, relight the flame, then go back to our dreams," she says. "We realized how much we loved each other but also realized how much we had to explore in ourselves."

Finally, their maps converged: After finishing college, Terence planned to move to Hong Kong for graduate school. Lauren decided to go with him. "I was ready. We'd go on long walks, and I'd say, 'What are your intentions?' I was 29, and I knew I wanted to be with him."

Back in the U.S. - they'd returned from Hong Kong to deal with Terence's Florida condominium, ravaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 - Terence proposed one January day, at the beach, proffering a diamond ring that had belonged to his mother.

That Pensacola beach was also the site of a conversation about kids. Lauren was the girl who'd kept her dolls well into adolescence; she knew she wanted children. But Terence hesitated: What about all those miserable-looking parents on the beach, scowling and yelling at their kids?

Parenthood "wasn't something I had a strong desire to do right away," he recalled. "I thought, 'I'm just going to maintain the status quo.' "

But 10 months after their wedding - a nonconformist affair, with a backyard ceremony, a female celebrant, and vegan food - Lauren was waving a positive pregnancy test in front of her flabbergasted husband.

"Really?" he recalled thinking. "That wasn't that hard."

Lauren charted each increment of her pregnancy. "Nauseous," she wrote every day from week five to week 11. "Nauseous. Nauseous." Then the queasiness subsided. "I felt great. Amazing. I loved being pregnant."

She wanted to have the baby at home. "Um, aren't babies supposed to be born in hospitals?" Terence asked. But after some reading and discussion, he jumped on board with that decision and the other choices that, once again, put them on the margins: They would rent a birthing tub; they would not circumcise if they had a son; they would not raise the kids Catholic.

"Most of the people in my family were shocked, concerned, and scared," Lauren recalled. But in their new neighborhood - they'd moved to Philadelphia near the end of her pregnancy and rented a stamp-size house near Ninth and Federal - she found support from midwives, colleagues in alternative medicine, and like-minded parents.

Her labor began with a splash - "My water broke, just like in a movie, all over the wood floor" - and amped up to a pain-wracking 12 hours. "I was scared. My body wasn't used to being stretched in that way. And even though we took birthing classes, everything I'd learned just went out the window."

But the first glimpse of her son - "the most gorgeous slice of perfection I have ever seen" - erased the anguish. And even though Dutch cried a lot, even though she and Terence felt shredded by sleep deprivation, even though both realized they'd spent nine months focused on the delivery and knew nothing about actually caring for a child, Lauren wanted to do it again. And again. And again.

"Three days after Dutch was born, I said, 'I can't wait for the next one.' I thought, 'This is what I am here for. I just want to create family.' "

They did - next, with Van, who chose his own name when his parents put his tiny fist into a hat filled with possible monikers. Then Mack. Then Shea. The house teemed with kids and noise and sacks of hand-me-down clothes. Four was a lot. Maybe enough.

"All of a sudden, I thought, 'I don't think I want to be done,' and I got pregnant again." This labor was different: If Lauren's pain level with Dutch's birth was an excruciating 95 percent, with Redd, it was "like stubbing my toe. It's enjoyable, once you know how to have a baby. It's like any other sport. You have to learn how to use your body and train it to birth."

Now, she's "that crazy girl who has five kids." Half-a-dozen times a day - usually while trundling though the streets of South Philadelphia, with Redd in a chest carrier and the toddlers in a stroller - Lauren hears someone say, "You've got your hands full!" She doesn't need to be reminded.

Terence jokes that fatherhood "is like becoming a member of the Communist state - all the things you think are important become absorbed into the collective."

"I never planned to have five kids," he says. But one choice - to lock eyes with the girl on the couch at the party - leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to a kitchen wild with chatter, four boys perched on handmade stools, baby snugged in the carrier, Lauren sizzling vegetables and chicken in a pan, tossing food onto plates like a short-order cook.

"I love family life," she says. "It's complete chaos. It's hard. It's exhausting. But it's also fun. . . . We're finally here. It feels very complete."

If you've become a parent - for the first, second or fifth time - within the last six months, e-mail us why we should feature your story: parents@phillynews.com.

Giving birth, adopting, or becoming a stepparent or guardian all count.

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