THE PARENTS: Brendan Stiteler, 42, and Caroline Campbell, 40, of Media
THE KIDS: Seraphina Fior Stiteler-Campbell, 6; Solares (Sol) Nico Campbell-Stiteler, 3; Cosmos Gregory Fitzgerald, born September 26, 2016
THE AGE OF THEIR FIRST-BORN WHEN THEY TOOK HER CAMPING IN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS OF NEW HAMPSHIRE: Four weeks.
Three days into their honeymoon, Hurricane Wilma slammed the Yucatán Peninsula. What was intended to be a splurge - Brendan and Caroline's first-ever trip to an all-inclusive resort - became four sticky days in a conference center filled with hundreds of cots and an endless loop of movies as the storm raged outside.
When it was finally safe to emerge, they landed in a Playa del Carmen hostel. No electricity. No running water. But plenty of margaritas at a bar up the road and a local kid happy to take a few pesos to lead them there.
"It felt like us again," Caroline says. "A better honeymoon than we'd planned."
Their lives together had been an exercise in impulsivity, from the moment Caroline, then a student library assistant at Millersville University, felt intrigued by the dreadlocked guy who came in for a biology periodical. She chased him down in the stairwell and asked him out for coffee. "I didn't even drink coffee at the time, but I thought it sounded cool."
They soon discovered shared passions: Latino culture, the outdoors. Caroline was studying psychology; Brendan was part of a campus antiracism group. They'd grown up a few miles apart, just outside Philadelphia.
For the next eight years, they drifted together, then apart: cohabiting for a while after college, then separating when Caroline worked with Outward Bound in Florida and Brendan did environmental education in Maine.
"I remember degrees of heartbreak, and sometimes longing, and other times when we were really close," Brendan says.
It took a long stay in Ecuador - Caroline was studying Spanish, and Brendan, trying to figure out his next step, agreed to accompany a friend who was traveling there - to clarify their bond. They struck a deal: If Brendan agreed to settle in Philadelphia, as a committed couple, Caroline would go with him to Maine for a hike of the 100 Mile Wilderness, the roughest section of the Appalachian Trail.
By Day 3, she was ready to go home. "I said, 'I'm done with this hiking. I didn't sign up for a long trip into a remote wilderness.' And he said, 'That's a shame, because I was going to propose on this trip.' " She kept hiking. He proffered a ring at the foot of Mount Katahdin. They were married in Ridley Creek State Park in 2005, an October day filled with cake and music and mums in all the shades of fall.
Caroline, who has five sisters and a brother, envisioned a family of three kids. Brendan, who has one sister, thought that sounded like a lot. But before anyone began counting, they focused on their careers. Caroline worked at a nonprofit and Brendan moved from construction into farming. They bought a house in South Philly and acquired a pit bull stray ("our worst child," Brendan jokes).
In a flash, they were in their early 30s. "We knew we wanted to have children, so we thought, 'Let's do the bucket list before kids,' " Caroline says. They saved enough to take a yearlong "sabbatical" - six months of volunteering in Central America, where they cared for orphans in Honduras and built sustainable houses in Nicaragua, followed by six months of hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Once back home, conception came easily - "Wow: Game on. Biology works!" Caroline remembers thinking when she saw the positive test. Pregnancy was mostly uneventful, and labor moved fast, starting with lower-back pain at a late-night concert and ending with Seraphina's birth the following morning.
In birth classes, instructors had drummed in the importance of skin-to-skin contact. So, after the midwife passed their daughter to Brendan, he started to tuck the infant underneath the light blue, long-sleeve dress shirt he'd thrown on in his haste to pack. He didn't realize it was Caroline's skin - the smell of which would help the baby latch - they'd been talking about.
After their year of obligation-free wandering - travel, hiking, and adventures at every turn - parenthood was a "bombshell," Caroline recalls. No more quiet mornings with coffee and Mike McGrath's garden show on NPR; no more canoe outings on a free weekend. "Now we had to think: Would a two-hour drive to a camping spot be uncomfortable for her? Will there be a place to change diapers?"
For a while after Seraphina, Caroline felt done. But then Solares came - a baby named for the sun who arrived with wide-open eyes and a surprising shock of blond hair. Seraphina adored her brother; Brendan and Caroline felt more confident this time around. Life was harmonious . . . but not quite complete.
"I felt like it was part of my destiny to have a third child," Caroline says.
This time, conception took longer and pregnancy felt more wearying. They both knew the pattern by now: When Caroline felt contractions and began doing that "horse-breathing thing," it was time to head for the hospital. They'd already chosen this baby's name: Cosmos for the synchronicity of the universe, Gregory for a cousin of Brendan's, and Fitzgerald, the maiden name of Caroline's mother, who had died two years earlier.
It's taken three kids, Caroline says, to find their rhythm, a middle ground between the spontaneity they still crave and the steadying routine they need. She found a family-friendly job teaching social work at a satellite campus of Eastern University. She's at home two days a week and teaches at night, a tidy dovetail with Brendan's job as field manager for the Weaver's Way Co-op farm at Awbury Arboretum.
"We're a lot more intentional, because we know time is so precious," Caroline says. So there are ritual pancakes on Sundays along with spur-of-the-moment museum trips and hikes. Apple picking and cider-making from the 20 trees that line their Media backyard. Mornings of feeding the three chickens that lay brownish, bluish, and pinkish eggs.
"One thing Brendan and I are good at is growing things together," Caroline says. "Dreams, or plants, or a household."