THE PARENTS: Sandy DiBerardino, 35, and Denise DiBerardino, 36, of Northeast Philadelphia
THE CHILD: Leo Joseph, born June 20, 2017
THEIR PLANS FOR A SECOND: Five frozen fertilized embryos remain from their IVF cycle; if they don't succeed in getting pregnant again, they'll pursue adoption.
Getting pregnant was harder than they imagined. The birth was a three-day slog of Pitocin and pain. But the most excruciating moments of Sandy and Denise's parenthood journey were the times, after the night nurses had gently shooed them out, when they watched their preemie son crying — a video relayed to their cellphones from the special care nursery — knowing there was nothing they could do.
He came more than a month early, at 34 weeks, an induction ordered by Denise's obstetrician because her blood pressure had spiked. For a week, she slept, watched television, and walked the corridors of Abington-Jefferson Health while Sandy raced around town buying bassinets and diapers for the baby they weren't quite ready to welcome — despite the fact that they'd been waiting, and trying, for nearly four years.
They met in 2010 on Match.com. The first date — drinks on Denise's birthday at a dive bar in Langhorne –turned swiftly into a "forever date." Sandy loved Denise's exuberance, a counterpoint to her own quieter style; Denise was delighted that Sandy laughed at her jokes. Within several weeks, they were saying, "I love you."
The next milestone — their first collaborative project — was a top-to-bottom rehab of Denise's house. Sandy, who lived in Levittown at the time, had been moving in gradually over the fall and winter, even winning approval from Denise's two cats.
With some coaching from Denise's brother, the pair remodeled the basement and kitchen, laid new wood floors, installed a backsplash, redid the backyard, and made dozens of trips to HomeGoods.
"We talked about getting married, but I would always say, 'Oh, it's never going to be legal in our lifetimes,' " Denise says. "Rather than have a commitment ceremony that wouldn't be recognized by any authority, we thought maybe we'd just skip right to having a child."
Denise was a year older, but because she worked as a freelance court reporter and Sandy's job as an accounting supervisor came with maternity benefits, they decided Sandy should try to become pregnant first. "We wanted an anonymous donor, to keep it simple," Sandy says, "someone tall with dark hair who played sports and was pretty well-educated."
They tried three intrauterine inseminations (IUI), then upped the ante to in vitro fertilization (IVF), switching donors when the bank ran out of vials of their first-choice sperm. "We were very naïve. We thought that because we wanted [pregnancy] to happen so badly, it would happen, very quickly and easily," Sandy says.
Meantime, marriage equality became law in Pennsylvania and then, in 2015, nationwide. The women decided to put baby-making on hold — a long, much-needed break from the hormone injections, doctors' visits, and crash of disappointment with each failed cycle — and get married.
Denise proposed with a booklet she'd written: Part One was the story of their relationship and Part Two read simply, "Will you marry me?" Then, over dinner at Del Frisco's, she stunned her sweetheart with Sandy's NanNan's ring, resized and polished, a keepsake Sandy's mother had given her.
They chose a barn-turned-wedding-venue in Collegeville and took dance lessons so they could dazzle their guests with a choreographed first dance to Michael Bublé's "Sway." A honeymoon in Costa Rica, a summer to revel in being together: By fall 2016, they were ready to resume baby-making — but this time, with Denise trying to get pregnant.
"I had a gut feeling that it would work for me," Denise says. And, on the second IVF cycle, it did. Sandy was waiting in line for Mexican takeout on a Friday night when Denise texted her a photo of the positive pregnancy test.
They waited until Christmas to break the news to family, with a copy of the ultrasound and a card that resembled a movie ticket: "Coming in July: Bambino DiBerardino."
Denise's pregnancy was uneventful — a little nausea during the first weeks, a bit of fatigue toward the end –until week 33, when she went to the hospital for a blood pressure check and was told she'd need to stay there until she delivered.
"I was crying hysterically," she recalls. "I didn't want to be there for a week, and I was scared about having a C-section. They said they'd try to deliver vaginally."
But after several rounds of medication to induce labor, a painful lack of progress, and a terrifying minute when monitors indicated the baby was in distress, Denise and Sandy agreed with the obstetrician: "All right. Let's do this."
In minutes, Sandy was in the operating room, in scrubs, watching their son emerge. "I cut his umbilical cord. When they pulled him out, the first thing I said was, 'Oh, my God, he's so cute.' "
Denise heard that, but she needed to see for herself that the baby was healthy and intact. "Sandy brought him up to my face. He was crying a little; I said, 'It's OK,' and rubbed his head, and he stopped fussing. Like he knew I was his mom."
Leo had jaundice and needed a feeding tube; the women would spend all day, every day, at the hospital, then rush home to pack the house for an imminent move to Denise's mother's home in Langhorne Manor, where the four of them could live together and share baby-care once the couple went back to work.
"It was awful to have to leave him every night," Sandy says. "They had monitors set up so we could look at him on our phones. A couple times, he'd be crying, and we weren't there."
Leo learned to regulate his body temperature, to eat without a feeding tube. Finally, on July Fourth, he was discharged from the hospital.