THE PARENTS: Elyse Castillo, 31, and Jason Blank, 33, of Manayunk
THE KIDS: Holden Hamilton Blank, 6; Abram Jude Blank, 4; Margot Katherine Blank, born October 17, 2016
WHAT WAS DIFFERENT ABOUT THE THIRD BIRTH: For the first time, Elyse felt that instant euphoria, the "love at first sight" sensation.

It didn't matter that Elyse thought Jason's clown makeup was a wreck.

It didn't matter that he misconstrued her costume (she was supposed to be the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Donatello, but Jason thought she was the Italian fashion designer Donatella Versace).

Even so, they spent the entire Halloween party trailing each other around, eventually slipping from the house to wander through Manayunk.

After that, their first official date was an epic 12 hours: pizza followed by a river-to-river meander through Philadelphia.

Over the holidays, they hopped in the car for a spur-of-the-moment trip to the Outer Banks - a weekend of Rummikub, an Ugly Sweater Christmas party for just the two of them, and an exchange of gifts. Elyse gave Jason a pair of Sperry shoes. He'd hunted all over town for a crystal decanter she coveted.

Shortly after that trip, Elyse remembers confiding to friends: "We're going to end up getting married."

At least that was the idea. But in January, Elyse was telling a friend about her never-ending PMS symptoms. As she listened to herself, she realized she wasn't premenstrual. She was pregnant.

After work that day, when she told Jason, Elyse - the Type A planner of the two - also furnished an array of options. They could break up. They could stay together. She could raise the baby alone. "But he said, 'I want to do this. I want to be a family.' "

"We wanted kids, but not until later," Elyse says. "Still, I was really happy to find out I was going to have a baby."

That wasn't the only development to upend their lives: Elyse, food-and-beverage director of the Spirit of Philadelphia, had just landed a similar job in Baltimore. They found an apartment in the Inner Harbor area, and Jason commuted, leaving Baltimore at 5:15 each Monday morning, spending one or two nights a week on a friend's couch in Philadelphia.

While juggling doctors' appointments and 14-hour workdays, Elyse also ran, meditated, and did prenatal yoga, all in the hope of breathing her way through a natural childbirth.

"I had this idea that if you work hard at something and read some books and make a plan, you can be successful. But birth isn't like that." What really happened was an induction - doctors were concerned that the baby might not be thriving - and a labor that, despite Jason's carefully curated playlist (The Black Eyed Peas, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros), left Elyse feeling unsettled.

The delivery room was quiet for 10 hours. Then it was time to push, and suddenly Elyse found herself thronged by medical practitioners and flooded with light. "I felt criticized: 'You're not pushing effectively.' I felt like I hadn't done it well enough, and it showed me what I wanted in future births: a different setting. More support."

They hoped for children close in age - Elyse is the middle child of five, and Jason has strong bonds with his brothers. One unseasonably steamy April day, Elyse nearly passed out when she took Holden to the park. "We'd been trying, then we decided to stop putting so much pressure on ourselves, and, of course, that's when it happened."

They were back in Philadelphia by then and opted for a home birth, with midwives who made house calls and brought a kid-size doctor kit for Holden. Elyse had been feeling intermittent contractions - much milder than the Pitocin-induced pains of her first birth - when she sensed the baby's head drop and screamed for her husband.

"I half wake up and think there's some kind of small animal making a noise," Jason says. "I got the midwives on speakerphone. I put Holden downstairs in a room with a baby gate."

The midwives, on the road from Delaware, instructed Elyse not to push. "I didn't push," she yelled back. "He's just coming out." She scrambled to their bed, where Abram was born after two more contractions. The midwives arrived in time to deliver the placenta.

Though the birth itself was an adrenaline bolt, the postpartum moments were just what Elyse had craved. "It was such a calm experience, being able to be in your own bed instead of being woken up every two hours for vitals."

She would have done it all over again, but Jason was wary of a reprise. Their compromise, when Elyse realized she was pregnant for the third time, was to work with Lifecycle WomanCare in Bryn Mawr.

It irked Elyse when acquaintances said, in front of Holden and Abram, "Oh, you must want a girl." And Jason, a real estate broker, noticed a shift in his colleagues' reactions: "With the first, it's: 'Congratulations!' With the second, they say, 'Way to go,' and slap your back. With the third, it's old news."

Elyse was eating hummus in the kitchen when her every-six-minutes contractions ramped up to every three. She drove herself to the birth center while Jason put the kids to bed, figuring he'd have time to call a neighbor and then follow her.

But this baby beat even her speedy older brother: She was born in one push, 20 minutes after Elyse arrived at the birth center. Jason got there in time to kiss them both.

What they know now is that life doesn't unfurl according to plan. There are mind-scrambling interludes - on the way to a doctor's appointment, for instance, with Margot screaming, Abram demanding something, and Holden trying to do his homework in the car.

Then there will be a stretch of unbidden calm: a plane ride to San Diego, with a sleeping infant and a toddler who colors contentedly while Elyse reads The Indian in the Cupboard to Holden.

The crystal decanter Jason gave Elyse for that first Christmas - a sign of past aspirations and indulgences - sits on their kitchen counter, the whiskey in it untouched for six years. Someday, they know, there will be time to uncork it and take a sip.

WELCOME TO PARENTHOOD!
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