Before the two bright lines on the drugstore test stick, before the months of acupuncture and herbal supplements, meditation, fertility massage, and daily cups of steaming bone broth, Caroline, an acupuncturist and Reiki practitioner, had a vision of how her labor would unfold.
She hoped for a water birth, attended by a midwife and a doula. Later, she planned to encapsulate her placenta, dehydrating the iron-rich, hormone-saturated tissue and packing it into gel caps to swallow.
She did not plan on an excruciating ride to Inspira Health Network, laboring in the back seat with a blanket over her head. She did not envision 12 hours of moving from the birth ball to the bathroom and back to the birth ball, with Bob or the doula holding a small massage device to her tailbone to alleviate the pain.
And she certainly did not expect that when the midwife said plainly, "Can you push this baby out or do you want a C-section?" she would be too disoriented to form the words.
"They needed to get my consent, and I couldn't talk," Caroline remembers. For hours, she'd felt as though she were drifting in and out of a dream. "I remember not wanting a C-section, but I trusted my midwife. I nodded my head."
Bob worried that his wife, glassy-eyed and barely responsive, was having a stroke. Even in the operating room, when he told Caroline, through tears, that the baby was a girl, she just stared at him blankly. Suddenly, the baby began convulsing; doctors said they would need to transfer her to Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children.
"I'd been up for 29 hours," Bob says. "I didn't know if my wife was ever going to be the same, and my baby daughter who'd just been born had had a seizure and was going to be taken to a hospital in a different state."
Caroline, who had dangerously low sodium levels, was allowed to hold the baby for five minutes. "I remember thinking she looked like a little loaf of challah bread."
And then "Baby Girl Ashurst" -- they hadn't had a chance to name her -- went to Wilmington while Caroline was whisked to the ICU, and Bob, for the next four days, crisscrossed the tristate area, bringing Caroline's pumped breast milk to duPont and sending videos from the NICU in return.
When Caroline was discharged and saw her daughter again -- round-cheeked, olive-skinned, tethered to monitors -- all she wanted to do was nurse. Mina latched on immediately. "That was the saving grace of a week from hell."
For Bob, the ordeal drummed home one clear fact of existence: "Nothing ever goes according to plan. That should be tattooed on every person's body as soon as they're born."
For his wife, lack of control -- and acceptance of help -- was a harder sell. She was the woman, after all, who'd felt deeply attached to her third-floor walk-up in West Philadelphia, who refused to live with Bob unless there was a promise of marriage on the horizon, who wasn't sure, until her early 30s, that she wanted to have children.
They met when Caroline was DJing as "Lina Luv," playing African beats and global dance music. She was oblivious to Bob's Facebook flirting, but when she spotted him with friends at a party, she felt drawn to his goofy, playful vibe. Their first date was a concert -- some of Bob's buddies were playing in Oud Blues on the University of Pennsylvania campus -- followed by bowling and an "epic make-out session."
He proposed in the cherry blossom grove at Swarthmore College: a sapphire ring, a bottle of champagne. Then they married twice -- once with a pagan-style hand-fasting in Carpenter's Woods, once in a Catholic church (to please Caroline's parents) while visiting Cartagena, Colombia, with a Spanish interpreter and the church secretary as their sole witnesses.
And somewhere along the way -- both remember the turning-point moment, during a hike in the Wissahickon -- Caroline changed her perspective on parenthood. "I said, 'What are we going to do? You don't even want to have kids,' " Bob recalls. "And you said, 'No, I do. I want you to be the father of my children.' "
"I was in my early 30s," Caroline says. "I thought: If I'm going to live life, I need to take a risk for love."
A calculated risk, anyway. She encouraged Bob to see a career coach and spruce up his resumé. Meanwhile, she prepped her body for conception. "I would sit in front of my sacred altar space and think about calling to the baby: 'Hey, we're ready for you.' "
But the birth rocked her sense of herself. Even after they brought Mina home, Caroline struggled with physical limitations -- she couldn't walk up stairs; she sobbed hysterically one day when she feared her milk supply had dried up -- and new insecurities. "It took me a long time to feel safe, that I was going to be able to take care of Mina."
Friends and neighbors stepped up with a two-week meal train; accepting that support, too, was a challenge. "It's hard for me to take in help. It's not a muscle I'm used to using," Caroline says.
Over time, the trauma of Mina's birth dimmed. Caroline's gratitude grew. They had a healthy, even-keeled baby, born on their one-year anniversary. They'd given her a name they loved -- "Mina" was Winona Ryder's character in Bram Stoker's Dracula -- only to discover that the middle name of Caroline's much-cherished maternal grandmother had been Philomena.
They could barely remember who they'd been before Mina: the couple who jokingly debated whether Fishtown or West Philly was the cooler neighborhood; the pair who had dated and broken up and finally gotten themselves together.