THE PARENTS: Jessie Tettemer, 33, and Darryn Lifson, 38, of Point Breeze
THE CHILD: Eli Myles, born July 14, 2017
WHY THEY CHOSE NOT TO KNOW THE BABY'S SEX BEFORE BIRTH: "I think there's something charming about scrambling to paint the walls once you find out if it's a boy or a girl," Darryn says. "I didn't want to have any preconceived ideas."
"Fortune favors the brave."
That's something Jessie and Darryn like to say to each other. And it was with that motto in mind that the two — after a year of e-mails, Skype dates, and visits lasting no longer than two weeks — decided to move, together, to Hong Kong.
He was a small-town boy, raised in the insular bubble of Capetown, South Africa; she was a big-city girl who left Philly for college and a career in New York. After knowing each other for three days — Jessie was traveling with friends in South Africa, and Darryn was drafted by a mutual friend to show them around — they both felt certain, despite the chasms of geography and culture.
"When Darryn and I met, I looked at us as being very different people. As we got to know each other, I realized how similar we actually were," Jessie says. Both were raised Jewish, both thirsted for travel, both cherished experience over material things.
Then Hong Kong called: Darryn, head of wellness for an incentive-based health program, got a job offer there, and Jessie, who had been doing public relations for MAC Cosmetics in New York, joined the regional team for the company's Asia Pacific branch.
They lived in "mid-levels" — apartments packed partway up a mountain on the island, with a panoramic view. Jessie's daily commute involved an escalator down the mountainside, a walk across a footbridge, and a ferry ride traversing the harbor.
"We're the kind of people who, if there's an opportunity, we're going to take it," Darryn says. They traveled to Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, Bali, Taiwan, and China. "We were constantly looking ahead to the next trip," Jessie recalls. "Living out of suitcases. It was always exciting, never boring."
Darryn proposed on a Wednesday night, kneeling just inside the door of their apartment; he'd arranged for dinner to be delivered from their favorite restaurant: dim sum, noodles, and champagne. And then they married twice: a small civil ceremony in Philadelphia so Jessie's 90-year-old grandmother could attend, and again in Capetown, for a more traditional Jewish wedding.
It was Darryn whose biological clock was ticking. "I felt Jessie would be the most amazing mother, and I really wanted to be a father. It was a burning desire for me," he says.
"I wasn't in a rush," Jessie remembers. She wanted to raise children closer to her family. And after three years in Hong Kong, they felt ready to land. "It's inevitable that one of us will be far from family. But why make that be both of us?" she says. "We thought, 'Let's go to the city where we want to build a life.' " They moved to Philadelphia in March 2016.
By November, both had a strong hunch that Jessie was pregnant. They splurged on dinner at Vernick Food & Drink —cocktails, sushi, steak tartare, all the indulgences that would be on the "no" list once they knew for sure.
"A few days later, I took the test. It wasn't a shock," Jessie says. Although their lives were far from settled — Jessie was freelancing and Darryn was between jobs; they were living in a one-bedroom apartment and just beginning to house-hunt — they figured they'd have nine months to jostle all the pieces into place.
Jessie loved being pregnant: the spontaneous congratulations from neighbors, the mystery of not knowing the baby's sex, the curiosity about how her body would respond in labor.
She hoped for a natural delivery but learned in the final weeks of pregnancy that the baby was breech. "I tried everything to flip him — lying upside-down on an ironing board, chiropractic, an external version at the hospital. None of that worked." So they scheduled a C-section — "like a really important dentist appointment," she laughs — for July 14.
Darryn recalls every moment of that day: packing the bag, dressing in scrubs, joking with the surgeon, cutting the umbilical and requesting chocolate pudding — a mutual favorite — once they were in the recovery room.
"I'd never had surgery before," Jessie says. "It's an overwhelming and strange experience. Before seeing if it was a boy, the doctor said, 'Ooh … chunky!' That was the first thing we heard about Eli. They dropped the curtain and lifted him up like he was Simba in The Lion King. And the first cry: There's this new human who's been with us this whole time who's now out in the world."
Those first few nights at Pennsylvania Hospital felt a bit like vacation. They played music and danced around the room with Eli, savoring dinners brought to them by Jessie's parents. "You leave there feeling confident. Then you get home, and your world is shattered, and you're not confident anymore," Jessie remembers. She breastfed and pumped milk in a fevered effort to get Eli, who'd dropped three ounces since birth, to gain weight.
Meanwhile, her parents folded laundry, washed bottles, did errands, and cooked, with her father ordering "gifts," ostensibly for Eli — a colander, a vegetable peeler — to supplement their spare kitchen gadgetry.
They hope to travel with their son; a trip to South Africa is on the agenda for sometime during his first year. But for the moment, they feel victorious if they manage to shower, dress, and take the baby around the block.
"The first time we went out, he wailed the whole way, and I ran the stroller home," Jessie says. "But maybe the second time we went out, I felt so proud of ourselves. I'd fed Eli, came down from the bedroom before 9 a.m., and was able to have a cup of coffee. … I felt like a normal person, doing things at a somewhat normal pace."