THE PARENTS: Jennifer Ellis, 33, and Mike Ellis, 37, of Flourtown

THE KIDS: Emily Nicole, 3; Abigail Nicole, born April 1, 2018

HOW JENN KNEW THIS WAS THE KEEPER RELATIONSHIP: "When we had our first argument and I felt like I wanted to work it out."

The way Mike remembers it, the birth of their second child was progressing evenly toward their hoped-for VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarian). Jenn's water had broken at home; now they were laboring at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery.

The midwives checked: Nine centimeters. Game time. Mike readied his camera.

But with each push, the baby's heart rate sank. Suddenly, an OB was ordering an emergency C-section, and Jenn was whisked to the operating room. Their daughter emerged, the umbilical cord coiled twice around her neck. Mike watched as a neonatal team pressed on the baby's tiny chest, then inserted a ventilator tube to help her breathe.

"What's going on?" Jenn asked groggily from the table.

"They're working on her," was all Mike could say. And then a doctor was talking to him, softly but firmly, explaining about oxygen deprivation and possible brain injury and a preventive treatment that involved cooling the baby's body to 92 degrees for three days.

"The whole thing was the most surreal time," Mike says. "Things were going so well; then all of a sudden, you're in the middle of this nightmare." What the doctor was outlining — a treatment for birth asphyxia, also called hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) — "seemed like the logical thing to do. Maybe it's the engineer in me. I thought: This makes sense."

Mike met the ambulance at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and spent the next three days shuttling from his daughter's incubator to his wife's bedside at Einstein.

"It was horrible. I didn't get to hold her until she was six days old," Jenn says. "I thought: What's going to ultimately happen? Will she be able to breathe on her own? Eat on her own? There I was in this lonely hospital room, recovering, pumping milk for a baby who wasn't even there."

The cooling procedure worked: Abigail's brain MRI looked normal. "We cried tears of joy when they told us we could bring her home," Jenn says.

The experience made their first daughter's birth, in retrospect, seem like a cakewalk. That time, it had taken nearly a year to conceive, an agonizing wait for two inveterate planners. "I felt hopeless. I wanted to be a parent so badly. It was a dark time for me," Jenn says.

When she did become pregnant, she was too ecstatic to share the news with Mike the way she'd planned, by slipping a spoon that read, "You're going to be a dad!" into his morning coffee. Instead, she just shouted from the bathroom.

By 20 weeks, they'd assembled a crib, set up the nursery, and folded stacks of infant clothes in gender-neutral green and yellow. At 41 weeks, the night before a scheduled induction, Jenn woke at 2 a.m. with contractions that quickly ramped from decisive to excruciating.

At the hospital, after an epidural, Jenn's labor stalled. "Once we started getting to the 24-hour mark, they said, 'We're recommending a C-section because of failure to progress,' " Mike says. "We were pretty upset about that. It was not our birth plan."

"But we were exhausted," Jenn says. "So we did it."

Following the birth, Jenn developed postpartum preeclampsia and needed a 24-hour magnesium drip, which felt like fire licking her veins. They brought Emily home the moment doctors gave them clearance to leave — never mind that it was 9 p.m.

"We came home in the dark, not rested. I was recovering from surgery. And we had a newborn. I thought: What did we just do?" Jenn says.

"We tried to go to sleep," Mike says. "But babies aren't quiet. Every sound, you think she's dying."

Jenn's hypervigilance didn't ease; she struggled with breastfeeding and lay awake at night, worrying that something awful would happen to the baby. Mike didn't know how to gauge his wife's distress: Was this a typical case of "baby blues" or a more profound mood shift that called for professional help?

Now Jenn recognizes her struggle as postpartum depression and anxiety. Back then, she knew only that parenthood felt like an 18-month tunnel. "One day, I woke up and it was like a cloud was lifted," she says. "She got older. I got more sure of myself." A second child seemed like a possibility.

They gave both girls their mother's middle name. "We wanted something to tie us all together," Jenn says.

She and Mike had felt meant-to-be nearly from the start, a random meeting at the Wissahickon train station in 2008. After seeing each other several times amid the gaggle of commuters, Mike grabbed a free Metro newspaper, offered it to Jenn, and teased, "Now you owe me 75 cents." He played on that incident when he proposed, with a faux-Metro he'd Photoshopped to feature a picture of the couple, headlined, "Young man plans to propose. What will she say?"

She said yes. They married — the official time — at a Starbucks in Ardmore, a perfunctory paper-signing with a reverend, then with 15 relatives and friends in Riviera Maya, Mexico. They traveled. They bought a house with a yard.

Mike and Jennifer Ellis with daughters Emily (left) and Abigail.
Sarah Miller Photography
Mike and Jennifer Ellis with daughters Emily (left) and Abigail.

Now, their daughters' births have rearranged their perspective. After Abigail was born, Jenn felt gratitude instead of anxiety. They've learned that a bout of infant tears isn't the end of the world. Friends rushed to help, giving them meal vouchers and dropping off hot dinners. Others brought gifts for Emily.

During the uncertain hours in the NICU at CHOP, Jenn and Mike wondered what they'd ever found to argue about. Even now, when Emily erupts in a tantrum or Abigail refuses to sleep, those stresses pale against the backdrop of the might-have-been.

"I've never felt so blessed and lucky in my life," Jenn says. "Every once in a while, we stop and think: It could have taken a different turn. We're so lucky that our house is full of life."