Marriage and a baby during the pandemic

THE PARENTS: Cynthia Moffat, 36, and Nate Fried, 36, of South Philadelphia

THE CHILD: Penelope Rosemary, born Feb. 26, 2022

POSTPARTUM RELIEF: A good friend of Cynthia’s came to stay with them when Penelope was four days old; she made dinner for the couple and took the baby on walks so they could get some respite — or at least, a shower.

The coast-to-coast scavenger hunt began with a puzzle-collage Nate had created, filled with images from the previous year.

There was a clue cached behind a minus-80-degree freezer in a lab at Thomas Jefferson University, where the two first met. A map drawn with magic disappearing ink. A lockbox with a secret combination. A thumb drive containing a 10-minute movie about their relationship.

Nate had spent months delighting in the prospect of feeding Cynthia’s puzzle obsession and finally popping the question near a campfire during a rock-climbing trip in California with good friends.

Then COVID-19 happened, and their rock-climbing buddies, who were from Canada, needed to return home before the government sealed the borders. Suddenly, Cynthia and Nate were racing across Southern California, trying to get to the Las Vegas airport before all flights were canceled.

Outside an Airbnb that was a converted brothel, surrounded by several peacocks (including one named Thor), Nate knelt down in the desert and proposed.

At the airport, they washed their hands obsessively. After three canceled flights, they managed to catch one headed home. And when they finally reached Philadelphia, they began a two-week quarantine. Friends dropped a bottle of wine and a congratulations card on the front steps.

“We kept telling everybody: When the quarantine is over, once COVID passes, we’ll all celebrate,” Cynthia recalls. Meantime, they pored over each day’s news with scientists’ attention to detail: what were the latest case counts; what were studies saying about aerosolized virus?

They met in 2012, when Cynthia worked at Jefferson as a lab assistant and Nate was getting his Ph.D. They collaborated on a research paper. “We discovered that rats who get migraines have reduced mitochondrial function,” Nate says. They were friends and colleagues who bumped into one another occasionally on the Market-Frankford El.

That is, until 2018, when Nate suggested a happy hour excursion. “All of a sudden, sparks flew,” Cynthia says. “It was surprising at first, but we quickly realized how compatible we were.”

Although she grew up in Ottawa and Nate was raised in Riverside, N.J., they were born in the same year and shared cultural touchstones. They understood each other’s careers. In early conversations about the future, their aspirations aligned.

During those first months of the pandemic, they still envisioned a wedding. “One of us would be hopeful; the other one would be dour,” Nate recalls. “I had elaborate ideas: How about a reverse wedding, where we go to everyone’s houses across the U.S. and Canada?”

Finally, they realized that even a micro-wedding wasn’t in the cards; instead, they eloped to Ridley Creek State Park with a huppah, two friends, a photographer, and a videographer. Their vows, which they hadn’t shared with each other prior to the ceremony, were nearly identical.

“We both knew that we were people who wanted kids,” Cynthia says. “We were older; there was more risk; we didn’t want to wait too long. Once we were both vaccinated and case rates were coming down and there was all this optimism in the air, we thought: Why not?”

Two different drugstore tests registered positive on the day before Father’s Day. Cynthia waited until the next morning, then woke Nate with a test stick in hand. “What? Is this real?” he said. “I didn’t think it would happen so quickly.”

The pregnancy was a smooth ride, physically: no morning sickness or heartburn. But Cynthia, who weeps each time they watch Encanto, expected to feel more sentimental during those nine months. Instead, “my pregnancy was a phase that I went through. I don’t think it was until she was born that I felt super-connected to her.”

They learned the baby’s sex at 11 weeks but kept the news private. “We didn’t want to receive a million pink tutus,” Cynthia says. She wanted a vaginal delivery, and with a due date of Feb. 19, they were secretly hoping for a “twos-day” birth — that is, Tuesday, 2/22/22.

Penelope had other ideas. They scheduled an induction that turned into two days of slow progress and increasing interventions at Pennsylvania Hospital. “She never moved down. I never dilated,” Cynthia says. Doctors began prepping her for a C-section while Nate sat in a waiting area.

“I heard an announcement: ‘Emergency C-section,’ then saw people running to the same room Cynthia had gone into. Someone grabbed me and said, ‘Don’t look at her.’ The curtain was up, and I was by Cynthia’s head. Finally, Penelope was on the table; they got her to breathe, and I remember not knowing if I was allowed to touch her.”

Later, they learned that the baby’s heart rate had begun to drop, and that it had taken four nurses pushing on Cynthia’s belly to help their 9-pound, 14-ounce daughter emerge. Cynthia’s first clear memory is in the post-op room, nursing the baby while nibbling an Entenmann’s doughnut.

COVID caution became an effective way to keep throngs of well-wishers at bay, Nate says, and to make sure they weren’t giving preferential treatment to Philadelphia relatives over farther-flung family members in Canada.

He quickly learned a lesson that he now readily shares with other new parents. In the hospital, when Penelope was wakeful all night, he panicked, wondering how they would manage without sleep. “I thought: Oh, my God, she is going to cry nonstop. But that all went away in a couple of days. What I tell people now is: All these struggles, they are just temporary.”

It’s clear to both of them that their daughter is already her own person. “Our parents spend a lot of time trying to suss out who she looks like. When I look at Penelope, I just see Penelope,” Cynthia says. “I’m fascinated to see what she’s going to be like when she grows up.”

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