Photos by BRIAN JAMES
THE PARENTS: Tia Mathisen, 33, and Kevin Mathisen, 37, of Mount Airy
THE KIDS: Reece Makenzie, 7; Riley Denise, 3; Mason Edward, born Dec. 22, 2016
“KEEPER”MOMENT FROM THEIR WEDDING: Dancing with Reece, then 3 weeks old, to the song “Isn’t She Lovely?”
Tia could see a glimmer of light on the next phase of the parent trip.
Reece, her oldest, was in kindergarten; Riley was potty-trained. Tia had taken up jogging and thought she might sign up for a race. Maybe she and Kevin could steal away to Las Vegas, stay in a luxe hotel, and see a magic show. Or she could take a mini-vacation to Hilton Head with her mom-pals, leaving the kids behind.
“I started to plan things for myself; I saw my life as a full life, not solely dedicated to mommy-hood,” she says. She’d even asked Kevin — “nicely, then not so nicely” — to get a vasectomy; he’d gone for a consultation, then balked after reading articles about the procedure.
In May, a drugstore test stick flagged a different kind of future.
“It felt like a dream died,” Tia says. “Like I had to put myself on hold again.”
Kevin made the vasectomy appointment and embraced the idea of a third child. “My level of acceptance came almost immediately,” he recalls. “I became excited, and I crossed my fingers for another girl.”
As a teen, even as a young adult, he hadn’t wanted children. “I was independent and didn’t really see family as being a fit for me.” But he knew he loved Tia practically from the moment they met, when he was a landlord showing her apartments in North Philadelphia.
He offered to help her move, then upped the ante by asking her out to dinner. “I was taken aback because he’s white and I’m black; I thought: Is this white guy crossing the racial barrier and asking me out on a date?” Tia recalls. “It was clear that he was interested in me, and I didn’t know what to do with that.”
Tia missed her family in Birmingham, Ala., and soon found kinship with Kevin’s parents and siblings in West Chester. “We meshed well as a family,” she says.
After one dramatic date — they joined an impassioned crowd to hear Houston mega-church preacher Joel Osteen at the Wells Fargo Center — Kevin said, “You know, tonight, when we were praying, I thought that you might be my wife.”
But before he had a chance to propose, Tia was pregnant. “I never had a thought of: Is this what we want?” she says. “I knew Kevin was a hard worker and that he valued family.”
The pregnancy was an easy float — no morning sickness, not even a swollen ankle — and the couple did their homework, driving from Wynnefield to prenatal yoga classes on South Street, hiring a doula, planning for a drug-free birth at Lankenau Medical Center. On the way there, with Tia’s mom in the car, they chorused that Black Eyed Peas tune: “I got a feeling … that tonight’s gonna be a good night.”
Instead, Tia gritted her way through a 14-hour labor. “I’d never had menstrual cramps, so I had no idea what to expect of a contraction. They knocked me off my feet. … But I remember when they put her on my chest. Unbelievable. Just a second ago, you weren’t here, and now … it took my breath away.”
The early days of parenting, like birth itself, were treacherous: Why was the baby crying? Why was she losing weight? Would Tia’s milk supply ever come in? “The best advice I got was: ‘It’s OK; you don’t know her, and she doesn’t know you. You’re going to get to know each other.’ ”
They wanted a second child, ideally two years behind the first. When conception didn’t happen quickly, they consulted a fertility specialist who advised patience, along with a procedure to clear Tia’s fallopian tubes. She was pregnant the next month.
Tia’s contractions began on Thanksgiving; she remembers seeking refuge in the shower, gripping the edge of the soap dish as each wave of pain swelled and subsided. By the time they drove to Einstein Medical Center Montgomery, with the “low fuel” light glowing, she was almost fully dilated. She pushed for 10 minutes: another wide-eyed girl kangarooed to her chest.
The third time around, friends and acquaintances assumed they were trying for a boy. “People can’t accept that a man and a woman could be happy with just their two girls,” Tia says. Nevertheless, when they sliced the cake — blue! — at a gender reveal party, her eyes filled with tears.
The pregnancy was easy; the effect on her older kids, harder. On a mommy/daughter trip to a Jersey amusement pier, Reece hopped on most of the rides by herself. “It made me sad. I could feel her leaving me faster because of this other baby that I had to make space for.”
Mason arrived a few days before Christmas, after a swift, induced labor. “I kept saying to the midwife, ‘I can’t do it; I’m not strong enough,’ and she said, ‘Yes, you can.’ And she was right.”
With three children, Tia has found, it’s harder to multitask; someone is always seeking her attention. It helps to take a Zen approach to the kids’ needs. “I’ll find myself asking, ‘Why are you so upset that they aren’t lying down right now?’ If I accept that they need an extra kiss tonight, it’s much easier than fighting that.”
Kevin agrees: “You can never prepare yourself for the level of attention kids need,” including the moment he walks in the door from work, when Riley typically charges him with a cry of “DADDY!” and Reece, already affecting a teen’s diffident attitude, sometimes follows suit. Mason might flash one of those moist, gummy grins.
And in the midst of each day’s juggle, in the thicket of exhaustion, Tia can see glimmers — not of freedom, but of fulfillment. “When I see Riley talking to Mason in baby talk, or when Reece says, ‘I just can’t stand it; I have to give him a kiss,’ that is great,” Tia says. “It does feel like this is our family; this is complete.”