By the time they reached Longview, Washington, Lt. Jon Ralston wondered if they had made a terrible choice.
Before that December night, the decision to have the baby in Portland made so much sense. Now, with his wife in the passenger seat breathing through contractions, doubt was creeping in.
They’d already made the drive to Portland a few days earlier and come back empty-handed. As a helicopter pilot for the U.S. Coast Guard, Ralston had limited medical training, but the thought raced through his mind: Maybe he’d have to figure out how to deliver this baby himself.
Later, safe in the Portland hospital, the Ralstons named their newborn son — their third child — Ray. He kicked off a mini-baby boom among the families of the Coast Guard’s Astoria-based rescue helicopter pilots. Five more babies would follow him into the world over the next five months.
Group photos of these babies in their dads’ arms made the rounds on Facebook before Father’s Day.
The six babies are roughly the same size. They are all squishy-faced in a way that makes grown adults contort their own faces, mouth the air like goldfish and talk high-pitched, babbling nonsense. The babies’ fingers and toes curl. Their eyes stare. They look small enough to tuck into the gleaming blue flight helmets their fathers hold under their free arms.
All six mothers and fathers knew each other before the pregnancies. If they weren’t all close friends, they were at least in the same friend group. For the women, the pregnancies brought them closer together, said new mother Erin Cooley.
For the men, the imminent arrival of a pack of babies made for a busy five months at the air station.
Air Station Astoria usually has about 17 pilots, including officers. When six of those pilots found out they were going to be fathers last year, some for the first time, the scheduling headaches began.
The air station is staffed in such a way that the pilots are able to cover for each other, but only to a point.
May, June and July is a busy time at the station. This is transfer season, a time when many members of the Coast Guard are changing bases. Familiar faces leave, new faces arrive.
This year, it felt like transfer season started early.
Starting with the Ralstons in December, six different pilots were estimating due dates and the time off they needed or wanted after the baby arrived. Everyone had to pick up more flights or take on extra 24-hour duty shifts at the base.
“We, at the very least, had pretty good warning,” Ralston said. “Everybody gave us what their tentative plans were, which immediately changed.”
The nature of the Coast Guard — the transfers, the base locations — can make it hard for both spouses to pursue separate careers, or find babysitters. Being away from family also takes a toll, say three of the women whose newborns were part of the air station baby boom.
“The things I grew up with, I’d love for my kids to experience,” said Sarah Murphy. “But, they’re also having this whole other new experience being out here.”
It was something Caroline Wright, a dance instructor at Maddox Dance Studio, says she hadn’t factored in when she gave birth to her son this spring.
“We always planned to have children, but I never planned to have children in these circumstances,” she said.
“It’s a very emotional process, you know,” she added. “When you leave the house, you’re a family of two and when you come back your entire life has changed. Now there are three of you.”
Erin Cooley and her husband chose to spend the first two weeks after son Calvin’s birth alone with him — no family, no friends.
“We just wanted that time to adjust on our own,” Cooley said.
Wright and Cooley worked before their sons arrived; Wright was back at work soon after. Cooley, an academic psychologist, plans to continue working when summer break ends. By the time August hits, her husband, Lt. Cmdr. Jim Cooley, will be at home more, taking time off regular duty to pursue a master’s degree online.
They have talked about how they will juggle different roles, taking turns at being Calvin’s at-home parent, so that each can invest in their career.
Up until Calvin’s birth, Cooley commuted nearly every other week from the West Coast to her East Coast tenure-track job at The City University of New York.
“I can’t opt out of my career for several years and just step back in again and be at the same place,” Cooley said.
Three-month-old James is Murphy’s second child. She also has a 2 1/2-year-old daughter. Everything, she said, is simultaneously easier and more difficult with two, She hasn’t had a full night’s sleep in a very long time.
But lack of sleep for her is one thing, she said. Lack of sleep for her husband is another.
All the women are conscious that when their husbands go to work, they could be called out to a rescue. Their lives — not to be too dramatic about it, Murphy said — are on the line. It’s a different kind of equation to manage, but so are many things in a Coast Guard family.
Take the relatively simple question of finding a babysitter. If you are never in any one community long, how do you build those local connections that help you find a trustworthy, regular babysitter? Before the babies came, the six women pooled together to help babysit for the women like Murphy who already had children.
Now, all have infants on their hands.
Still, the women — more through text and phone calls than face-to-face meetings these days — have talked about meeting up, taking turns watching each others’ babies.
And in Coast Guard communities, word-of-mouth recommendations for all sorts of things abound. Murphy expects one of the women will eventually find that trustworthy babysitter at some point — likely recommended to her by someone else. Then she’ll recommend that babysitter to the other five women.
“I’d imagine it’s very lucrative to get in with the military families,” Murphy laughed.