NFL player Ryan Kelly and his wife Emma are expecting not one, but two rainbow babies.
The couple confirms exclusively to PEOPLE that they are expecting twin boys, after a nearly two-year-long journey that included the death of daughter Mary Kate 19 weeks into Emma’s pregnancy, fertility struggles and in vitro fertilization.
“My gratitude, I can’t even tell you,” Emma, 33, tells PEOPLE. “There was a time when I really wasn’t sure if we were going to get here. I am literally so grateful for each day.”
Admitting that it has been a “tough pregnancy physically,” Emma calls their twins “miracles.”
“There’s a lot more risk involved this time. I was on bed rest for my first trimester, which was really tough and took a lot out of me,” she explains. “But at the end of the day, every bit of it has been worth it — to feel them and watch us grow.”
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Passing the halfway mark of the pregnancy has been “pretty bittersweet” for the couple. Emma was 19 weeks pregnant with the couple’s first baby when she learned her daughter’s “little heart just stopped for reasons unknown” and she would have to deliver the baby.
“There’s a lot of emotion involved right now with just surpassing that bittersweet milestone. And now, making it further than ever,” Emma says.”
The Indianapolis Colts center, 36, says he knew there would be some attention in sharing their daughter’s death. What he never imagined, however, was the outpouring of support that came after he revealed that a big game he missed was due to Mary Kate’s death.
“At the time, we just shared it because we were getting a lot of questions. We were playing a big game, and people wanted to know why I wasn’t there. So we shared it initially so that people would stop asking,” Ryan says. “The unforeseen side effect was all these people reaching out to us sharing their story of loss — whether it’s five months ago, five days or 50 years ago.”
“It didn’t bring our daughter back, but what happened in that moment, people reaching out that had gone through a similar situation, it was incredible,” he adds.
“We wondered, ‘How could this happen to us?’ We felt like the only ones out there, but then you hear people’s stories and it helped us tell ours and keep our daughter’s name alive, to honor her in a sense. It definitely helped our healing.”
Finding a community with hope helped the couple as they tried to navigate how they’d move forward in growing their family after Mary Kate’s death.
“Ryan and I have always wanted to be parents. It was this fairy tale, and it was too good to be true, with our big beautiful wedding and surprise pregnancy with our daughter,” says Emma.
“I remember after delivering her, sitting in the hospital bed and they took her from me, and I was just like, ‘I can’t live like this.’ The emptiness of it, I remember feeling so broken.”
“I knew at that moment, nothing could ever replace our daughter, but I knew we wanted to grow our family. There was such an emptiness in them taking her and knowing we’d never have her again that I decided to have that conversation in the hospital,” she recalls. “I remember looking over at him and saying ‘We’re going to keep trying, right?’ ”
“And that’s what we did. I had to wait three or four months to heal from delivering my daughter and the complications from losing her and having a traumatic birth experience. Once we started trying again, we did for almost 11 months.”
She remembers the time as “heartbreaking,” adding, “Imagine when all you want is a family, and we’re at the age where that’s all you see — everyone around you is pregnant, especially in the NFL world.”
“It’s really beautiful, of course, but it’s really painful when you want it, and you’re trying so hard and doing everything right, and seeing so many doctors and professionals. Then month after month, it’s negative pregnancy test after negative pregnancy test, after already losing a child that you wanted so badly,” says Emma.
“We’re coming out of some of our darkest months, the darkest two years of our life.”
After a devastating Thanksgiving where Emma got her period and broke down, the couple discussed seeing a fertility specialist.
“We just had to admit that we needed help and I want to talk about that because, at first, I thought a lot about shame in admitting that I needed that help,” Emma says.
Citing pregnancy announcements and bump updates across social media, the couple notes, “You see everyone getting there and you don’t realize one in six people are dealing with infertility.”
“It was hard for us to swallow because we had our daughter. We created her with no problem. We weren’t even trying or tracking when we got pregnant then, and we went on to exhaust ourselves for a year and a half with ovulation tracking, specialists, supplements, ‘doing everything right,’ and it still wasn’t working.”
Emma emotionally continues, “All you can feel is shame. And what you’re asking yourself, ‘What are we doing wrong?’ or ‘What’s wrong with me?’ ‘What did I do to deserve this?'”
“It’s a really beautiful thing and a really courageous thing to admit that you need help and to let people help you when you need it, because we are living in such a great time,” she notes, referencing all the different advancements that have helped families grow.
The couple ultimately turned to IVF to conceive, committing on Christmas Eve and finding out by mid-January that they were expecting twins.
“If you can just open your heart to that, if you’re ready for it — I mean, we’re sitting here growing two miracle babies inside of me because of it and, who’s to say, whether we kept trying on our own, if that would happen or not,” she says.
For the nearly two weeks while they waited between their embryo transfer and confirming the pregnancy, Ryan recalls being “on pins and needles from months of negative results. Those tests become what you fear most.”
When it came to finding out the sex of their babies, the couple enjoyed a date night at one of their favorite local steakhouses, where the waitresses presented them with desserts that would give the results.
“They gave us these chocolate desserts with two little hammers, and of course when they brought those out, everybody was looking at us,” Ryan recalls. “We always thought that we were gonna have one of each.”
Emma agrees, “We were so sure. We would have bet our retirement that we were having one of each.”
“Ryan broke open the first one, and it was a boy, which we were so excited because we were hoping for at least one. And then I did the second, and honestly, I was stunned.”
“We had always pictured having a little girl, and we just lost a little girl and Ryan always said he wanted to be a girl dad,” she explains. “I didn’t even know I hadn’t prepared myself for that. I wasn’t expecting it. So there were a lot of tears, but then I realized boy moms have to be tough. There are trucks and dinosaurs, and I’m as girly as they come. So it was a lot of trying to wrap my head around being so excited and grateful but also momentarily taken aback.”
The couple is looking forward to sharing this exciting time with loved ones, admitting they’ve kept the news “pretty close.”
“There’s a PTSD to it. We were always going to share this journey, no matter what happened, but we’re so fortunate to be doing it here with these two boys growing in my belly. When you get so much bad news for so long, you almost come to expect it,” says Emma. “So this pregnancy, I’m trying to allow myself to feel the joy and excitement despite the anxiety and pain.”
Admitting she still holds her breath “every time I go to the bathroom,” Emma acknowledges, “there’s no safe period, ever.”
“My mantra is ‘This pregnancy is not my last pregnancy.’ I’m seeing a therapist and making time for myself, for meditation and self-care,” she explains. “I’m doing whatever it takes to stay in the right place mentally, compartmentalizing how much I miss my daughter every day with how right now, this needs to be about our twins and growing them in the best way.”
Managing that anxiety means acknowledging their grief and how the spouses can “complicate each other’s grief.”
“I feel I have to be there for the family, like I’m supposed to be the husband and protect her,” Ryan shares. “So we’re both struggling at the same time, and we grieve very differently, there can be hard moments and hard conversations. And we had to get through them to get where we are now.”
The NFL star was also able to find support in the Sad Dads Club, a group that hosts virtual meetings every month for men to talk about different experiences with loss and other tough subjects related to fatherhood.
“For me, the hardest part was thinking about how I’ll never be able to walk my daughter down the aisle. It was the first thing I thought of when we found out we were having her and when we lost her, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, down to being at her grave site when we buried her,” he shares.
“And just to see that someone else out there is upset about the same thing and it’s okay. Finding community, and there are many out there that do great work, but it’s important because it doesn’t have to be super time-consuming but you can have a safe space to share your emotion because in reality, we don’t do that much as men.”
“I’m so proud of us and our relationship,” Emma says. “I literally feel like we just survived the unsurvivable.”
As they prepare to welcome their boys, the couple is looking forward to hearing their little cries.
“In the last pregnancy, we got caught up in the nursery and all of the things that don’t matter. And so this time, we’re allowing ourselves a little bit of that, but I just want our boys to get here alive,” Emma tells PEOPLE.
“I could be stressed out that we’re giving birth at the end of August which is right when the season starts, and Ryan’s schedule will be extremely limited. And yes, it’ll be chaos but I could let myself worry or focus on what matters. I have learned in this journey that as long as they’re living, everything else is figure-outable.”