“Honeeeeeeeey! What do we got?”
Every week for nine months, Rachael and Tom Sullivan’s social media followers heard Rachael ask her husband what new meal he had created. He always used an ingredient the size of their baby at that point in the pregnancy. In the beginning, it was a fig or pear. Later, it was something bigger, like a melon or rack of ribs.
On the forty-first week, Rachael asked Tom the question one final time.
“We have a baby girl,” Tom said through tears, cradling their newborn daughter.
The Raleigh couple welcomed Sutton Ryleigh on the afternoon of July 25 after a long journey with fertility struggles chronicled for their over 1.8 million social media followers. What started as a way to share recipes with others dealing with fertility challenges — along with a side hustle feeding area college students — evolved into a massive support network who celebrated with the Sullivans every step of the way.
“During this great moment for us, we know there’s a lot of people celebrating Sutton’s birth and that means the world to us as parents,” said Tom Sullivan, 35, in an interview with The News & Observer.
“Throughout the pregnancy and with the birth two weeks and a day ago, I feel like there’s been so much support and outreach from the community,” he said. “Rachael was going through labor for a very long time and so many people were wishing us on and cheering us on.”
Sutton’s birth means their journey has come full circle. Their online following all started around their efforts to have a baby.
“I’ve always wanted to be a mom,” Rachael Sullivan, 29, said. “And it’s just this great moment to happen, and I’m still pretty speechless about it.”
Fertility struggles begin
A few years ago, Rachael was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, commonly known as PCOS. The hormonal imbalance disorder affects between 6% and 12% of women in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Symptoms can include irregular menstrual cycles, hormonal acne and insulin resistance, which can result in obesity. The syndrome results in cysts forming on a woman’s ovaries, meaning that many women are infertile if it is left untreated.
Faced with the fertility issues and a desire to start their family, Tom began cooking special recipes to help manage her hormones and symptoms instead of turning to birth control to do so.
As Tom began cooking dishes, he posted them on an Instagram account called MealsSheEats to keep track of his wife’s favorites. But he didn’t tell her about it. After she stumbled on it through Instagram’s suggested accounts, Rachael made a viral video of her own on TikTok, dubbing her husband’s work a “secret account.”
Today, she has over 1.5 million followers on TikTok and Instagram. The MealsSheEats account has close to 350,000 followers with many also sharing and commiserating about their own fertility challenges.
And when Baby Sutton arrived, the followers were ready. The video announcing Sutton’s arrival has 7.9 million views.
The Sullivans owe their pregnancy to the diet and lifestyle change that they made to manage Rachael’s PCOS. Within a few months of the diet change, Rachael said her symptoms gradually went away and her cycle was restored.
“Before this lifestyle that we’ve taken up, I was having irregular cycles, I wasn’t ovulating and there was a lot of other signs and symptoms, like debilitating cramps and migraines and really bad PMS,” Rachael said.
PCOS, however, doesn’t affect Rachael like it did in the past.
“It’s been just a journey for me for me and Tom to go through this whole process and really focus on each other, and how we could improve my health and (Sutton) being the direct ... fruit of it all,” said Rachael.
Feeding college students
They’ve also shared that journey with Triangle area college students. Last summer, the couple went viral, again, for their community effort to “adopt” Triangle college students and provide free healthy to-go meals from their home.
The couple has served hundreds upon hundreds of meals to local college students, mostly from N.C. State University, since last year.
The couple launched the website Adopt a College Kid where students can sign up to hear about the meals. At the height of the program, the Sullivans would feed at least 120 students at a time.
Kevin Gallagher, the first student they “adopted,” became close enough to the family that he photographed the Sullivans at the hospital after Sutton was born.
The Sullivans said they’ll continue to cook up meals for them — fueled by donations from the community — even after the birth of their baby.
“We always give them like a week to move in and get settled, and then we throw kind of a big kick off,” said Tom. “We’re also looking to do a couple more tailgates that we set up and have people come through.”
Social media following
Using an app that tracked the size of their baby during Rachael’s pregnancy, Tom prepared recipes that used an ingredient that corresponded to the baby’s size.
“We thought it would just be kind of a fun milestone to celebrate each week of our pregnancy to make a recipe ... cooking is at the cornerstone of our relationship,” said Rachael. “We were able to share that with our social media following every week and we started that at like, week 14.”
A pineapple? Pineapple coconut cupcakes. An eggplant? Crispy eggplant tacos with blistered tomatoes, sauce and avocado on a corn tortilla. A squash? Pasta with roasted butternut squash and tomatoes.
While the couple went on a trip to Cabo San Lucas in Mexico, the week’s ingredient was jícama, a native Mexican turnip.
Tom answered the challenge and called upon the help of the kitchen staff of the resort they stayed at. The result? A taco with a jícama tortilla with pico de gallo and mango.
@rachsullivan__ When the bump date falls on the babymoon and the @hiltonloscabos comes through for you #hiltonpartner ♬ Danza Kuduro - Original Mix - Don Lore V
When the couple celebrated a school year-end party at Raleigh Brewing with college students, the week’s ingredient was cabbage. Tom prepared Asian and Cuban-style cole slaw in huge bins.
The Sullivans aren’t yet sure what they’ll tell Sutton about their journey once she grows up.
“Hopefully we’re doing enough good that people tell (Sutton) good things,” said Tom. “Most importantly, that she just sees her mom and dad love each other.”