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Fargo woman gives the gift of parenthood to Los Angeles dads

Ellie Quinn (left) and Braden Parker were born Sept. 16, 2018, via a surrogate. AJ Photography / Special to The Forum1 / 11
Ellie Quinn and Braden Parker Johnson-Zaragoza. AJ Photography / Special to The Forum2 / 11
The Johnson-Zaragoza family, Braden, David, Chance, Michael and Ellie. AJ Photography / Special to The Forum3 / 11
Michael Johnson-Zaragoza holds one of his twins. AJ Photography / Special to The Forum4 / 11
David Johnson-Zaragoza holds one of his twins. AJ Photography / Special to The Forum5 / 11
While Facebook and two tiny heartbeats brought Mitchel Reierson, Violet and Gennifer Christianson and Michael, David and Chance Johnson-Zaragoza together, the bond they share through their surrogacy journey ensures they will always be family. AJ Photography / Special to The Forum6 / 11
Braden Parker and Ellie Quinn made their way into the world on Sept. 16, 2018, at Sanford Medical Center in Fargo. AJ Photography / Special to The Forum7 / 11
The Johnson-Zaragoza family with their new additions. (Left to right: David, Braden, Chance, Ellie, Michael) AJ Photography / Special to The Forum8 / 11
Gennifer Christianson was a surrogate for the Johnson-Zaragoza family. AJ Photography / Special to The Forum9 / 11
The Long Beach, Calif., Johnson-Zaragoza family (left to right: Michael, Chance and David) with Gennifer Christianson, the Fargo surrogate who carried their twins. AJ Photography / Special to The Forum10 / 11
Gennifer Christianson cuddles Ellie Quinn and Braden Parker shortly after they were born Sept. 16, 2018, at Fargo's Sanford Medical Center. AJ Photography / Special to The Forum11 / 11

FARGO — Building a family can be done in many ways. Friends can become family through shared time, babies can be born into families through traditional and nontraditional ways and some can be chosen through adoption and fostering.

Expanding a family is not always an easy thing to do, and while it's certainly the most common, traditional pregnancy is not always an option. For same-sex couples, adoption, surrogacy and in vitro fertilization (IVF) are the way to go.

But how did two husbands in Los Angeles end up expanding their family with the help of a Fargo couple? Good timing and the power of social media.

Getting together

Michael and David Johnson-Zaragoza met the way many do nowadays, online.

"Both of us were single," David says, sitting in the couple's home in Long Beach, Calif. "I reached out to him and said, 'We have a lot in common. If you're interested, write me back.' Maybe a week or so went by and he texted me back asking what it was we had in common."

After a few months of online chatting and texting, the two met in person.

"We set up a time to meet for lunch in August 2016," David says. "From then on, we hit it off really well and started doing different, fun things together and traveling."

David introduced his adopted son, Chance, to Michael shortly after they met, and says the two really clicked.

"Kind of right away, we started talking about a future together and getting married and having a family together," David says. "We got engaged in December 2016, the same year we started dating."

"We got married June 10, 2017," Michael says.

Michael, a registered nurse who serves in the U.S. Navy, says the couple started talking about expanding their family right from the get-go.

"We knew that this was something we were both interested in doing," Michael says. "We started talking about it shortly after we got engaged. Then, we started looking through the process."

Researching a variety of ways to grow their family, the couple ultimately settled on surrogacy, a process that can sometimes take up to two years.

There are two types of surrogacy, traditional and gestational. In traditional surrogacy, a woman is artificially inseminated with sperm using her own eggs. She then carries the baby and delivers it for the parents to raise. A traditional surrogate is the baby's biological mother.

In gestational surrogacy, like what the Johnson-Zaragozas did, a fertility clinic fertilizes donated eggs with the father's sperm to be placed into a surrogate through IVF.

"We researched all of our venues and at the point we are in life, we were ready to have biological kids and knew it could be done," David says.

Looking through a list of potential donors and deciding the genetic traits they would like their future child to possess, David and Michael matched with a donor over 2,000 miles away in Kentucky.

While the process of finding an egg donor is essential to the process, another crucial piece of the puzzle is the surrogate.

After many attempts at finding a surrogate — including conversations with friends, a few failed connections and a whole lot of research — a post on a surrogacy Facebook page connected the couple with six potential carriers.

Fargo to Long Beach

Meanwhile, in Fargo, Gennifer Christanson was creating her own zoo.

"It's kind of a funny story," Christanson says, laughing. "I realized that I had started adopting a bunch of animals."

After bringing up her urges to have a child and the idea of surrogacy to her partner, Christianson started looking into the process.

"My partner is really supportive," she says. "We were looking into buying a house and I started thinking, 'What if we got a house outside of town so we can have a cow?' I didn't want a cow; my biology was just crazy. But it made sense. As soon as I was like, 'OK, surrogacy,' I stopped wanting to adopt animals."

Christianson joined surrogacy groups on Facebook and began researching the process of becoming a gestational surrogate. She came across a post by the Johnson-Zaragozas and threw her hat — well, womb — into the ring.

"They are based out of LA so we FaceTimed and we just clicked," she says. "They have the same family values as we do, they're fantastic people and I just fell in love with them. I was like, 'I want this couple.'"

Because of the delicate process that goes into creating the miracle that is life, Christianson had to undergo a series of tests to determine if she was physically able to carry children for the couple.

"It was terrifying," she says. "It was actually really scary. You feel like they're going to find something wrong with you or tell you you're not good enough. I had to fly (to Los Angeles) and do tons of blood work. Top to bottom, they see how healthy you are and go through your entire health history."

After learning she was "healthy as a horse," they did a mock transfer to determine accurate dates and hormone dosages needed to successfully transfer an embryo. Soon after, Chirstianson and her family — partner Mitch and daughter Violet, 8 — flew to Los Angeles for Christmas.

"We hung out with (Michael and David) for a week in Long Beach and went to Disneyland and got to bond with them and everything," she says. "We just get along so well."

They also transferred the first embryo while Christianson and her family were visiting. While the first transfer didn't take, they were determined to try again.

"They did one of each of their embryos," Christianson says, "one of Michael's and one of David's. The only one they had of David's was there, so we lost that one. That made it a lot harder."

The second transfer was done in February 2018, while Michael was serving his military duty in Guam. Christianson took the trip solo. Three days later, the first pregnancy test came back positive.

"I sent them pictures of the pregnancy test every day," Christianson says. "They got clearer and clearer every day. Then I had to do three days of blood work in a row to see if my levels were going up. After the third day, it was like, 'No, you're actually pregnant. Like, for sure.'"

Despite the confirmation, they were still skeptical because the first cycle didn't take.

"We didn't get our hopes up until we got the heartbeat confirmation," Christianson says. "We only saw one, and then she was moving around and we saw the second one. We were hoping for one, but we got both of them."

We are family

Because they live on the West Coast — and flights into Fargo are relatively limited — the Johnson-Zaragozas had a detailed plan in place for the big day.

However, things don't always go as planned.

"David was sound asleep," Michael says. "I was just getting into bed and I heard my phone go off."

He then saw the text from Christianson — her water had broke, and she was on the way to the hospital.

"I was like, 'Are you kidding?''" Michael says. "David was sound asleep, so I said, 'David, wake up. We are going to Fargo.'"

While David was getting everything ready to make the trip, Michael called the airport to book a flight for 6 a.m. On the way to the airport, the couple called the hospital and learned that one of the babies had not flipped. Christianson would need to have a cesarean section.

"We raced to the airport," Michael says. "I had been up all night, so I was exhausted. I sat on the airplane on the way over there staring out the window in tears. They were happy tears, though."

Braden Parker and Ellie Quinn made their way into the world Sept. 16, 2018, at Sanford Medical Center in Fargo.

"I was disappointed we weren't there to see it, but I was happy we had healthy babies," he says.

While they weren't there for the birth, Alanna Johnson, a Sanford emergency room nurse and owner of AJ Photography, was able to capture the moment. She was working the night Christianson went into the hospital.

"I was really disappointed that (David and Michael) weren't able to make it," Johnson says. "I was excited I could capture the things they were going to miss out on."

Johnson says the family dynamic shared between the two families was easy to see.

"Working with the families together, you would never know they hadn't known each other forever. They act like one big family," she says. "It was really cool getting to know them and watching them interacting with each other and seeing how comfortable they were."

Thanks to the power of technology, Christianson still sees the babies quite often.

"We talk almost every day," she says. "I get pictures of the babies all the time. I'm basically a glorified auntie. It's amazing getting to see them grow up."

Michael and David agree, saying they formed a bond with Christianson's daughter, too.

"My son calls me Papi," David says. "Now, (Violet) knows me as that. I send her cards for holidays, and the first time I sent it I wrote, 'Love David, Michael, Chance, etc.' Well, Gennifer told me when she opened it she said, 'That's not his name, his name is Papi!' So now I sign everything as Papi."

2 Baby Daddies

When they were first looking into expanding their family, the Johnson-Zaragozas had a lot of questions. After doing research and answering plenty of questions, Michael wanted to enlighten people on the process.

Their YouTube channel, 2 Baby Daddies, documents their journey through surrogacy, the birth of their babies and everything in between.

"It doesn't matter how you identify yourself; you can still be loving parents," Michael says. "That's kind of why we decided to go with the whole show. You get to be part of our lives, but it also teaches about surrogacy and when you are doing the process and how you do the process. It also has a bit of Chance's world in there as well."

Emma Vatnsdal

Emma Vatnsdal is a Features writer, focused on telling stories about people, places and all the interesting things that come along with it. She earned her degree in multimedia journalism from Minnesota State University Moorhead and joined the Forum Communications team in 2018. She grew up in the far north town of Roseau, Minn. and has a thick Minnesotan-Canadian accent. Follow her on Twitter @emmajeaniewenie.

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