During early spring in 2018, Alex Koepplin leisurely scrolled through Facebook when a photo of a Fargo mom and surrogate captured her attention.
“I was just scrolling through my newsfeed and saw a picture of a surrogate with her family and her intended parents on a friend’s photography page,” Koepplin explains.
Feeling brave, she reached out to Heidi Fritz, the Fargo mom of two sons — Caden, 14, and Beckham, 10 —who shared her surrogacy experience. The two moms met for coffee where they became fast friends.
"As soon as we sat down to talk, I knew I had just made a lifelong friend. We realized we went to high school together and had a lot of mutual friends,” Koepplin says of their first meeting. During this coffee date, Koepplin says they discovered that her stepson, Kaden, and Fritz’s son Caden, both played for West Fargo hockey.
“A few weeks after we met, we discovered that our boys had just been put on the same hockey team that season,” she says.
From the first meeting, their relationship grew. And when Koepplin felt curious about surrogacy, she reached out. When asked what it was like to be a surrogate, Fritz gushed: “When you see the parents hold their baby for the first time, it is life-changing.”
At 32, Fritz has carried two children to term as a surrogate and says she feels complete but would consider it if it presents itself again and aligns with her goals.
“It is not only about giving life, but it is the opportunity to give back to the world and create long-lasting relationships with those whose lives you’ve changed,” Fritz says.
Koepplin, who often jokes she misses being pregnant, was intrigued by Fritz's positive experiences but remained hesitant. Her life is filled with working in an insurance agency with coworkers she loves as well as a busy family six: wife to T.J. for more than 7 years, mom to 4-year-old Porter, 6-year-old Piper, and stepmom to 13-year-old Leighton and 15-year-old Kaden. Still, she felt like surrogacy would be right for her.
“I really wanted to experience being pregnant again,” Koepplin explains. “T.J. and I discussed that our family was complete.”
And Koepplin worried about how she would feel carrying the baby.
“When it came to getting attached to the baby, I had anxiety," she says. "I talked with Heidi, and she reassured me that the feeling is completely different than when you’re pregnant with your own child.”
In fact, Fritz says the babies she’s carried as a surrogate are more like “belly buddies” and encouraged Koepplin to become her “surrosister” — an affectionate term the pair now use to describe their relationship.
Koepplin felt reassured, so she began to research the idea seriously. She Googled "surrogacy in North Dakota" and found IARC Surrogacy, headquartered in Maple Grove, Minnesota.
“They had a lot of good reviews from other surrogates and many intended parents,” she says. “Knowing Heidi, and knowing that she makes very well researched and educated decisions, helped me choose IARC right away.”
Despite still having a bit of anxiety — What would it be like to give the baby she carried to another couple? — Koepplin continued her research and decided it was time to talk with T.J.
“His initial response was that I was crazy to want to do this, but once I explained what I wanted out of it and why I wanted to do this, he was totally on board,” she says. “He knew it was my body, and ultimately my decision, but without his support and love, I don’t think I could do it.”
Encouraged by T.J's acceptance, Koepplin thought deeply what surrogacy would require of her and her family and if she had the inner strength and motivation to carry a child for people she didn't know.
“I just kept thinking what I would do if I couldn’t have my own children,” she says. “ How heartbroken I would be and how I would be so thankful for someone else to give that sacrifice and help me have a baby. I wanted to be that person for a family.”
Finding ‘the guys’
Grounded in her beliefs, encouraged by Heidi and inspired to help, Koepplin began her application and screening process on September 17, 2018.
After a background, medical records check and physiological assessment were completed, surrogate coordinators created a profile for Koepplin so she could be matched with couples looking for help.
"I was first matched with a couple from Nebraska on October 12, 2018," Koepplin recalls. "I ended up not going with them as their morals and goals did not align with mine when it came to how they wanted to maintain a relationship throughout the process."
Koepplin says she was only interested in an open surrogacy experience where she could be close contact with the intended parents. Fritz says this is common, so the journey to be matched with the right couple can take some time.
“There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to who wants to pursue surrogacy to grow their family,” Fritz explains. “The beauty of surrogacy is it enables intended parents to be involved in the pregnancy and birth of their baby.”
Intended parents — or the couple or person looking to find a surrogate — are approved by the surrogate. Fritz highlights the intended parents can be part of every milestone in the process from embryo creation to delivery day.
“They (intended parents) are able to develop a strong relationship with their surrogate, who shares photos and updates during the pregnancy,” Fritz says.
Luckily, Koepplin didn't have to wait long to find the two men who would ultimately become an integral part of her life, complete with the nickname — "the guys" — as she and her whole family calls them. Less than two months from when she reached out to IARC Surrogacy, Koepplin matched with 40-year-old Mathis and 45-year-old Sebastian on November 8, a couple living in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
“Looking at their pictures in their profile, I could just feel the warmth,” she says as she recalled reading their autobiography listed with IARC. “They wrote, ‘We both have this inner inexplicable desire to become dads’.”
Koepplin’s heart ached for these two men who were still, at the time, strangers.
“I instantly started crying and just knew they were my people,” she says.
After virtual meetings, Mathis came to visit Koepplin and her family on December 1, 2018.
"The kids absolutely loved him, as did we," Koepplin says of her and family’s first meeting with the Buenos Aires man.
After the whole family met Mathis, Koepplin and the two soon-to-be fathers planned for their surrogacy to be gestational, meaning she would not be genetically related to the baby. So the embryo that would be “transferred” to Koepplin was created using the eggs of a donor and the sperm of one of the intended fathers.
Once the intended parents and Koepplin agreed and signed the Carrier Agreement, Koepplin felt comfortable going forward with prepping her body for embryo transfer, the next step in the surrogacy process.
Explaining her ‘kangaroo pouch’
Alex and T.J. traveled to a fertility clinic in San Diego, California, for the transfer appointment on May 8, 2019.
“That little embryo stuck right away and decided to make me his home for the next 9 months," Koepplin explains. "We were so blessed that it all worked out the first time, and we didn't have to go through another transfer.”
During the next doctor’s appointment back in Fargo on May 16, she learned the transfer was successful. During this appointment she used the messaging app, WhatsApp, to share a recording of the baby’s heartbeat so the guys could hear it.
Now that she had her own "belly buddy", Koepplin discussed with her husband how they would tell their kids.
“I really wanted my kids to see how great it is to do something for somebody else," she says. "To be able to give the gift of a child and create a family is something you can’t explain."
Koepplin purchased a book called “The Kangaroo Pouch” by Sarah A. Phillips and read it to her two young children to help explain surrogacy.
“The older ones understood what surrogacy was,” Koepplin says of when T.J. and her shared their decision to be surrogate with all four of their children. Kaden didn’t really express much interest, being a 15-year-old boy. Leighton was super excited and couldn’t wait to meet 'the guys'."
Although her two kids under 7 were excited, they had trouble explaining it to others, but eventually developed their own way of communicating it.
"Piper and Porter took awhile for them to get that it wasn’t their brother and that we weren’t going to be keeping the baby," she says. "Piper had told her teacher at school: 'My mommy is having a baby for two daddies that love each other. They have to use my mommy because they don’t have a mommy'.”
Alex and T.J. announced the surrogacy to their parents during family dinners.
"My mom was really excited but my dad had a bit of reservation, being from a different generation, but it didn’t take him long to come around,” Koepplin says. “We told TJ’s family at Thanksgiving. It took them a while to understand, but once we explained more and why we were doing it, they were totally on board.”
When Koepplin told close friends about the surrogacy, she was surprised by their skepticism.
"They were all very excited, but a lot had the reaction of wondering how I was going to ‘part with the baby’,” she says.”Their biggest concern was how my mental well being would be after the baby was born.”
After her friends met Mathis they understood why she would do this, but a few friends still struggled to comprehend her decision.
"People couldn’t understand why I would want to put my body and myself through something like this for someone else," she says. "They just felt it was too much of a sacrifice. I never saw it that way since I had two very easy and healthy pregnancies with my own children."
A different, emotional pregnancy
Although Koepplin had been pregnant twice, she says carrying this child to term was different.
"When I was pregnant with my own children, I was so looking forward to raising them, seeing if they’d look like me or like TJ, etc.," Koepplin remembers. "Obviously, I knew I wouldn’t feel any of those things with this baby since he had none of our genetics."
During the beginning of her pregnancy, Koepplin says she spoke biweekly with Mathis and Sebastian through WhatsApp. As they approached the due date, they spoke at least once a week. The guys would inquire about Koepplin's health as well as their growing baby. They would also send letters and gifts, and Koepplin says these frequent conversations helped her manage the pregnancy.
"Physically, this was my worst pregnancy," she says. "I was exhausted, sick all three trimesters, and gained no weight," she says.
And at 36 weeks and 3 days on New Years Eve, Koepplin was diagnosed with preeclampsia, a possibly dangerous complication that causes high blood pressure and swelling in her hands and feet.
Their birth plan included a Caesarean section for Jan. 20, but with Koepplin’s diagnosis, her doctors decided they couldn’t wait. Mathis and Sebastian's baby was ready to meet the world, even if his intended parents weren't.
"Luckily the guys were able to change their flight to arrive the day before he was born," Koepplin says.
Koepplin — who had c-sections with her son and daughter — said her preeclampsia symptoms made this birth experience very different and at times scary.
“My blood pressure got to 176/112, and I was in danger of seizing or having a stroke,” she says.
The epidural didn’t take all the way, and I was only slightly numb on the left side,”
Koepplin says, explained that during the surgery, she started to feel pain so the doctors administered nitrous oxide (known as laughing gas) to reduce her pain.
“The gas made me feel very light headed until I passed out,” she says.
Koepplin awoke suddenly when she heard the baby she’d carried for almost a year cry.
“I just lost it emotionally, like, literal gut-wrenching sobs,” she says. Mathis and Sebastian, who were present for the brith’s rollercoaster ride, couldn’t leave Koepplin in this state.
”The guys couldn’t leave me in the operating room, so instead of taking their baby to their own room and spending alone time with them, they brought the baby into the OR to see me and make sure I was OK,” Koepplin says.
Koepplin says the guys even stayed with her in post-op to make sure she was healthy and stable.
“They didn’t want me to be alone even though my mom and TJ were also in there with me,” she says.
The ‘gift that keeps on giving’
Costantino Rosales Pellado was born on Jan. 3, 2020. But his birth is just the start of two families becoming one “large one”, Koepplin says.
"Their (Mathis and Sebastian) hospital room was directly next door to mine, so we were able to go back and forth the entire time in the hospital," she says. "Then once they were able to take Costantino home, they rented our neighbor’s house for a month and we were able to go back and forth in seconds."
Less than six months since she gave birth to "little Constantino", Koepplin says she feels more purposeful and completely satisfied with her decision. To her, it feels like she created another extension of her family, half a world away.
"It's beyond what I imagined when we started this whole process," she says. "We call ourselves 'The Big Family' and it couldn't be a better description of us. We're so blessed to now have family in Argentina, and continue talking to them often with lots of pictures of Constantino as he grows."
Alex and T.J. are planning a trip to visit the guys in Buenos Aires this fall, although they aren’t sure what may happen regarding travel and the coronavirus pandemic.
Still, Koepplin would agree with Frtiz: Surrogacy is a gift that keeps on giving.
“Not only did I bring two wonderful children into this world, but I got to do that for somebody else,” she says. “I had the honor of creating a family and making a lifelong dream come true for these two amazing humans. You can’t describe a feeling like that.”
See this story and more in the summer On the Minds of Moms magazine on stands this week in area grocery stores in Fargo-Moorhead, West Fargo and Grand Forks.