Shannon Mouser and Seth Paskin, of Austin, Texas, have desperately been trying to have a child of their own.
The couple married in 2014 and immediately tried various methods to get pregnant, including vitro fertilization, which involves combining sperm and an egg outside of the body, and artificial insemination. For years, they had no luck.
They were on an adoption waitlist for two years when they decided to try something new. Using their remaining frozen embryos — the result of a donor egg and Paskin's genetic material — they looked online to find a gestational carrier.
They searched online, mostly Facebook, until they found the perfect match: Tabatha Ballein, of Williston.
Ballein gave birth to the couple's baby girl this week at CHI St. Alexius Health — Williston Medical Center, a rare event at the facility.
In North Dakota, a "gestational carrier" is an adult woman who enters an agreement to have an embryo implanted in her and will give birth to the baby for the intended parents. Under state law, a child born to a gestational carrier is a child of the intended parents.
There is limited information available on the use of gestational carriers in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 1999 to 2013, gestational carrier cycles resulted in 13,380 deliveries and the birth of 18,400 infants.
More couples appear to be using gestational carriers, with the number of gestational carrier cycles increasing from 727 in 1999 to 3,432 in 2013.
Reasons for using gestational carriers and surrogates vary; sometimes age may play a factor. Mouser, who is 48, owns three spas in Austin, and Paskin, who is 49, works for a software company.
In late 2016, Mouser went on Facebook and found a group of other women who had luck locating surrogates through social media. With the help of a woman in the group, Mouser put a post on Facebook, and her first respondent was Ballein.
Ballein and her husband and Mouser and Paskin spoke via Skype and soon found they had the perfect match. Mouser said she and Ballein have similar personalities, and Ballein and her husband flew to Austin to visit them.
"When we got together and we saw each other face-to-face, we just kind of knew,” Paskin said. "It was almost like we were friends from a long time ago."
Ballein similarly describes their meeting as "fate."
"We have so many similarities between our two families," said the mother of two. "I really feel like we were meant to be in each other's lives."
Both couples flew back and forth to visit with one another. For Thanksgiving, the couples and their families met in Austin.
"It's almost like we expanded our family, even before we expanded our family," Paskin said.
Ballein, 32, and her husband are originally from Ohio but have lived in Williston for six years. They have two children, 10 and 4.
Ballein said she became interested in becoming a gestational carrier after she witnessed her family members unable to conceive.
"It just broke my heart that some people who deserve to be parents can't be parents," she said. "I like to help people, and, to me, this is the ultimate gift I could give to somebody."
Mouser and Paskin said they want to share their success story. For couples considering a gestational carrier or surrogate, the couple's advice is to be aware there are a lot of risks involved and there has to be trust between both parties. They did not use a surrogacy agency, which meant even more trust was involved. Still, the couple said, it is possible to find the right person.
"I feel like we were very lucky in finding the perfect match quickly," Mouser said.
Ballein said surrogacy or becoming a gestational carrier is not for everyone and advises women considering this to do "tons of research." There are many groups on social media and discussion threads online.
"There's no shortage of information, good and bad, online," she said. "Some find in their research that that's not something they want to do."
Ballein gave birth to Mouser and Paskin's daughter, Sky Eloise Paskin, 6 pounds, 1 ounce and 19 inches long, on Thursday at 6:45 a.m.