New parents Mike Olson and Lisa Seel say they're trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare, trying to get the Province of Manitoba to recognize they are the parents of their own infant twins, Kai and Keenan.
"It's so silly and so frustrating," says Olson. "We've been through so much already."
The Charleswood couple tried for seven years to conceive a child. Repeated in-vitro and fertility treatments failed. Seel was worn out physically and emotionally.
Then her sister, Averill Stephenson, made them an offer. Stephenson and her husband Brennan, already the parents of two boys, said she would carry the couple's embryos. After a round of physical and psychological counselling, the procedure was approved. Thirty eggs were fertilized. By the time the date of the implantation arrived, only two were viable.
Stephenson underwent a round of hormone therapy to prepare for pregnancy. She says she volunteered because she knew her sister and brother-in-law would be terrific parents.
Both embryos were implanted. A blood test confirmed the pregnancy. Stephenson drove to her sister's house.
"I came to the door and said, 'We're having a baby!' "
Olson says they were overwhelmed.
"We'd been trying for so long."
The boys were born Dec. 24, 2012 in an emergency C-section. Kai, the smaller twin, wasn't moving much during a Christmas Eve ultrasound. Doctors opted for the surgery. The boys were almost 11 weeks premature.
The parenthood problems began at St. Boniface Hospital. Seel and Stephenson say the staff were terrific but had never faced a case like theirs.
"I went in and said, 'I'm the surrogate mom and this is the mother and father,' " Stephenson says. "We knew it was an unusual situation."
Olson and Seel were in the delivery room. Brennan Stephenson sat this one out. "I wasn't involved to that extent," he laughs.
The hospital put Stephenson's last name on the boy's wrist bracelets. She persuaded the nursing staff to give Olson and Seel bracelets so they could visit their sons in the intensive-care unit.
But the hospital entered the twins under Stephenson's medical number. When they visit their pediatrician, the records show their aunt's last name. As far as the government is concerned, Averill and Brennan Stephenson are the parents.
The two couples signed a legal surrogacy agreement, but their lawyer made some mistakes. They've been unable to correct them. Stephenson receives her sister's child tax credit. Olson isn't eligible for maternity leave. Legally, she isn't the mother of her fraternal twins.
Stephenson says someone from the Department of Vital Statistics called her in January saying there was a problem registering the twins. "I tried to explain they weren't my twins," she says. "They said if they came out of me, they were mine and Brennan was the father because he's my husband. He had nothing to do with this!"
The new parents have hired another lawyer to petition the courts to change Kai and Kennan's birth certificate to recognize them as the parents.
"It's very frustrating," says Seel, tears forming in her tired eyes. "We were at the NICU every day. It's frustrating not being recognized as the real parents."
"It's a huge pain, and we don't need any more things to take up our time and our money."
The other, completely ridiculous option, would be for the Stephensons to arrange to have the birth parents adopt their own children privately.
Part of the legal wrangling now involves the Stephensons proving they are legally married. Their wedding was registered in their church but not through Vital Statistics.
"We have to get that straightened out so we can prove Brennan's my husband to prove he's the father even though he's not," says Averill Stephenson.
Despite their frustrations, the young parents are so grateful they have the children they wanted so desperately. They cradle the boys tenderly while their aunt looks on.