Texas fathers celebrate daughter’s first birthday after adoption

One Texas couple’s journey to becoming parents hasn’t always been easy, but it was worth the wait to meet their baby girl, daughter Ella Marie, who was born last November.

Michael Stribling, 37, and Brian Ritter, 46, started talking about adoption about a year after they tied the knot in 2018 HGTV design star and TLC’s The little coupletells PEOPLE.

The couple first looked at an adoption program, but Stribling tells PEOPLE they both realized they were “unprepared” for the emotional rollercoaster that could accompany the process.

And while they’ve spoken to some adoption agencies, they’ve been getting “a lot of closures” from those who only wanted to work with same-sex families.

Brian Ritter and Michael Stribling at their wedding.
Talitha A Tarro Photography

But just before Christmas in 2020, Stribling had a chance encounter at the hair salon he owned with a woman who worked at Family to Family Adoptions, Inc., a private agency. (Stribling, who owned a major interior design firm, Michael Stribling Interiors, decided to “take a break from life” after being “overworked and burned out,” and in the process stumbled upon a career that he loved coiffing.)

Much to his surprise, after he asked if they had ever worked with gay couples, she replied that they had — and were, in fact, the first agency in the state to advertise them The lawyer.

“It was so incredible,” he says.

“They were very supportive, very, very open,” said Ritter, the executive director of the Mercury Chamber Orchestra, previously Good morning America.

By February, the couple had signed their contracts to work with the agency. Then the waiting really began.

“It’s a journey,” Stribling tells PEOPLE. “Some birth mothers weren’t right for us. Some birth mothers, we weren’t right for them.”

When they finally got the chance to meet a birth mother, they found out she was actually planning to meet up with two families — and when she canceled her original appointment, they figured it meant she’d already made up her mind.

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But the next day they got a call that she still wanted to meet them. And as soon as they saw each other, Stribling was taken completely by surprise.

“She came into the room and my mouth dropped,” he says. “She looked just like my cousin.”

Afterwards, when the couple was on their way home, they got another call from her asking if they wanted to give the baby a home.

Michael Stribling and Brian Ritter await Ella’s arrival.
Courtesy of Michael Stribling

The couple then had just three weeks until Ella’s arrival, and while the wait was “brutal,” meeting her daughter was “one of the most magical moments.”

“We joke and say we thought our wedding was just the cream of the crop,” says Stribling. “But man, that moment of me just meeting her was just phenomenal.”

And when it came time to choose her name, the couple paid homage to a “group of very strong and independent women” in their lives.

“My mother and Brian’s sister, Brian’s grandmother, Brian’s cousin…all have middle names Marie,” he explains. “And Ella was my grandmother’s name.”

The first photo of Brian Ritter and Michael Stribling with daughter Ella.
Courtesy of Michael Stribling

That moment when they first met her was captured in an emotional TikTok video that has millions of views and thousands of likes and comments. “And just like that… Ella Marie was born,” they captioned the clip of their Nov. 28 arrival.

Stribling says the success on the platform has taken him completely by surprise, but they feel fortunate to have a platform that helps them spread joy — and hope.

“We literally just came to TikTok to post videos for our family,” he says. “We just have fun and just enjoy sharing our lives with the world.”

“If we can literally give hope to other gay men or women who are trying to go through this process and are feeling defeated…man, we’re doing something right,” he adds.

Ella in her bedroom.
A little joy photography

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Stribling, who retired from hairdressing after Ella’s birth, also helps others on the road to parenthood as the board chairman of Family to Family Adoptions.

“I can really help other families to walk this path,” he says.

Brian Knight and Michael Stribling with daughter Ella.
crown pictures

Now the proud parents are about to reach a very important milestone: their daughter’s first birthday.

“Brian and I are incapable of doing small things,” says Stribling, explaining that what started out as “a small, small house party” has “grown into an event.”

“I’ve been planning her birthday for the last two months, every little detail,” he says, which includes linens, balloons and of course a separate cake for the birthday girl.

Photos celebrating Ella’s first birthday.
A little joy photography

Ultimately, he says, it’s about celebrating all the people “who have taken this journey with us”.

“We had this group of people gathered behind us,” he adds. “And this party isn’t just for Ella, it’s for everyone.”