NASHVILLE – At the Southern, over dinner of champagne and hot chicken salad, Whitney Britt’s best friend shared some news.
“I found someone to be your surrogate,” she said.
Britt’s heart skipped.
After five years of trying to get pregnant, the last two unbearable, Britt wanted nothing more than to be a mother. But the torture of infertility left her bruised and defeated.
Still, in that moment, the same promise of parenthood that teased and tore at her heart before every failed attempt churned inside. She felt hope as she stared across the table at Jamie Howell, her hilarious, raven-haired best friend — a woman she had shared nearly every life experience with since high school.
Britt tried to imagine who the surrogate could be. All she could come up with was one of Howell’s bowling buddies.
“Who?” Britt asked.
“It’s me,” Howell replied.
Britt cried. Could it really be that simple? Could her best friend really have her baby? Not, it turns out, without love, sacrifice, crippling loss and remarkable strength.
A baby had brought the two best friends together once before, more than two decades ago.
Their high school friendship had been strong and unexpected. Britt was a girly girl, a cheerleader who curled her blond hair every day. Howell was a soccer player, an athlete who pulled her brunette hair in a ponytail, wore Umbros and did nothing outlandish.
“We were polar opposites, but the minute we met we instantly connected,” Howell recalls.
Britt was cheering at a Germantown High football game the day Howell’s pregnancy test turned positive. Britt consoled her friend in the bathroom during halftime. The next day, the two girls went to the doctor together to confirm what they already knew — Howell was going to be a mom.
Scared, the teens kept the secret between them until they couldn’t anymore. Howell worried about losing her friends, becoming an outcast. Britt never judged her friend, just stood by her.
On May 19, a little over 21 years ago, Britt sat in a Memphis hospital waiting room ready to hold her best friend’s hand while newborn Codi nestled in her arms.
“It meant everything to me,” Howell said.
Britt had no idea that day what the struggle of motherhood would eventually mean to her.
Once a person enters the world of infertility, she becomes sensitive to everything. Pregnant women seem to walk down every sidewalk and appear in every grocery aisle. Television teems with commercials about pregnancy tests, the best diaper brand or just being a mom.
And friends and family continue to welcome newborns.
Each arrival another reminder of the pain of infertility.
“It’s so isolating,” Britt says.
Britt met her husband, Drew, a man with wavy brown hair and a sweet smile, through friends. She was 30 when they got married. Britt wondered, briefly, if she waited too long. After two years of trying, and surgery to clean up endometriosis, Britt knew something was wrong.
She and Drew underwent test after test at an infertility clinic. Her cervix wasn’t tilted, she didn’t have a blocked Fallopian tube, her ovaries weren’t damaged. Everything checked out for both of them. The diagnosis: “unexplained infertility.”
“It made everything worse,” Drew Britt says. “There wasn’t a level of closure that other people can get when they know why. There was no answer.”
The couple embarked on the expensive journey of fertility treatments and failed attempts. After several artificial inseminations, the Britts began egg retrieval for in vitro fertilization in 2013. Whitney Britt pumped herself with hormones, stimulating production to the point it felt like she had rocks in her sides. Doctors put her under and surgically removed the eggs, joining them with Drew’s sperm and putting them together in a petri dish to watch the cells multiply.
For some people, only one or two become viable for implantation. The Britts got a call every day with a count. Embryos survived.
The Britts attempted three transfers, spending $3,000 each time — and each time hoping the fertilized egg would implant and start to grow. They endured three failed attempts. They felt like they were racing against time.
“Every year that I turned older, I would fall deeper and deeper in despair,” Whitney Britt says.
Around them — at other couple’s baby showers or little kids’ birthday parties — friends walked on eggshells, not knowing what to say. When they did offer advice, it was the common anthem of “Stop worrying, it will happen when you least expect it.” The phrase made Britt recoil.
“It was nails on a chalkboard,” she says.
She started to resent her friends. She stopped going to church because she felt like a fool crying there. She started seeing a counselor. She looked for someone to blame.
God became her target.
“I was so mad,” she says. “You are always searching for an answer. You are always searching for a reason. Since they couldn’t find anything wrong with me, I thought ‘It’s got to be God.'”
Eventually, instead of looking for a scapegoat, the Britts decided to search for a surrogate.
As they put the word out to their friends, Howell saw an opportunity.
She is 38 years old, the mother to two boys — a 20-year-old and an 8-year-old. She and her husband had no desire to have more children of their own, but to have her best friend’s felt different.
“I wanted to give her more chances,” Howell says.
With her husband’s blessing, Howell drove to Nashville from her home in Memphis to share the news. It was nearly Christmas 2014.
“Whitney,” Howell pleaded, “let me do this, please.”
There were risks involved. What if the baby miscarried? What if the process broke Howell psychologically? A complicated set of legal contracts had to be created, Tennessee laws regarding birth mother rights in a surrogacy needed to be clarified so it would be Drew and Whitney’s names on the birth certificate.
And still nothing was assured.
“It’s not 100 percent,” Whitney Britt says. “It’s like Russian roulette. It’s a gamble. All of it is a gamble.”
A gamble that would come with two losses.
Howell began fertility treatments right away, giving herself a shot in the stomach every day and taking birth control. Then a daily shot in the hip with a two-inch needle. She injected herself into the fertility world. She researched everything.
“It’s a hard world to be a part of and she threw herself right in there,” Whitney Britt says. “She opened her mind, her heart and her soul to welcome all this chaos.”
The first transfer failed, devastating each of them.
“When you sign up for IVF, you think with all the medicine and doctors appointments and how much of a good try you are given that it’s going to work,” Whitney Britt says. ” And it’s crippling when it doesn’t.”
Then, in March 2015 — when every option seemed exhausted — Whitney Britt got news she never expected. She was pregnant.
The joy overwhelmed them, but so did fear. The baby’s growth was in the gray zone, they monitored it all month. The day the heartbeat echoed through the ultrasound it measured at 60 beats per minute, not the normal 150. Their baby would not live.
Everything went numb. She was ready to give up, but her best friend convinced her to try one more time.
Whitney Britt stood with her toes in the sand on a Florida beach the day Howell called to tell her the pregnancy test was bright and getting brighter.
They were going to have a baby.
“This is it, Whitney, this is it,” Howell said over the phone.
“It’s been a whirlwind ever since then,” Howell says.
Most of the experience has been shared at a distance, with Howell at her home in Memphis with her husband and younger son. But the women communicate nearly every day and see each other every few weeks for doctors appointments and baby showers. The Britts have provided for all of Howell’s needs, food, clothing and the care not covered by Howell’s insurance, with the due date coming ever closer.
“I just cannot even believe we are here,” Whitney Britt says.
The two women couldn’t get any closer, but they have a new bond now. The journey together has validated their friendship.
On June 2, the Britts welcomed their newborn baby boy, Crews Asher Britt.