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In high school, most people pegged them as opposites. Whitney Britt was the self-described “girly girl” cheerleader and Jamie Howell was the athlete who excelled at track, soccer, basketball and just about any other sport.
But the two clicked during freshmen year and remained kindred spirits ever since.
“We’ve always been tight and just done life together,” said Britt, now 37. “We’ve gone through all kinds of trials, including breakups and deaths in the family and financial crises. We’ve been there for each other.”
Their lives branched out in different directions. Howell had two children, both of them unplanned. Britt, meanwhile, struggled for years to get pregnant. Now Howell has bridged that divide by acting as a surrogate for her best friend.
On June 2, she gave birth to a son for Britt and her husband, Drew.
“This was absolutely meant to be, the way everything happened,” Howell said. “This was God’s plan for us. I was 100 percent supposed to do this without a doubt. Whitney now gets to start a new journey being a parent, and I get to be Aunt Jamie.
“It’s been an amazing journey we got to go on together.”
'We just click.'
The pair met at the end of their freshmen year when Britt invited a bunch of girls over to her family’s lake house in Tennessee.
“Her personality is so strong and vibrant,” Britt said. "We just connected."
Everyone around them found the friendship amusing.
“They’re like, ‘You two are so opposite,’ but we really weren’t,” Howell said. Among the things they shared? Their sense of humor.
“We just both think we’re just hilarious. Nobody else thinks we’re funny, but we do,” Howell said. “It’s crazy. We just click. We never fought. Sometimes you have a falling out or a best friend upsets you, but we never had any high school drama.”
But drama did unfold during their junior year when Howell learned she was pregnant. Britt was the first person she told, pulling the cheerleader into the bathroom during halftime at a high school football game.
Britt kept the secret for months.
“There was chatter that went around, but Whitney always stood up for me,” Howell said.
Months later, Britt led the crowd of friends who burst into Howell's hospital room after she delivered her first son.
After high school, Howell stayed home with her child and went to college in Memphis, where she still lives. Britt went to school in Knoxville and eventually moved to Nashville. But the two women stayed in close touch.
Britt served as Howell’s maid of honor, and again was there for her friend when, three weeks before the wedding, Howell learned she was pregnant.
Howell was annoyed by the timing, but Britt made light of the situation: “You’re like Fertile Myrtle,” she said.
About two years later, Britt got married herself. She was 30, “which is old in the South." By then, most of her closest friends already had children.
She sought medical intervention three years later after failing to get pregnant. She tried artificial insemination before undergoing two rounds of in vitro fertilization but nothing worked.
“I did all the witchcraft stuff,” Britt said. “I took Geritol because someone told me that would help. I was willing to do it all. If you told me to stand on my head for five hours, I’d do it.”
Howell felt heartbroken watching her friend struggle. She also felt guilty.
“Here, I feel like I’ve been so blessed. I’ve got these two boys and I couldn’t imagine life without them, and it comes so easy to me, so why does it have to be like this for her?” she said.
Not ready to embrace adoption, Britt was advised by a fertility counselor to consider surrogacy, but she initially found the idea preposterous.
“The only people I knew who had a surrogate baby were Bill and Giuliana Rancic, and Sarah Jessica Parker — all these rich and famous people,” she said.
But the fertility specialist pointed her to websites that conducted private surrogacies at more affordable rates and Britt soon found herself reaching out to women on those sites.
“It felt like online dating,” she said. “Of course, I was telling Jamie this because we’ve been through so much together, and I can say whatever I want to say, even in times of darkness that may be ugly, because I know she’s not going to judge me.”
Around that time, Howell, then 38 and mom to boys ages 20 and 8, planned a visit to Britt to help lift her spirits. They went out to dinner and downed some champagne before Howell revealed she had a big announcement.
“I found a surrogate for you,” she said. “It’s me.”
Howell had been thinking about the idea for months. She hated the idea of Britt choosing a surrogate from a group of strangers.
“You wouldn’t be able to call them every day. They’re not going to tell you the private parts of being pregnant, the silly stuff that happens,” Howell said. “Whitney needed to experience that so she could feel like she was part of the pregnancy as well.”
Howell’s husband already was on board. The couple didn’t plan on having more children of their own, and hurt from watching Britt and her husband miss out on the parenthood they wanted so much.
Before starting the process, the women, along with their husbands, underwent psychological counseling. They drew up legal documents that went over every possible circumstance that could arise.
“You just think about the worst-case scenarios. It was uncomfortable to talk about that, but it wasn’t uncomfortable with Jamie, because we think the same. We have the same values and morals,” Britt said.
Then, as Howell had just started a series of hormone-based medications to prepare for the embryo transfer, Britt got pregnant. But results from early blood tests and ultrasounds raised alarm, and Britt miscarried weeks later.
The following month, Howell had her first embryo transfer. It failed.
Unlike Britt, Howell was undeterred. Months later, she had another embryo transfer. This time, Howell got pregnant.
"I’ll never forget what she did."
On June 2 at 12:32 p.m., Howell gave birth to Crews Asher Britt via cesarean section with the baby’s soon-to-be mom by her side, stroking her hair, and his dad recording the experience from the GoPro camera on his chest.
As Howell watched the nurse hand the infant to Britt and her husband, she felt a surge of relief wash over her.
“It was just so exciting to see them hold their baby. The whole 10 months was just so worth it. It felt so good,” she said. “I just knew what they felt as new parents, and the feeling I had was, ‘Wow, I was able to do this for them.’”
Weeks later, Britt continues to be overwhelmed by the experience.
“My heart is swollen with pride and happiness and gratefulness and love,” she said.
She talks or texts daily with Howell, who is planning another visit in July.
“Yes, our friendship will be stronger for years to come. I’ll never forget what she did for me,” Britt said. “But with that being said, I loved Jamie before and I’d do anything for her before this.”
Howell said she can’t help but feel Britt’s baby was part of the reason the two met and matched up so well.
“You don’t think God has a plan, but when you look back, you really think, oh my goodness, he had a plan for us when we were 15, 14 years old that we didn’t even know about,” she said.