WHEN Julie Smith's best friend jokingly asked if he could borrow her womb, everyone laughed.
But it was that flyaway comment at McDonald's after a family day out that made Julie realise she could give the most precious gift, the gift of life.
Matt and Garry Bloomhill had always longed for children and on the drive home Julie, husband Darren, and their three children talked about how they could make their dreams of having a family a reality.
For many people the intimacy of having someone else's baby is inconceivable.
But by the time the Smiths got back to their Eastleigh home, the decision was made.
Julie, 39, who is the director of Lawson Brown Accountants Ltd wanted to carry their baby for them.
“I had never even thought about it before, it was totally off the cuff. It was just a joke comment but then we actually took it seriously and said it was a no brainer, they'd make fabulous parents.
“We called Matt as soon as I got home and offered to rent some room in my womb,” Julie smiles.
“They were absolutely ecstatic, Matt was crying. He was totally overwhelmed someone would do that.
“They'd tried to adopt and had even looked into options of going to India and America to find a surrogate.”
Following a visit to Wessex Fertility at the Freya Centre, the two couples decided an anonymous egg donor and Garry's sperm would be implanted into Julie's womb.
Julie and husband Darren and Matt and Garry, both company directors, all had counselling, signed an agreement detailing their wishes and the process began.
Surrogate mum Julie with Matt and Garry
“I thought if I had the baby and it looked like me, it would be a bit harder so we decided on an egg donor.
“I thought if I carry an egg I can detach myself from it. That helped me to keep my distance, although obviously it's the most intimate act of all.
“I felt like I was doing them a job.
“We watched on the screen as the egg arrived in my womb, and from that moment the baby was known as 'dotty'!”
Julie couldn't wait to do a pregnancy test which confirmed the IVF was successful. The reaction was sheer delight.
However that initial joy was short-lived when on day six Julie began to bleed and felt some pain.
She says: “Matt and Garry got from Basingstoke to the clinic before I could even get there from Eastleigh. I was in tears. I didn't want it not to happen for them but they scanned me and dotty was still there.”
But without a moment's hesitation, the mum-of-three declares confidently that she did not allow herself to bond with the unborn child.
“I was detached because it is not your baby, it's their baby.”
Unlike many countries in Europe, Surrogacy is legal in the UK but no money other than reasonable expenses' such as maternity clothes and travel to appointments can be paid to the surrogate.
That's because unlike in America and India, it remains a compassionate not commercial act.
But for Julie there is no reward beyond the satisfaction she gets from helping change lives.
Whereas some surrogates and parents prefer not to have contact during the pregnancy and once the baby is born, Matt and Garry and Julie and Darren constantly kept in touch so they could all experience the joy of pregnancy.
Julie says she often sent photographs and videos, even decorating her bump on father's day and in return Matt and Gary would send audio messages to play 'dotty.'
They would all attend all the appointments, felt the kicks and watched Julie grow.
“We joked it was like three men and a baby because everyone was included. We didn't leave my husband out either. It was lovely.
“When we found out it was a girl we went into Southampton and picked out all the pink things and took photos of everything saying: 'daddy's little girl.'
However 32 weeks into the pregnancy, Julie began to swell and become less mobile due to the heat, developing mild preeclampsia.
“I did feel pretty awful but I held back a little with what I said because I didn't want to cause any worry.
“I soldiered on. Everyone mucked in and helped, and Matt and Garry even got me an air conditioning unit. “I just said to myself 'so what if I have a few months of feeling like an elephant. This is a lifetime of happiness for the boys.”
Julie says from the start her husband, who she has been with since age 15, and three children Shannon, 17, Ryan, 12 and Alicia, 10, were supportive of her and that love helped her through the toughest times.
On Friday, August 16 Julie became so uncomfortable she was induced.
At 9.32pm baby Rose was born at Royal Hampshire County Hospital with the help of midwife Nikki Brown weighing 6lb and 13oz. Darren, Matt and Garry were all present.
Julie agreed she wouldn't hold the baby but instead Rose would be passed to her daddies.
“I didn't want to hold her because I didn't want her to smell me.
“They took their tops off and went bare chest and they were sat there with tears in their eyes just in total awe and Rose was staring up at them, even my husband had tears in his eyes. It was very emotional.
“She cried a little then Matt called her name and she stopped immediately. At this point I knew she didn't need me. They took it in turns to hold their new baby girl. It was a beautiful moment.
“I sat there and thought I have done it, she's here now, they've got their baby and she's got her daddies and that's what it was all about.”
The question Julie is asked the most is: 'how did you feel handing the baby over?'
“People find it hard to believe how any woman can give away a baby she has given birth to. But it wasn't my baby.
“This was to make two very special people fulfil their dream. I have three of my own children and I didn't long for anymore. I have a complete and secure family life.
“I didn't feel emotional like the men were. I just felt proud, sat back and watched.
“I knew in my heart I could do this, and have so successfully. I have not had any emotional relapses and am totally happy with my own actions.”
Garry with his daughter Rose
Many people don't realise surrogates have the same rights to maternity leave, before and after the birth as if they'd been carrying their own baby - paid maternity leave, but without the sleepless nights.
However, Julie chose to keep working.
Both couples went to register baby Rose together.
Julie and Darren had to be registered as the mother and father. Six weeks later Matt and Garry had to apply for a parental order which was successful.
What Julie didn't prepare for though, was some of the criticism she faced.
“Having someone's baby carries controversy, people had their opinions regarding the situation and I did receive some negative comments from people close around me, but I am strong and it didn't affect me. This was our amazing journey with a very happy ending.
“I was honest with everyone because I didn't want people coming up to me after the pregnancy saying 'where's the baby?'”
Today little Rose is thriving approaching her first birthday and the two families are closer than ever.
“We still see them regularly. They are incredible loving parents and have done a brilliant job with Rose. They are complete naturals. Rose will know when the time's right that I'm her tummy mummy and where she came from because we believe honesty is the best policy.
“I understand it's not for everyone but you really could not do a better thing for someone, it has made me feel so happy and proud.”
That's why Julie wouldn't hesitate being a surrogate again.
“It's important to have good support and of course be emotionally stable.
“If you don't mind being pregnant, why not make someone really happy? Everyone should have the right to have a baby. There really couldn't be a bigger gift to give.
“It's something in my life I am so proud to have done and I would do it again and again if I could.”
Matt and Garry's story - 'We can't say thank you enough'
Garry, left, with Matt and their baby Rose
Matt Bloomhill, 27, a company director, says he can't thank Julie enough for the ultimate gift she has given him and his partner Garry, 33.
“Garry and I are very much in love and have a great relationship but it felt incomplete without children and the prospect of having children seemed so daunting.
“It did take a couple of years of persistence but now we have our beautiful daughter Rose and we just couldn't be happier.
“Life changed in an instant for us, it's just so amazing.
“Julie, our surrogate gave us the most precious gift possible and agreed that we were to be included in every part of the pregnancy.
“We went to all the scans, doctors' appointments, she even played the baby recordings of our voices. Our surrogacy journey with Julie was the most emotional and amazing experience in our lives and we won't ever be satisfied that we've thanked Julie enough.
“I well up every time I think about what she did for us.”
A free information event will take place for potential surrogates in Hampshire.
Surrogacy agency Brilliant Beginnings, which set up in September in the New Forest, and Wessex Fertility will be on hand to give advice.
It takes place at Novotel Southampton on Thursday, July 10 from 10.30am.
For information call 020 7050 6875