STERLING – Mother's Day is particularly special for Mary Jane Verhulst.
It's also special for Amie Mock.
It's a day that could be marked by sadness, by memories of two stillborn babies.
Instead, it's a day marked by happiness, by giggles and wiggles of a healthy 3-year-old boy.
Mother's Day for Mary Jane and Amie is about the unexpected journey the two of them took to make one of them a mother.
Mary Jane, 31, of rural Sterling and Amie, 33, of Sterling have been best friends for about 10 years. They treat each other like sisters. And their children – all boys – regard them as aunts.
But it wasn't always like that.
Amie, a billing clerk for Sauk Valley Media, and her former husband had a son, Aidan, and would have another, Eli, a few years later.
Mary Jane and her husband, Michael, who farm together, desperately wanted children. They were married in June 2003. On Jan. 7, 2005, they lost their baby boy, Wesley, who was stillborn at 38 weeks.
"I was in denial," Mary Jane said. "I was convinced that once they induced [labor], they would find out they were wrong, that it was a mistake."
Mary Jane and Michael, still desperate to be parents, were pregnant again less than 6 months later. But they again lost the baby – this time a girl, Emma; she too was stillborn, at 29 weeks on Dec. 30, 2005.
"I thought there was something wrong with me," Mary Jane said. "I felt like I was being punished for something.
"You see and hear about these people with children they don't want or shouldn't have. ... We wanted a family. And we weren't getting one."
Doctors discovered Mary Jane had a blood clotting disorder that is especially troublesome during pregnancy. Wesley's umbilical cord had a clot, and Emma's placenta was filled with clots.
But a perinatologist believed that with drugs and constant, close monitoring, Mary Jane could carry a baby to term.
Mary Jane and Michael planned to wait to get pregnant. But the couple – "not trying, of course" – were once again pregnant within about 8 months.
The pregnancy was grueling.
Mary Jane gave herself injections daily and went to the doctor almost weekly. She was, as she describes herself, "neurotic," so much so that she couldn't eat or sleep.
"I was just scared," she said. "I was a wreck. I figured Wesley and Emma died while I was asleep, so I was afraid to sleep. I was afraid to do anything different, anything that might change things."
Mary Jane and Michael welcomed a baby boy, Anderson, at 36 weeks on May 17, 2007.
"We just couldn't believe it was real," Mary Jane said. "We were over the moon."
Doctors recommended Mary Jane not try to carry another baby.
But Amie, who stood by her best friend through two stillbirths and one successful but stressful pregnancy, knew the Verhulsts wanted more children.
"I knew they still felt like their family wasn't complete," Amie said. "And I knew my family was complete. My friend needed help, and I could help her."
Amie and Mary Jane often joked about surrogacy, but they finally had a serious conversation about it a few years later.
"It was something I was willing to do," Amie said. "So I offered to do it, if that was something they wanted to do."
"We decided to give that route a try," Mary Jane said.
The whole process was pretty simple and without major complication.
Doctors joined Mary Jane's egg and Michael's sperm, then transferred the embryo to Amie's womb.
Amie gave herself daily progesterone shots and took hormone pills to "keep her body pregnant" and make sure her body did not reject the embryo.
"It was worth it, though, because we were talking about a baby," Amie said.
Amie was adamant that she not develop an attachment to the baby, though.
"I just kept it in my mind that it was not my baby," she said. "I grew a connection with him, but never once, and not even to this day ... I've never felt like his mom."
"She always referred to herself as the oven," Mary Jane said. "She said it never felt like it was her baby – that it was mine, but she was just carrying it for a while."
Amie was induced Feb. 3, 2010. Everyone was there – her former husband, Mary Jane and Michael.
She was later wheeled into the operating room for an emergency Cesarian section (the baby's heart rate plummeted with every contraction). Only Mary Jane was there.
The women welcomed Jackson – born of both their bodies, in a way – into the world.
For Mary Jane, it was difficult to leave her friend as she healed, while she and her husband took home their new baby.
For Amie, it was strange to have gone through labor and delivery but to not bring home a baby.
But for both women, it was as much a turning point in their friendship as it was a calcification of their bond.
"I almost can't put it into words," Mary Jane said. "I'm so grateful to her. The support she gave me through losing two babies, then having my son, ... then for her to carry my other son and be my best friend and stay in that role. ... There really are no words."
"It definitely brought us closer," Amie said. "It gave us a connection that I can't have with anyone else and she can't have with anyone else."
And so, Mary Jane and Amie will celebrate another Mother's Day on Sunday. They might get each other flowers – from the boys, of course.
But they don't need presents; after all, no gift will ever measure up to one friend carrying and giving birth to the other's child.