For generations of adoptions, the birth mother was an anonymous woman who relinquished her infant and then receded into the shadows. That is so not Hava Leichtman.
By Liza Mundy
SLIGHTLY MORE THAN FOUR YEARS AGO, on November 15, 2002, a 26-year-old woman named Hava Leichtman sat in a Michigan courtroom, still enervated, and sore, from giving birth. Ten days earlier, she had delivered a baby:
her first child, a boy. She loved him deeply and immediately, and named him Jackson Jeffrey. In front of her now, a magistrate was asking whether she truly and willingly wished to relinquish Jackson Jeffrey Leichtman for adoption by a Fairfax County couple named Larry and Ann Goldfarb.
Hava, at first, could say nothing. She was crying too hard, and shaking.
Beside her sat the baby’s birth father, a man with whom she had an on-again, off-again relationship; although he had taken care of Hava during the pregnancy, the birth father had made it clear he did not envision a future with Hava and a child. Behind her, rubbing her back, sat her mother, Gail Katz, who had stood by Hava through struggles with mental illness that included an eating disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and a bipolar disorder that causes bouts of severe depression. It was her mother, Hava feared, who would bear the brunt of child care if she decided to keep the baby. Drifting in and out of college classes, unable some days to even get out of bed, Hava believed that she wasn’t equipped to raise a child as a single mother.
Hava nodded. The magistrate told her that nodding wasn’t enough. She had to say yes or no.
Hava hesitated. Two months earlier, she had selected the Goldfarbs from a Web site called Adoption.com. There, would-be parents post photos and résumés and “Dear Birth Mother” letters, hoping a pregnant woman will see in them ideal adoptive parents for her baby. Being obsessive-compulsive has its advantages, and Hava reckoned that she had scrutinized at least 30,000 profiles of potential parents for her son. She liked that the Goldfarbs were friendly and good-humored and happily married — traits that were suggested by their Web page and confirmed when she met them — and, like her, Jewish. She liked that they were undeterred by her mental illness and had an adopted child already, a 3-year-old boy named Daniel, whom Hava had met and who seemed well-adjusted and happy. She was blown away that they had listed Daniel’s birth mother as a reference. And she liked that they had agreed to permit her contact with her birth son anytime she wanted, an offer that played a major role in her decision to choose them.
And yet the birth had been a far more wrenching event than Hava had anticipated. The week before Jackson was born, she had begun seriously to reconsider. She had begun feeling angry toward the Goldfarbs, resenting that they, not her, would have the privilege of raising this child. She had stopped communicating with them and had given birth unaccompanied; upon her release, the birth father had fetched her from the hospital, taken her home, put the car seat with the baby strapped into it on a table, and departed. After two exhausting days of caring for the child by herself, she had taken the baby to her mother’s house, where she held Jackson — “that was the last time he was really mine; the Goldfarbs hadn’t touched him yet; it was like he wasn’t tainted” — and then, because she could not bear to take him herself, handed her infant to the birth father. He drove the child to the Goldfarbs, who had heard about the birth from their lawyer and driven to Michigan to find out what was happening. Hava and her own mother had fallen on the floor and wept.
Even after all this, Hava Leichtman could still, legally, take her birth son back.
The power, just now, was still hers.
And if she did say yes to this magistrate — the courtroom session was the last in a series of mandatory steps in the relinquishment process — the power would swing irrevocably toward these strangers. Ann and Larry Goldfarb would assume control over Jackson’s life, and in a different way, over hers. Because here was Hava’s fundamental fear: These people had promised her access to the child, but what if they reneged? Jackson was being adopted under Virginia law, which holds that any agreement about post-adoption contact cannot be legally enforced. The view embodied in that law is that any relationship between adoptive and birth parents is by its nature so fraught and unpredictable that there is no way to know how it will play out.
Agonizing, Hava turned and looked to the back of the courtroom, where the Goldfarbs were sitting. Hava could see Larry, tall and serious, nodding.
She could see Ann, brown-haired and petite, looking directly at her and crying. “He’s squeezing her hand, and she’s looking at me so intently and with so much love,” Hava would remember, later. “It was easy to imagine them as monsters, but when I looked back, I thought: There is no way they would screw me.”
Hava turned back to the magistrate. “Yes,” she said, letting go of Jackson Jeffrey Leichtman. She agreed that her son would be raised by people who would take him to Virginia, and rename him Jonathan Morgan Goldfarb, and become his forever and ever parents. She could only trust that the Goldfarbs would keep the promise they made.
Hava ponders this leap of faith while sitting in the dining room of Ann and Larry Goldfarb’s Great Falls Colonial. It is late afternoon; pale sunlight is shining through the window. On the floor of the living room, which adjoins the room where they are sitting, the baby — Jonathan, now 4 and with a ready sense of humor and deeply carved cheek dimples — is assembling a puzzle with his brother, Daniel, while his birth mother and his mother discuss what it’s like to have two women involved in the life of one boy.
Make that three women involved in the lives of two boys — there are photos everywhere of Daniel’s birth mother, as well as five grandmothers, four grandfathers, three great-grandparents and more than a dozen aunts and uncles. The Goldfarbs and their birth families are in the vanguard of reshaping domestic American adoption, transforming it from a clandestine, stigma-laden arrangement into a more open and collaborative one. They believe it’s healthy, if possible, for an adoptive child to know where he or she came from; to have access to his or her medical background and genetic history; to know that he or she wasn’t abandoned or “given away.”
“I want them to know how much Hava and Melissa really love them,” Ann Goldfarb says. She wants her sons to know just how hard it was for their birth mothers to let them go, how it “just took so much strength and love for the child.”
It is a brave experiment, but still very much an experiment. When a few open adoptions were initiated about 20 years ago, “there were predictions made that a child would be confused about who was the parent,” says Harold Grotevant, a psychologist who studies adoption. While Grotevant’s research suggests that these early predictions are not holding true, these remain little-understood relationships, and the well-being of children has yet to be fully measured.
What would become clear during a visit Hava made to the Goldfarbs is that a relationship between two kinds of mothers, birth and adoptive, is a charged and changing thing. It involves anxiety, often, for the adoptive parent, and recurring pain for the birth mother, who, grateful as she may be for the privilege of contact, must watch as her son or daughter gravitates irreversibly toward another woman. “I found it easier to visit in the beginning; it has gotten harder,” Hava says.
And once established, the relationship involves a relentless recalibrating of what might be called the adoptive balance of power. At the outset, every mother and birth mother must decide what level of contact they think they can live with. Then they must rethink and revise, weather conflicts anticipated and unexpected. Accomplishing this requires extraordinary grace on the part of a mother such as Ann Goldfarb, who says: “It’s your baby, but it’s also somebody else’s baby. You can’t just deny that.” And graciousness from a birth mother such as Hava Leichtman, who said, during her visit, to Ann: “It wasn’t until I met you that I realized what a good life he could have. I realized that it was in the baby’s best interest.”
But by saying yes in that courtroom, Hava says she felt she was ceding ownership of “the one good thing I feel I did on the face of this Earth.”
Perhaps most of all, both women must not only feel, but also control and master, what may be the world’s most powerful human emotion: the passion that is maternal love.
EARLIER THAT DAY, Ann Goldfarb took a moment to see whether Jonathan, standing barefoot in a downstairs bathroom, understood what a birth mother is. “Who is Hava?” Ann asked while blow-drying his light-brown hair after a bath. Jonathan looked at her blankly. Presently Daniel, a razor-sharp redhead of 7, appeared and began narrating what he knew of his brother’s birth mom. “We got the cat when Hava was here,” said Daniel, pointing to Cinnamon, an orange tabby. “Hava has cats,” Daniel added. “Nothing but cats. Hundreds of cats. Statues of cats.” They had visited Hava in Michigan, and this — a mythical cat-woman — was the impression they had formed of the woman who had carried Jonathan.
With that, the family headed out in a late winter snowfall to fetch Hava.
“She said she’ll be waiting behind door number two,” Ann told the boys after they arrived at Dulles and were on their way to passenger pickup.
And there she was, exactly where she said she would be: black-haired, slender, a very different woman from the anguished 20-something of four years earlier. Now graduated from college and studying for her LSATs, Hava was wearing a beige fake-fur parka and leopard-spotted mittens and matching headband, bringing into the car a whiff of perfume and drama.
“Hi, you!” she said, climbing into the back beside Jonathan, who was sitting in a booster seat in the middle of the Goldfarbs’ Volvo. “Look at you guys; you’re getting bigger and bigger!” she said. “Or are you a small boy?” she asked Jonathan.
“Big boy,” he said.
“You weren’t so sure on your birthday,” said Hava, who visits several times a year, the last time for Jonathan’s birthday three months earlier.
“Did you guys go to school today?” she asked, and Daniel said no; it was a snow day, and schools were closed. Hava chatted with Ann about the turbulence of the flight; about her boyfriend, Bruce, Jonathan’s birth father, with whom she was living, again, and who was trying to enlist her in the renovation of his bathroom. “Bruce thinks all women have the home decorating gene,” she said, and she and Ann had a good laugh about that.
Then Hava said, “I made $100 at the airport!” describing how a man had approached her as she went through security in Detroit, offering $100 if she would help him win a bet. “He had to find some random attractive girl and get her to talk to him on the phone and talk for 15 minutes, and he could ask her anything,” said Hava, who gave him her cell number, figuring she could shock him more than he could shock her, but later would decline to return his messages.
“Weird things happen to me,” mused Hava, whose hair is no longer the waist-length cascade of four years ago but shoulder-length and freshly layered. Some months earlier, she had been at a club in Detroit, and Kid Rock had shown up. A group of “Pamela Anderson look-alikes” had swarmed him, and Hava had gotten backed into a corner near a candle, and pretty soon her hair was on fire. “I figure that when you start setting your own hair on fire, it’s time to get it cut!” Hava said as the boys listened, rapt.
Unpacking later in a spare room upstairs, Hava took a long look at her birth son. “What are you supposed to give me?” she said, folding him into an embrace. He was supposed to kiss her, but squirmed away instead, then sat on the bed holding a bag of Gummi Bears he and Daniel had gotten Hava as a present. “I missed you,” Hava told him.
Downstairs, the boys wanted Hava to play with them; she sat companionably on the floor near a wooden train set, which is Jonathan’s favorite toy.
“The one in the back won’t go, and the one in the middle won’t go,” he said to Hava, who thought he was referring to two engines. As a toddler, Jonathan had a speech delay, and although he is now talking volubly and very intelligently, some sounds are not yet fully articulated. “She doesn’t know what you’re talking about,” Daniel told his brother. “I do! I do!” protested Hava, but she didn’t; he was talking about the control buttons on a single engine. “I always feel so guilty when I don’t understand him,” Hava said later. “Ann is better, because she sees him every day.”
“When can we play the snail game?” Daniel asked; they moved on to Snail’s Pace Race, a board game that involves rolling dice and moving snails along a track. Ann was standing behind the counter that separates the kitchen from the family room, mixing marinade for dinner. There was a dispute when Jonathan mistakenly rolled twice and Daniel objected. “We can say he was rolling for me,” said Hava soothingly, and peace was restored until Ann said to Hava, “Cheater!”
“I’m not a cheater!” Hava cried.
Ann came around the counter and said to the boys: “Who’s the cheater?”
“She is!” the boys said, pointing at Hava.
“I’m not!” wailed Hava, and then everybody — including Hava — started to laugh. Once, at a family party they’d all attended, Daniel had been playing a game with Hava’s siblings, someone had jokingly called someone else a “cheater,” and soon the allegation was being lobbed at everyone, including Daniel, who’d been upset and had to be comforted. “Cheater” had evolved into a running Goldfarb joke, which would be revived later that night, at dinner. Afterward, the boys would go to bed, and Ann and Hava would sit up talking, and it would occur to Hava to wonder how important it had been to Ann and Larry to have biological children. Ann would reply that biological relationship didn’t matter, but that she would like to have experienced pregnancy. They would talk about an abortion Hava had at the beginning of her relationship with Jonathan’s birth father, and how she got pregnant again immediately, she thinks, as a way to deny that the abortion happened. They would talk about a miscarriage Ann experienced, and how the day Ann met Hava would have been Ann’s due date if that pregnancy had gone forward, and they would joke about how these lost pregnancies seem to have coalesced in Jonathan, who passed, in a way, from Hava’s womb, such a gift, to Ann.
NOW 46, ANN GOLDFARB WAS EXPOSED WHILE IN UTERO TO DES, a drug prescribed to pregnant women in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s under the mistaken idea that it would prevent miscarriage, and which, instead, compromised the reproductive tracts of many female fetuses. Ann met Larry in graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, and they began trying to conceive when Ann was in her early 30s. Unsuccessful, they tried in vitro fertilization, then IVF using eggs from a donor. Adoption was the obvious alternative, though Ann worried about one more disappointment if a birth mother changed her mind. “I wanted the security of knowing that once I had the baby, it was done.”
In this, she was like many adoptive parents, who, experts agree, are often daunted by the prospect of interacting with a birth mother, whose role has changed enormously. In the 1950s, at least 75,000 newborns annually were relinquished by birth mothers who were usually unmarried, usually white and often teenagers: young women from middle-class homes who were “told by family members, social-service agencies, and clergy that relinquishing their child for adoption was the only acceptable option,” wrote Ann Fessler, an adult adoptee who in 2006 published The Girls Who Went Away:
The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade. Sent to maternity homes to avoid the stigma associated with unwed motherhood, the women were quickly separated from their newborns. Most never saw the babies again. Many adopted children were never told they were adopted, though many, in the end, found out. In the 1970s, a movement emerged — fueled by birth mothers and by adult adoptees — to open records, encourage more openness in adoptions, and garner some rights for birth mothers. “It serves no one’s ultimate interests to pretend that these people don’t exist,” says Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and an adoptive father.
Since then, more factors have combined to empower birth mothers, among them massive social changes. Single motherhood is now not only acceptable but also routine. In the United States in 2003, one-third of births were to unmarried mothers. Contraception is widely available, abortion safe and legal. All of these have cut deeply into the number of women relinquishing babies: The Donaldson Institute reports that about 14,000 women now relinquish infants for adoption every year. The majority are still white, although today there is very likely to be a socioeconomic difference between birth mothers and adoptive parents.
Domestic adoption of voluntarily surrendered infants, still viewed as the classic adoption scenario, is now the least common. Of the estimated 135,000 adoptions that take place in the United States every year, most — about 50,000 — now are foster-care adoptions from the child-welfare system, according to a 2006 report by the Donaldson Institute. Second — about 48,000 — are adoptions of an older child by a stepparent, and third — about 23,000 and steadily growing — are adoptions of children from other countries.
And the laws of supply and demand apply in family-making as elsewhere: In the United States, as birth mothers have dwindled in number, their negotiating leverage has increased. These days, the average birth mother is, like Hava Leichtman, a young woman in her early 20s, who has actively decided to carry a pregnancy and relinquish that infant, often defying pressure to abort or let a relative raise her child. Courting her attention are tens of thousands of infertile couples.
By 2002, when Hava began thinking about adoption, it had become routine for a birth mother to select the adoptive family. The Donaldson Institute reports that 90 percent of birth mothers in voluntary domestic relinquishments now also meet the prospective parents.
Because of all this — and because of her inescapable, fundamental relationship to the child — the birth mother has become something of a dreaded figure: Experts agree that one reason for the popularity of international adoption is because it lets adoptive parents avoid her.
“They’re concerned about co-parenting; they’re concerned about the birth mother or birth father coming to reclaim the kids; they’re concerned about things that almost never happen,” Pertman says.
Ann Goldfarb overcame her own reservations in 1998, after talking with a friend who spoke movingly about being present for the birth of her adopted child. Ann and Larry, whose parents were on the East Coast, thought it might be nice to have the child’s birth relatives living nearby. Most of all, Ann felt that it would be healthy for a child to know firsthand that his birth mother loved him.
The Goldfarbs signed up with the Independent Adoption Center, a California-based agency that pioneered open adoption, a term that can mean almost anything, from the birth and adoptive parents meeting once only, or once a year, or exchanging photos and e-mails via the agency and never trading full names. At one session, the Goldfarbs met a couple who had pursued open adoption to obtain the birth mother’s medical record, and who hated, they said, getting her annual phone call on Christmas. “Like fingernails on a chalkboard,” the father called it.
Or, open adoption can mean total access.
This is the sort of thing birth and adoptive parents must reach accord on, and the Independent Adoption Center facilitated that, counseling the Goldfarbs, whose first task was to assemble a dossier. Ann and Larry put into words what they love about each other, and Ann found a quotation to express their parenting philosophy. “Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as valuable to the child as it is to the caterpillar” is what she chose, and she attached caterpillar clip art. By happenstance, Melissa McClendon, a pregnant 19-year-old living in the Pacific Northwest, had a friend who was partial to caterpillars. Helping Melissa sort through profiles, the friend handed her the Goldfarbs’.
At their first meeting, Melissa and Ann were both nervous, for different reasons. “We felt old,” said Ann, who worried that she and Larry wouldn’t seem cool enough. Melissa worried that the Goldfarbs would judge her for being pregnant and single. She got two friends to accompany her to lunch with the Goldfarbs, where they talked about jobs and religion and the fact that Ann, a health-care management consultant, was leaving work to be a full-time mom. This last aspect was important to Melissa, who “wanted one person at least to be home.” So was the fact that they lived near her, in the San Francisco area. Negotiations followed. After Daniel came to live with the Goldfarbs, Melissa and her mother were able to visit frequently for the first two years, until Ann’s father died and the Goldfarbs moved to the East Coast to be nearer to Ann’s mother and a new job Larry had been offered.
The adoption with Hava did not go nearly so smoothly. This time the Goldfarbs decided to forgo working with an agency and advertise directly for a birth mother on the Web and elsewhere. Sitting in her Detroit apartment, Hava Leichtman clicked on their profile. She showed it to Bruce, who spoke for this article under the condition that his last name not be used. He liked the fact that they were fit and active. Hava called and quickly bonded with Ann, who is empathetic, a good listener and non-judgmental. Then Larry got on the phone and asked to talk to Bruce.
This astonished Hava; other would-be parents had shown no interest in the birth father. But Larry was trying to determine if there was a chance Bruce might step up to parent the baby. “It’s like a quarterback trying to read the defense,” says Larry, who was relieved when Bruce made it clear that he did not want to marry Hava or raise a child.
“I told Ann that the ace in the hole is Bruce,” Larry recalled, over dinner, on the first night of Hava’s recent visit. Larry, who works in Falls Church as a geotechnical engineer, had just gotten home, and the boys, who had finished eating quickly, were playing under the table while the grown-ups chatted. Larry was giving Hava a hard time, which he likes to do, about the hard time she gave them.
And it was a hard time indeed, despite an auspicious beginning. Over the phone, the Goldfarbs told Hava they would drive to Michigan to meet her.
Hava didn’t believe them — “I thought you guys were bluffing” — but days later, they were on her doorstep with Daniel. The Independent Adoption Center had also taught them that a key person to engage is the birth mother’s mother. Hava’s mother, Gail, was extremely skeptical about an open adoption, but Hava begged Gail to see what she thought of them. So the Goldfarbs went to the house Gail shares with her second husband, Bob, and while Hava and Ann were playing in the basement with Daniel, Larry Goldfarb “did not leave the kitchen and Gail. She was preparing chicken for dinner, and she was pounding the hell out of it,” says Larry, who suspected the chicken was a stand-in for him and Ann.
Gail, for her part, felt “absolutely excruciating anguish” over the loss of a grandchild, and had offered to raise the baby. Hava had declined, worried that caring for an infant would be unfair both to Gail and Bob, who was in his 60s. “I’ve been through some tough times in my life, and this was probably the hardest thing,” says Gail, who liked the Goldfarbs very much but remained terrified that they would not keep their promise.
Hava told the Goldfarbs she wanted a week with the child after giving birth, and they agreed. Hava was, she acknowledges, trying to show the birth father she was serious about adoption; her hope was that he would relent when he saw the baby, and they would be a family. There was no point in Ann’s asking if she could be in the hospital. “My feeling was:
Don’t ask me,” Hava reflected. “I’ll be damned if you’re going to take away the one thing that’s mine from me.”
It was difficult for the Goldfarbs when Hava stopped communicating as she wrestled with her growing ambivalence. They felt sorry for her — “You just don’t want a child at another’s expense,” Ann says — but they also wanted clarity. They didn’t want Daniel to think he was going to get a brother if he wasn’t, or that his own birth mom might take him away. At a post-delivery counseling session mandated by Virginia law, the counselor told the Goldfarbs, “I don’t think she’s going to go forward.” Hava told the counselor she was angry the Goldfarbs were not keeping the name she gave the baby. Ann and Larry looked at each other as if to say: When did the name become an issue?
“That was the exact look you gave each other!” said Hava, laughing now, over dinner. Explaining her remarks about the name, she said: “I just wanted a reason to be mad at them.” The Goldfarbs surprised her by saying they would think about keeping “Jackson.” “We considered it,” Ann says.
“But the thing is, we didn’t really like it.”
“I didn’t like it, either,” Hava admits.
But she maintains that taking Jonathan home was the best thing she could have done. “It showed me I couldn’t cope. It’s not like, you breast-feed the baby, and he falls asleep on your breast. It’s like — you put him on your breast, and he falls asleep, and you put him down, and he wakes up, and by the time he wants to eat, it hurts, and it’s 3 a.m. and you’re exhausted, and it’s freezing, and it’s like: Please, somebody, take this baby.”
Jonathan wasn’t a good sleeper — then, or for a year. “The only time Jonathan would get to sleep was if Larry picked him up and held him,” Ann remembers, describing the immediate bond between Larry and his sons. While Ann and Hava chatted, Larry tilted his head back and began blowing upward, showing the boys how he could keep a Ping-Pong-size basketball aloft with his breath. He then got down on the floor and showed his sons how to spin the ball so that, when they rolled it, it would return to them. Presently they got up and went into the kitchen, where Ann spooned mint chocolate chip ice cream into sippy cups and they stood around eating. Larry’s wireless hand-held device rang. “Hello?” he said, to silence. Daniel had crept, unseen, onto the counter, and called from the landline phone on the wall. The boys, who have Larry’s sense of humor, laughed and laughed.
“That was the one thing I couldn’t give him,” said Hava, watching. “I could have loved him; I could have bonded with him, but I could not give him a father.”
“Now he has a father,” she continues, “and I get to see it.”
HAVA VISITED JONATHAN just days after Bruce handed him over. On a bookcase near the Goldfarbs’ mantel, there is a photo of her that day, sitting in a chair holding her birth son. That’s all she did, pretty much: held him.
She was, at the time, distraught to the point of breakdown. She had given up her baby, and her boyfriend did not want to live with her, and she had been trying for years to finish a two-year associate’s degree. Hava’s family made sure she was never alone in the days after relinquishing Jonathan. “I was like: ‘Oh, my God. What if she hurt herself and I had something to do with it?'” Ann says now.
During early visits, Ann tried to gauge whether it was safe to leave the boys with Hava. And during one visit they made back to Michigan, Hava offered to take Jonathan to see Bruce, but Ann and Larry wouldn’t let her drive him. “I was like, I’m good enough to give birth to him, but not drive him?” Hava remembers. “And then I thought, Wait, I want her to be that careful.”
Many people in Hava’s family thought that visiting her birth son just days after giving him up was a bad idea, but she feared that if she didn’t summon the courage right away, she never would. Some members of Ann’s family also thought Hava was behaving too possessively; while Ann felt it was reasonable that Hava still felt attached, others didn’t like that Hava spoke of Jonathan as “my son,” and a year later, addressed a birthday letter to “our baby.” Looking at the letter now — “I actually underlined ‘our’!” — Hava said she could see how this would be misinterpreted. At the time, to her, it represented real emotional progress. “I had gotten away from saying ‘mine, mine, mine.’ I meant it in a positive way.” In the letter, she told Jonathan, “You will always be my precious little boy.”
And she did still think of him as her boy. She continued to lactate for months, and while she didn’t breast-feed him, she liked that “here’s something that technically I could do that Ann can’t.” She felt enormous jealousy of Ann and all mothers. She couldn’t stand to go to the mall and see women buying baby clothes. With each successive visit, it became clearer that Jonathan was Ann Goldfarb’s child. When he was 2, Hava tried to fix him lunch, but she didn’t cut the grapefruit the way he liked it.
“He had a meltdown; he lost it, he said, ‘That’s not the way Mommy does it.’ I panicked. I knew this is natural, but my reaction was partly angry, like, Stop being a brat; appreciate what I gave you. I felt guilty, like:
What’s wrong with me? What kind of mother am I that I don’t know? Then it’s like: Where’s Ann? She has to deal with this.”
Another time, Hava was spending the night at the Goldfarbs’ and woke to hear Jonathan crying out from a nightmare. She brought him something to drink, and “when he opened his eyes and saw me, and not Ann, he threw a fit.” The incident upset her so much that she slept a lot for the rest of the visit, avoiding everybody, and talked about it later with a therapist.
Often, when Hava would return home from Virginia, she would spend days in bed unable to function.
On this most recent visit, though, Jonathan warmed up quickly and seemed taken to the point of infatuation with Hava, who is a very fun visitor, full of energy and verve and stories. “Sit here!” he commanded at their first dinner, motioning for Hava to sit in Ann’s seat, and instructing Ann to sit on the other side. The next morning he told her, confidentially, “Daniel says he likes Mom best, and I say I like Dad best, but really, my favorite is you because you bring me toys.” Later he came to her after falling on the floor during a scuffle with Daniel. “I love how he comes to me,” said Hava, to Ann. “Mom has to deal with this on a daily basis. She’s probably going to be like, ‘You’re fine; go play.’ I know that if he fell down and were seriously hurt, he would go to her.”
Much of the time the two women worked together; the second day, the deal was that if the boys ate a good lunch, they could each have four of the Gummi Bears they had bought for Hava. Daniel picked out four bears, and Jonathan, sitting in Hava’s lap, announced that he wanted five.
“You can have four,” Ann said.
“I don’t like having four; I want five,” tried Jonathan winningly.
“You have three,” Ann said. “Take one more, and we’ll pretend it’s five.”
“No,” Jonathan said.
“How about zero more?” asked Hava, teasing him.
“How about negative one?” Ann asked.
“I want five!” Jonathan persisted. But Hava held fast, and Ann held fast, and under this maternal double-teaming, he grudgingly accepted the limit they had set.
And that — Hava thinks — is the great advantage of maintaining contact.
Because he knows her, and because she knows Ann and Larry, she believes Jonathan will never be able to play the “I’m adopted” card. He will never be able to fantasize that Hava is some ideal, better mother, or to play one woman against the other. The other advantage is that she gets to see how well he is doing. “I love the way he sings while he plays; that’s the sign of a happy child,” she said, listening to Jonathan puttering in the hall. The Goldfarbs are easygoing, deeply attentive parents who can be firm when necessary. When they began to feel that television was overstimulating the boys, the TV set became “broken” and stayed that way.
“Why don’t other parents think of that?” says Hava, who can’t recall a parenting decision they’ve made that she has disagreed with.
DURING HAVA’S VISIT, Bev, who is the mother of Melissa — that is, Daniel’s birth grandmother — called to chat with Ann. It’s almost necessary to get a scorecard to keep track of who is who in the Goldfarb household. Around the house are photos labeled “Hava and G’ma Gail,” and “D’s birth mom Melissa” and “D’s birthdad Brad.” There is one, titled “Moms,” that shows Ann with Hava and Melissa and Daniel and Jonathan.
It has, however, been easier bringing some people into the fold than others. When the Goldfarbs adopted Daniel, his paternal grandmother, who asked to be identified as Del, was extremely angry at her son Brad for not trying to keep and raise Daniel. (In a separate interview, Brad said that this was difficult for him as well, but that he was very young, still in school and daunted by the idea of a custody battle.) Del told Ann she didn’t understand open adoption and wasn’t sure how to interact. “I wasn’t comfortable talking to them at first,” says Del, who took time to come to terms with her loss. Even now, she says, she feels that Daniel is not as close to her as her other grandchildren are. “I want to hug and kiss him, and he’s not comfortable with that. I don’t think we have enough time to bond with him.” She believes she has to be careful not to offend the
Goldfarbs: “It’s been a tricky situation. I want what’s best for my grandson, but it’s hard finding the right words to say.” Del was disappointed when she invited Daniel to a family event at Disney World, but he wasn’t ready to leave home and travel with her. “But it’s still better than not having anything,” she says.
The biggest stumbling block is Bruce, Jonathan’s birth father, who wants nothing to do with open adoption. In this, he is unlike Brad, a free spirit and world traveler who sends cheery e-mails from places like Central America. “I have never been a child person,” Bruce said. “They confuse me.” To see Jonathan is to be reminded of his own inability to embrace fatherhood, and he regards this as a personal failure. “It’s not something I’m proud of, and not something I really like to have to deal with on a daily basis.” And though he thinks Ann and Larry are great parents, he also thinks he would be constantly second-guessing them. When he heard they gave Jonathan soy-based formula, he worried that this posed a risk of too much estrogen. “I would be wondering about their decisions; it would just drive me nuts,” he says. He does feel pressured to come into the fold and, at Hava’s urging, sometimes sends a gift card. He says that if Jonathan wants to meet him at 16, that’s okay, but until then, “I don’t see that any involvement from me is good.” Bruce also wonders if contact is really so good for Hava. “She gets pretty wrecked up every time she comes back.”
All of which has raised a new question: Should the Goldfarbs talk about Bruce in front of Jonathan? They like to make sure the boys understand who is who, and at one point during Hava’s visit, Ann asked Jonathan if he knew who Bruce is. Jonathan asked, in a whisper, if Bruce is his father, and she said: “Bruce is your birth father, like Brad is Daniel’s.” Hava sometimes talks about her conflicts with Bruce, but they’re thinking this needs to stop.
Meanwhile, Hava and Bruce disagree about what to say when they go out and are asked if they have children. Bruce will say no; Hava will say yes.
“He’ll look at me and say: ‘You have to face the facts. You’re not a mother.’ I’ll be like, ‘I may not be a mother, but I do have a child,'”
says Hava, who is not sure whether she will have another child someday.
“HOW MANY OF YOU THINK YOU WOULD LIKE AN OPEN ADOPTION?” asks Susan Ogden, a counselor at the D.C. area agency Adoptions Together. Ogden is standing in a Silver Spring conference room, talking to 15 prospective adoptive parents. She told them about her own domestic adoption in which her family sees the birth mother once a year or so. Ogden tells the group that she likes the fact that if her daughter ever asks the “$25,000 question — Why did my birth mother give me away? — I’ll say, ‘Why don’t you call her up and ask her?'” So far, her daughter, now in her middle teens, has never asked. Ogden tells the group, “You can see the power of adoption when you have open adoption. You are the parent your child is attached to. You are the person your child turns to.”
After she asks the group what they think of maintaining contact with a birth mother, there is silence. “The whole concept seems very recent,”
says one man, finally. “I think of adoption as closed — they can’t find out who you are. Is this recent?”
It is — so recent that many adoptions are closed even now. While some parents prefer not having contact with a birth mother, the reverse can also be true. “Things haven’t changed as much as you might think; not all birth mothers want to be tethered to these people for life,” says D.C.
adoption attorney Mark McDermott. And there are no studies proving that one type of adoption is better than another. By and large, all adopted children do well, reminds Harold Grotevant of the University of Minnesota, who with colleagues has conducted the longest-running U.S. study of adopted children, which began in the 1980s. “We did not find that open adoptions are giving a huge advantage in terms of adjustment outcomes,”
says Grotevant, meaning that most adopted children have a healthy sense of well-being and that one group does not suffer from mental health issues more than the other.
The children in open adoptions, he says, are very clear on who their parents are. They also tend to be more satisfied with the level of contact with their birth mothers than children who have none; no child in his study has ever expressed the desire for less contact. He has also found that parents in open adoptions are less likely to be afraid of the birth mother, and the children less likely to fantasize about her. And notably he has found that — far from gravitating toward a birth mother in adolescence — the adoptive child can veer in the other direction. “The piece that was a little surprising,” he says, is that many adoptive parents assume a teenager will take on some responsibility for staying in touch with the birth mother, but sometimes he or she doesn’t, and contact falters.
And in open adoption, he emphasizes, “what’s really happening is that the boundaries of family are expanding, and part of how all this is going to play out for the child depends on how well the adults are able to forge relationships.”
Clearly, sorting this out is challenging for many parents. “I wasn’t prepared for how attached she was to her child,” says one adoptive mother who joined the birth mother in the hospital, and who said, afterward, that she needed six months before another visit.
“Early in our daughter’s life, I was sort of worried, not that the birth mother was going to take her back, but feeling like — Am I this baby’s mom? Am I entitled to parent this child?” says another mother, who has settled now into a comfortable twice-a-year visit. “I wanted to see [the birth mother] all the time,” says another adoptive mother, but the birth mother did not share this desire.
Some parents, however, promise contact and then renege, and because of this, the Donaldson Institute issued a report saying that birth mothers who voluntarily relinquish infants deserve legally enforceable post-adoption contact agreements. Thirteen states have passed such laws; though most laws allow for some renegotiation as time passes, sanctions for noncompliance range from fines to court-ordered visits. In Maryland, birth parents can seek court-ordered visitation if adoptive parents renege on the agreement (and vice versa; adoptive parents can also compel compliance). Birth parents cannot reclaim the baby.
Grotevant is not convinced that such laws are a good idea: “I get nervous about written contact agreements,” he says. “People are developing their relationships, and you don’t necessarily know at the beginning where it’s going to head . . . There’s no guarantee things are going to fall into place.”
MELISSA MCCLENDON, DANIEL’S BIRTH MOTHER, is proof of how unpredictable the future can be. Despite her relatively easy beginning with the Goldfarbs, Melissa has found it harder than Hava to maintain contact.
After Daniel was born, she was unprepared for how excruciating it was to let him go. “He was so tiny, and he looked just like me. He was so cute.
They gave him to me, and we went back to my room, and he was just the most beautiful thing you have ever seen,” said Melissa, who is petite, soft-spoken and strong-willed, and who found that the six months after the adoption were a terrible fog of guilt and sadness. She could not bring herself to visit Daniel, though the Goldfarbs called and offered. “I think if I had waited until I was ready, the time would never have come,” says Melissa, whose mother, Bev, urged her to do so. She found the visit awkward; her role wasn’t clear to her. “Instinctively — the baby’s crying, you want to go over there and see what’s going on, but you don’t know. Do I pick up the baby; do they pick up the baby? I was very glad to see him, but I was just sweating through the whole thing.” Leaving, she said, “was like starting all over again.” She visited every couple of months, and each time was like reenacting the relinquishment.
Then the Goldfarbs told her they were moving to the East Coast. Nobody could help it; there were entirely valid reasons. “We felt terrible,” Ann says. “We thought Melissa was going to be really angry.”
In fact, Melissa was; she just didn’t air it. “I was very angry, but of course I didn’t say it to them. They moved to better themselves and better provide for the family, and that’s not something you can argue with,” says Melissa, who continues to experience bouts of anger and “get all irritated” by some of the Goldfarbs’ parenting decisions. For example, when Daniel, an August baby, was officially ready to start elementary school, the Goldfarbs decided to delay his entry by a year so he wouldn’t be one of the youngest children in his class. Melissa privately held the opposite opinion, and wished, without telling them, that Daniel could go ahead. “I wanted him to go through everything just like a normal person,” she says.
While Melissa says that, overall, Ann and Larry are “doing a wonderful job,” visits have never gotten easier for her. She has flown to Virginia several times, always bringing someone — her mother, a friend — for support. Once, she spent a day with Daniel at the Smithsonian, and on the way home, he called her his girlfriend, and, “I was just like, Darn it; he doesn’t even know who I am.”
Now, more than a year has passed since Melissa last visited. “This was a hard year for me,” said Melissa, who now works for a mortgage brokerage in San Jose. A number of her cousins had babies, and she still sometimes feels regret, as well as “moments of sadness” in which she fears seeing Daniel and leaving him again, but she also tells herself that “it’s important to maintain a relationship.” She keeps a photo of Daniel on her desk. She thinks she will not have more children, because it would be “a smack in the face to Daniel” to know he was relinquished and another child wasn’t.
“I don’t have any day when it’s easy or I’m completely okay with my decision,” Melissa says. On Mother’s Day, Ann Goldfarb has the children make something for each of the mothers and grandmothers. Even so, “Mother’s Day — it’s horrible,” Melissa says. “It’s just a very, very horrible day.”
Jonathan, this visit, calls Hava “Hava” and Ann “Mommy.” But he wants them both near him. This visit, Hava will enjoy her stay more than ever; she will talk about how, for her, it has been lifesaving to visit her birth son and witness how well he is doing under the care of another woman. If she hadn’t been willing to accept the happiness and anguish of every visit, and if the Goldfarbs had not been so supportive, “I would have just self-destructed. I would have just punished myself for the rest of my life. I had my own issues to begin with, and a lot of them were self-destructive behaviors, and I can only imagine that I would have used it as an excuse to do even more.” The Goldfarbs agree; everybody is impressed by how Hava has pulled herself together: how with the encouragement of Jonathan’s adoptive family, she graduated from college and started thinking about the future.
During this stay, in fact, Hava will speculate on whether it might make sense to move to Washington for law school. Afterward, Ann Goldfarb will consider whether this might be a little much. “I don’t want to become her life,” Ann says. “I don’t want her really dependent on us, because that’s not good for anyone. She’s made so much progress.” She adds, “What I want for her and Melissa is: I want them to be happy.”
In which case, there will be other issues to confront and resolve. If Hava and Melissa do have other children, which Ann hopes they will, she wonders if it will be hard to explain to the boys why the women relinquished them but not the later siblings. She wonders if it will become an issue that Jonathan doesn’t have a relationship with his birth father, and Daniel does. She worries, sometimes, that birth relatives don’t always treat both boys equally. She doesn’t worry that they will be dazzled by Hava’s misadventures. “If they say, ‘Tell me again what you did, Hava,’ I’ll be like, ‘And tell them the moral of the story.'”
For her part, Hava knows Jonathan feels loved by her. At one point, he came to her when he had a stomachache and tried to show her how bad it was by measuring with two fingers. “It’s this long,” he said.
Hava responded by sympathizing and asking, “Do I love you this much?” She put her hands close together. “Or this much?” she asked, opening them further. “Or this much?” she asked, opening them wide.
“This much,” said Jonathan, opening his arms wide, too. He smiled at her, and then gravitated back toward Ann, who was back in the kitchen, cleaning.
And Hava has come to accept that that is where he will always gravitate — back to Ann, his mother. “It’s funny — a lot of people say to me: You’ve got your life together now. You’re in school now. You can take him back!
And I’m like — no.”
For one thing, she can’t take him back. Legally, he is not hers to take.
For another, Hava says, Jonathan is with his rightful family. And that’s how she sees him, now: not as “hers,” anymore, but as a member of an indivisible family unit. “I don’t think of him,” she concludes, “without thinking of them.”
Liza Mundy is a staff writer for the Magazine. She can be reached at email@example.com and will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.
Published on: Sunday, 5/06/2007, Magazine section
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