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."