‘We waited six and a half years to have children, and within seven months we became a family of four.” That has been the real-life experience of Malka Groden and her husband, Mendel; they gained an “instant family” like the one depicted in the new movie by that name. (The movie is based on director Sean Anders’s own family story.)
The Grodens’ children came to them last year, but only after a lot of struggle, heartache, and financial expense, and amid a total cloud of unknowing. Malka and Mendel are members of the Chabad Lubavitch community in Crown Heights. They married young and expected to have a big family quickly, as many in their community do, but they encountered the anguish of infertility. After exhausting costly failures in infertility treatments, they started looking into international adoption. They reached out to a rabbi and his wife in Montana who had experienced similar struggles and had built their family through adoption; this family became “a source of support and inspiration” for them. “Practically speaking, though I didn’t really know what to do or what steps to take,” she recently shared at a National Review Institute forum on adoption and foster care at the Tikvah Fund in New York City. “Everyone had an opinion and advice on what I should do, and I just spent hours studying the State Department site on intercountry adoption trying to understand it, which was not easy.” Soon they decided to focus on domestic adoption options instead.
“Entering the world of domestic adoption exposed me to an alternate reality that I’d never known,” she added. The word “incarceration,” for one thing, is commonplace. So are poverty, prostitution, drug addiction. In these environments, the risks of violence and sexual abuse for the children are high. “That’s the world many birth mothers come from,” Malka shared. “You start to learn about adoption and automatically begin to think there’s no way I can be open to a child who was exposed to heroin before birth or who might go through withdrawal or whose birth father is a sexual predator.” It was “shocking” for her to learn and stretched her heart in unexpected ways.
It took a “mental adjustment” to imagine caring for children who had early exposure to things that had been foreign to her, but it was not impossible. It’s part of the reason she’s developed a mission to teach anyone willing to listen about the needs and possibilities surrounding adoption. It’s complicated and emotional, but so is much of life and probably anything worth doing. The more you know, she contends, the more there is moral clarity: We need to give homes to children in need.
“Children who need homes and who are harder to match are disproportionately racial minorities and have had prenatal drug and alcohol exposure of some sort,” she said. The Grodens were open — and it was not easy to be. Informational literature and sessions they encountered discouraged it. She describes her guilt as she anguished over “severing a child from his blackness” — a child she didn’t even have in her life at the time. Fortunately, she had a support system that helped her see clearer. “We were officially ‘in the books’ waiting to be placed with a child in early February 2017, and exactly two weeks later, we got the call that we were matched with our son who was born a few days later. That summer, we received a call about a baby girl, and on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur of 2017, we were blessed with our daughter.”
She quickly realized that no one really knows anything about adoption (my words, not hers), including in her community. (The more I learn about adoption and foster care, the more I think it’s similar to the military: Only the relatively few who serve truly understand what goes into it, what the life is like, what the hurdles and struggles are.) Malka confesses: “At first it irritated me, and I thought, ‘I really would just like to be left alone and not have to explain all of this to people all the time,’ but then I began to realize that if I spoke about it I could address people’s curiosity and questions on my own terms and maybe build some awareness.”
I’ve heard Malka tell her family’s story three times in the last three weeks — including at a White House listening session on adoption and foster care on November 29 — and each time I can’t help but think that she was born for this. Trees and wreaths and Christmas lights are just about everywhere now. Look closely and you’ll see the holy family, too — Mary and Joseph and the Christ child. And a Jewish mother from Brooklyn implores us to make more room in our hearts for children in need of stable, loving families.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.