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Joyful Heart in the News
"My Faith Pulled Me Through"
It took years. It almost broke her heart. Here, for the first time, Mariska Hargitay shares the tender story of how she adopted her two precious new kids
Mariska Hargitay is among America's favorite (not to mention highest-paid) TV actresses for one very good reason: her portrayal on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit of Olivia Benson, the grave, rarely smiling but deeply compassionate sex-crimes detective.
So it's happily jarring to enter Hargitay's sprawling but comfy New York City apartment and find...the trappings of a party. Dozens of helium balloons bounce against the ceilings of the living room and office; it was Hargitay's 48th birthday recently, and her husband, actor Peter Hermann (who recently starred in the Broadway play War Horse), surprised her with a hayride-themed party. While the bales of hay have thankfully been removed, those balloons remain a happy reminder of the soiree. A massive teddy bear is also a permanent fixture in the living room.
"This is the fun house!" Hargitay says, buoyant in a Manhattan mom's outfit of black jeans, riding boots, and layered tees that reveals her to be, refreshingly, as normal-size around the midriff as any top actress dares to be.
Hargitay has had quite a year. She and Hermann adopted a baby, daughter Amaya, now 14 months, and six months later she stunned the public by taking home a second baby, Andrew, now 10 months old.
Now in the kitchen, Hargitay and the whole family are crammed around a long table, having a lunch of Ethiopian chicken, rice, vegetables, and bread. "We like trying new cultures," she explains, bouncing Amaya — a chocolate-skinned cherub in a birthday-party — worthy dress — on her lap before handing the little girl across the table to tall, handsome Hermann, who cuddles his daughter with enormous tenderness. Skim-milk — pale and with eyelashes to die for, baby Andrew is being cradled in his nanny's arms. At the head of the table is the happy-as-a-clam big bro, August, in the Batman skullcap that rarely leaves his head (it has to be pried off at bedtime). Hargitay and Hermann's biological son, who is nearly 6 years old, obviously relishes his newly expanded family.
"August thinks this was all his idea!" Hargitay says, with a husky laugh. "He said, 'I want a baby sister,' and Amaya came. Then he said, 'I want a baby brother,' and Andrew came. August is feeling pretty good and pretty powerful!"
This is the peppy, straightforward, smiling Hargitay — the un-Olivia, in fact: a woman whose bursting-full life is perhaps not easy, but certainly a source of great joy. Yet the qualities that give her performance as Detective Benson such haunting resonance are just a heartbeat away. As the younger children go for their naps and August heads to his room to play, a more emotional, deeply thoughtful Hargitay comes out. "I'm not gonna lie," she says as she launches into the story behind her burgeoning family. "There were wrenching moments. I say to everybody, 'Adoption is not for the faint of heart.' "
Her Family Plan
Hargitay gave birth to August at 42, an age after which subsequent pregnancies aren't always easy. After a few years of Hargitay and Hermann's enjoying new parenthood, "August wanted siblings, and Peter and I both envisioned this big family because we both come from that. Plus, we just had so much love to give," she explains. "I was really letting the chips fall as they might, because I do think so much is up to God. I always said, 'I don't know how this is going to end up. I don't know if I'm going to get pregnant and have twins. I don't know...,' " she says, throwing her hands up theatrically, " 'if somebody's going to leave a baby on my doorstep.' But I really did think that down the line, Peter and I would adopt a child. That was always part of the plan."
That idea had taken root in her childhood. As a young girl, she was forced to recognize that "mother" didn't necessarily imply a biological connection. After her own mother, the actress Jayne Mansfield, was tragically killed in a car accident, Hargitay (who was 3½. and in the car's backseat at the time) and her brothers went to live with their father, bodybuilder-turned-businessman Mickey Hargitay. His third wife, Ellen Siano Hargitay, became his daughter's mother in every sense of the word. "I called her Mom. She really claimed us. She never had biological kids of her own, and to this day we are her kids. So we were blessed that she really embraced us and loved us so quickly. And I was very fortunate to have a maternal figure in my life after such a horrific accident," Hargitay says.
On top of that personal lesson came the teachings of travel with her parents: "I remember being in Thailand and India when I was 9 or 10 and seeing kids alone in the street and thinking, Where are their moms?" Then she realized they didn't have moms. "They were so amazingly resourceful and soulful and smart. And somewhere inside of me — even so young — I had that maternal instinct," she says. "I remember thinking, I want to take them all home!" That yearning, and the knowledge that unrelated people can be parent and child, stayed with her, powerfully.
So about two years ago, she and Hermann contacted an "amazing," intuitive adoption lawyer and, as Hargitay puts it, began their journey. They completed a comprehensive five-hour home visit and endured some false starts: "There were several cases that didn't work out. A lot of different kinds of complications. Then, after disappointments, came the big hope — which ended up being dashed. But," she quickly adds, her face almost pious, "while it may be ironic, the hardest disappointment was also the greatest moment, in terms of what it means to help build a family."
Hope and Heartbreak
It was about 18 months ago that Hargitay and Hermann heard of a pregnant young woman who was having a girl — Hargitay had always dreamed of a daughter. After several steps in the vetting process, they arranged to meet her. As was true of the eventual adoptions of Amaya and Andrew, this was a domestic adoption, and the young woman was not far from New York City. Given that this was "probably about the third" attempt to expand their family, Hargitay tried not to get her hopes up. But when she met the expectant mom, she was thrilled: "I thought she was just an incredible person, so smart and bright."
Pursuing what many would consider a closed adoption — wherein the birth mother won't have access to her offspring in the future — when you're a public person like Hargitay, and when you want to get to know the birth mother before the baby is born, is not an easy thing. But this path was the one Hargitay chose. "They all know who I am," she says of the various women she encountered on her journey. "I trusted them with open arms. And they trusted me. It's a huge relationship."
Hargitay was, in a sense, auditioning. She says, "I wanted to have [time] with this young woman, to look into her eyes and be able to tell her I would love her child. I wanted her to meet August, to see our family, to understand where the baby would be. I wanted her to feel she had won the jackpot" — not because of Hargitay's fame, but because of her love and sincerity.
The young woman did not cast a wide net for adoptive mothers. "She didn't even meet anyone else; she only met me," Hargitay says with quiet pride. They talked to each other for a month: "I kept sort of pushing and asking questions," she recalls — to gently make sure the woman did indeed want to give the baby up, that adoption was the right decision. "I felt a little maternal about her," Hargitay explains. The mother-to-be was sure; Hargitay would be her baby's mom.
One day soon after that, Hargitay was on the SVU set when her cell phone rang. It was the birth mother: "Come now — it's time!"
At the hospital, Hargitay was handed her newborn, "this little angel." She and Hermann had two blissful days bonding with the tiny girl, naming her.
And then, "the long and short of it: The birth mother changed her mind," Hargitay says. And so she and Hermann had no moral or ethical choice but to hand the baby back to her birth mother. "It was nothing short of devastating," Hargitay says, her eyes welling up at the memory.
She is quiet for a moment and then looks away, clears her throat, and says, "But...this is what I've come to understand about life: It was probably the greatest, happiest ending. I mean, it was so painful for us, but it was deeply joyful and deeply right for her. And so when she changed her mind," she says, tearing up again, "I felt honored to be part of the process. It was a profound blessing to have been part of the making of a union; that God had picked me. I don't even want to say that I helped, but for some reason I was there, and I was part of a decision that was so beautiful and sacred. I'm a woman in my 40s. I've lived a life, I know about decision-making and ramifications and choices, and how they affect everything you do. That's age and wisdom. But someone very young — they don't know! They can't know yet."
Hargitay's mothering of the baby for those two days apparently helped the birth mother realize what her youth, and perhaps her fear, had obscured from her for months: She couldn't live without her baby. From this distance, Hargitay says that she feels "a deep gratitude" for her role in the woman's last-minute change of heart. "That's my philosophy: There are no accidents."
Is she still in touch with the woman? "I am. I am," she says. Does she ever see the baby, who was almost hers? "No. And yet I feel I'm forever connected to her."
Not long after that turn of events, Hargitay and Hermann's lawyer and social worker located another woman who was expecting a baby; after initial inquiries, even these two seasoned professionals couldn't hide their enthusiasm. "They said, 'This woman's kind of great,' " Hargitay recalls. And so, a little over a year ago, she and Hermann made a phone call to this prospective birth mother. "We were blown away," Hargitay says. "She was very powerful, soulful, and thoughtful." When the couple met her, "the whole thing was kind of...storybook. It was almost too good to be true." Indeed, after having abruptly lost the last baby, they worried that their hearts would be broken again. But this woman set them at ease: "She said, 'I know this is right. You are this baby's mother.' " Did Hargitay cry when she heard that reassurance? "Yes!" she says, with a jubilant laugh.
The woman was African-American, but the fact that her baby would be adopted by a white couple didn't bother her. Race was also "a nonissue" to Hargitay and Hermann. In fact, Hargitay says, "we were excited to have a multiracial family, because that's what the world is, and we want our family to reflect a realistic microcosm of the world."
Hargitay and Hermann wanted a girl, but they were so over the moon about the birth mother, it was fine that she was having a boy — or at least that was what the medical report had seemed to make clear. Then came the call from their lawyer, which Hargitay clearly remembers: " 'Are you sitting down?' she asked. 'Yes,' I said. 'There was a mistake. It's a baby girl she's having!' "
Hargitay and Hermann took the hopeful step of choosing a name for their soon-to-be daughter. "We were thinking of Maya first," she recalls. "We loved the name. And we wanted her to have the same initials as me. But then I thought, No; she needs to have the same initials as her brother. So we added the 'A,' and we thought: Amaya! So feminine! It just rolls off the tongue." Besides, after doing a bit of research, the couple found that in various languages "Amaya means 'princess,' it means 'warrior,' and it means 'night rain.' "
The birth mother agreed that Hargitay not only would be in the delivery room, but also would help deliver the baby. "Glove up!" the doctor ordered Hargitay as she stood expectantly at the edge of the table, near the stirrups. So she did, and "I basically pulled Amaya out," she says. "Peter and I held her, and then the birth mother and I hugged for a long time. That was profound. That was one of the most meaningful moments I've ever had in my life."
As if on cue, to provide a welcome intermission from the emotional wallop of the story his mother is telling, sprite-like August enters the room. "Hi, little man," Hargitay says. "Daddy said I can't come in," he says. "Can I?" He flops on the chaise by the window, theatrically crosses his hands over his little chest, strums his fingers, and impishly feigns massive disinterest. "I won't say anything...I won't listen," he says, then eventually exits after some bribing (Gummi Bears), extra chit chat with Mom, and tickling. Hargitay, smiling and shaking her head, remarks, "Cutest kid on the planet, right?"
Good Things Come in Pairs
With newborn Amaya at home to join August, Hargitay and Hermann were utterly content. "Everything was so dreamy," she says. Yes, maybe in a year and a half they would try to adopt again, but not now. Of course not; their hands were happily full. Still, when the social worker visited to do their post-placement follow-up, the couple had an idea: Why not get their next home study over with in the same sitting? (One usually cannot initiate a new adoption without a new home study.) Hargitay muses about the chain of events set in motion by this serendipity: "I think God runs the show. Completely. Life proves it every day: He runs the show." Hargitay was raised Catholic, and Hermann was also raised Christian; their first significant date was in his church. "I think God is very much in us. Faith is a huge part of our life. And I think everything happens for a reason," she says.
Hargitay and Hermann's lives were rocked that September, when they received tragic, shocking news that a dear friend had suddenly died. "He was somebody we deeply loved who affected our lives in a very beautiful way," she says, close to tears. "And [his death] happened too soon and unexpectedly." The man's name was Andrew. Just when Hargitay and Hermann were struggling with this loss — that very week — their lawyer called to see how everything was going with Amaya. And then the lawyer said something else: There was another baby, a boy, two months premature and very fragile. He was being released from the neonatal intensive care unit in a hospital in another state, and he was adoptable. The lawyer "knew that we were done" adopting for the moment, Hargitay says, but still she asked, "Are you interested?"
"I don't really know what to say about it, other than it was a no-brainer. Peter and I both thought, Let's do it! I'm in!" she says. "It was like...a miracle. And I don't use that word lightly. I've never made a bigger decision so quickly. The whole thing happened in a total of two days."
Hargitay and Hermann raced to meet their baby boy, who had been released from the hospital. They met the birth mother ("She was awesome. An incredible woman. She's been through a lot"), and then they took the tiny, delicate infant home.
The couple named him after their lost friend Andrew. Hargitay marvels at the difference between the two adoptions: "I mean, Amaya was something we pursued. We went down there; we paid our dues," she notes. "And then we get this...this...craaazy call! I mean, who would call a family that had just adopted a baby and say, 'A child was born'? Our incredible lawyer, that's who!"
Those first months were "touch and go — it was scary," Hargitay says. Though she and Hermann have a nanny to help with the other two children, Andrew has respiratory and reflux issues, so a private nurse lives with the family to tend to his medical needs. There have been times when he has stopped breathing for a terrifying interval. Several times, Hargitay and Hermann have rushed off the sets and stages of their respective shows; one time an ambulance was already in front of the apartment when they frantically arrived, and they rode with their baby to the hospital. "It's a lot, but that's what you do," she says. "That's life. You've gotta go with it. The highs are high, and the lows are low." Is she sleeping less? "Yes, definitely!" she admits. "But sometimes it's not the babies who get me up in the middle of the night — it's August!"
Finding Her Balance
Hargitay's life is full to the brim now — so full that when she and Hermann actually get out to the movies every three weeks or so, "we sit there in the movie theater before the movie starts and say, 'Wow! We're at the movies without kids!' about 50 times to each other. People look at us like we're weird — except," she quickly adds, "if they're parents, in which case they're doing the same thing."
Given her nonstop schedule, Hargitay finds that reconnecting with Hermann isn't the only necessity for her; a few daily moments of utter stillness are also essential. "I try to give myself a little bit of time every day to sit quietly," she explains, "and I end up in the bathtub as often as I can — that's a real sanctuary for me."
Many of her closest friends also have young children — including her showbiz pals Maria Bello, Debra Messing, and Ali Wentworth. She's happy they're all in the same overstuffed boat. The advice, empathy, and sheer silliness those women and other friends add to Hargitay's life has been a godsend.
"No matter where you find yourself in life, there's always a friend who has gone through pretty much the same thing," she marvels. "After we adopted, it was remarkable how many people had great thoughts and tips for us. And my friends are all so incredibly loving and hilarious; I inevitably end up laughing when I talk to them. I would say in that department, I am a very lucky girl."
It was in that same spirit of gratitude for her blessings that Hargitay launched her Joyful Heart Foundation eight years ago, to help victims of domestic violence and sexual assault as well as child abuse. The thriving organization has so far served 5,400 victims (2,500 in the last year alone). Among its latest projects: lobbying to get the massive backlog of untested rape kits processed so thousands of American women whose rapes have gone unsolved may finally have justice, safety, and closure. In the past two years, Hargitay has testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security; Joyful Heart joined forces with the Obama administration on the critical issue of processing the rape-kit backlog and worked to encourage cities as diverse as Detroit and Los Angeles to get caught up on investigating unsolved rape cases.
Hargitay started the foundation because so many people thought she so credibly portrayed Olivia Benson that victims and their friends and relatives would write her touching, personal letters, sharing their stories with her. Her mission — to provide help beyond that of her on-screen portrayal — became clear. "Olivia's been like a teacher to me," she says of her role. "Talk about a lioness! And she doesn't have kids, but what a mother."
And here we are, having come full circle, discussing Hargitay's own upbringing by her own "mom," Ellen Hargitay, who never gave birth to any children. "What makes a mother?" Hargitay asks, pausing for a moment. "I think a mother is somebody who will kill to protect you, somebody who will love you and make sure that you're always OK. I'll take inspiration and information from wherever I can get it, whether that's from my character, from my husband, or from my dad [who died in 2006], who always said, 'Mariska, you can learn from anyone and everyone. From people who are older than you and people who are younger than you.'
"See, I got the rough stuff out of the way early," she concludes, with a sad nod to a photograph of her late mother, the glamorous Jayne Mansfield, in pride of place in the dining room. "I learned at a very young age that anything can happen. And that works both ways, good and bad. I get that life is a gift." The loss of her birth mother left her, at 3½. years old, with "a broken heart and a lot of fear." She overcame both with hard work, she says. "But trust can take you a long way. And my faith takes me a long way. And I think that our pains, our vulnerabilities, and our insecurities can fuel us to be better. To try harder. To dig deeper."
Hargitay pauses for a moment. "Adoption was a bumpy ride--very bumpy," she says, as a huge smile lights up her face. "But, God, was it worth the fight."