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After Baby M : Mary Beth Whitehead Has a New Storybook Life, and Some Tough Talk About Surrogate Motherhood

Newsday

Mary Beth Whitehead-Gould, four months pregnant with her fifth child, throws up in the bathroom as the sun goes down.

“Morning sickness, day and night, with all my babies,” she says when she’s finished. “It’s a cross I have to bear.”

Her fourth child, 9-month-old Austin, crawls on the kitchen floor with the Shetland sheep dogs. Her first child, 14-year-old Ryan, skateboards in the street outside. Her second child, honey-blond Tuesday, 12, flops in the front room with Jube Jel Cherry Candy Hearts, watching TV. And out in the kitchen, the world’s most notorious surrogate mother, munching now on a bag of Fritos, remembers the beginning of Baby M, her third child, a feisty green-eyed girl who calls herself Sassy.

‘Help the World’

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“Bill Stern would go into a little room and come out in a few minutes holding his semen in a cup,” she says. “I really wanted to have that baby. I thought it was a way for me to help the world, you know. Boy, was I stupid. They’d inseminate me and I’d lie there with my feet in the air for 45 minutes. I’d stand on my head almost, because they told me it would make it easier for me to conceive. I had the baby, getting sick, all the pain, nursing her. What did Bill Stern do? He put some sperm in a cup.”

Melissa Stern, the product of that cold conception in a Manhattan high-rise, will be 3 this month, and she will celebrate her birthday twice. She will have a party at her home in Tenafly, N.J., with her father, William Stern, a biochemist, and his wife, Elizabeth, a pediatrician. Melissa will have a second celebration later with her mother, in this house on a half-acre in Bayport, Long Island.

Life’s little pleasures are multiplying behind blue shutters in Bayport. Mary Beth Whitehead isn’t a New Jersey girl anymore. She lives in the storybook house she always wanted. She is divorced from Richard Whitehead, the former garbage man who married her when she was 16, fathered her first two children and then had a vasectomy because their doctor told him to.

She has a new husband: Dean Gould, 27, who’s four years younger than she. He is the comptroller for Management Consultants International, a Long Island real-estate management firm. She has a new baby and another one due in the summer. She has written a book telling her side of the Baby M case, and she was to start a 22-city tour to promote the book today. Next month she turns 32, happier and a little smarter.

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“A lot of people see me as a heroine. A lot of people see me as a whore. OK, I’m not perfect. I’ve made mistakes. I’d do a lot of things different if I could. I’d never, ever, get involved with surrogacy again. It’s so weird. It’s like going for your yearly.”

She is standing in bright-yellow socks, under a mushroom of L’Oreal medium brown that hides the gray in her hair. She’s laughing toward a couple of ceramic rabbits that seem to be sniffing the Wonder Bread; the rabbits are two of 93 that romp in paper, plastic, glass, cloth and wood in the kitchen decor. “Most people have a child in a natural way, get the bottle of champagne, maybe put on a sexy nightgown. Me, I don’t have to do that. You know what I’m saying? I’m not as green as I used to be.”

Sin on Seaman Avenue is a pint of rum raisin Haagen-Dazs in the freezer.

“People wanted me to be like the Madonna, the white nun, you know, and that’s not me. But I’m no villain. People come out of prison and aren’t treated like I’ve been treated. I didn’t kill anybody. I didn’t violate anybody’s rights. My rights were violated. Nobody likes to be hated, but the whole world hated Mary Beth Whitehead.”

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The woman they attacked in the highly publicized court case as impulsive, egocentric, histrionic, narcissistic, manipulative and exploitive is religious in the sense that the church she doesn’t attend much anymore is Catholic. Heaven is a cedar-shake house with a baby on her breast.

“After what they did to me, I felt like there was nothing left for me. When I met Dean, I was just waiting to die. He made me alive again. . . . A lot of people said Dean was sent from heaven, and he was. And you know what? He never wanted kids. Now he has a tribe.”

Mary Beth Messer, the sixth of eight children, stopped going to school when she was 15, was married and pregnant at 16 and a mother at 17. “All my life I had wanted to be a mother,” she writes in her book, “A Mother’s Story: The Truth About the Baby M Case” (St. Martin’s Press). “I had grown up believing that the purpose of my life was to have children.”

First came Ryan, then came Tuesday two years later. Before dawn on the day her first son was born, the teen-aged mother waited for her pains to come three minutes apart. “I lay awake all that night, alone, beside my drunk husband and beside an empty cradle,” she writes. “I was beginning to understand that my life as a wife and mother was not going to be what I had always thought it would be.”

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When she was 28, she answered an ad in the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press asking for women willing to have babies for infertile couples. The ad led her to baby broker Noel Keane and to William Stern, 41 at the time, and his wife, Elizabeth, also 41, who thought pregnancy might be risky because she had a mild case of multiple sclerosis.

Mary Beth Whitehead was to be paid $10,000 under the contract she signed with the Sterns. On March 27, 1986, she gave birth to a girl, whom she had agreed to surrender. In her book, she says this was the moment when she changed her mind and decided to fight, even to run and hide, to keep her baby.

Whitehead named the child Sara Elizabeth. The Sterns named her Melissa. The world knew her as Baby M. The Whiteheads and the Sterns swapped the child back and forth in the week after the birth, and then Whitehead kept the baby for four months, until she was forced to give her to the Sterns. The court battle was tedious and ugly.

Baby M’s Adoption

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Four days after the baby’s first birthday, New Jersey Judge Harvey Sorkow called Mary Beth Whitehead “a woman without empathy.” He also said her husband “has been shown to be an episodic alcoholic.” He said the Sterns were more emotionally and financially able to be Baby M’s parents. The judge awarded the child to the Sterns and performed an adoption ceremony in his chambers that made Elizabeth Stern the legal mother of Melissa.

Most of the world knew Mary Beth Whitehead as an unfit mother, and to prove it, they played in court a tape recording that Bill Stern had secretly made of a phone call from a desperate mother on the run: “I’d rather see me and her dead before you get her. I gave her life and I can take her life away.”

She didn’t mean it, Whitehead-Gould says now. She was just mad and felt powerless. “It was such a stressful time. It was like they were crucifying me. I felt like Jesus Christ, I really did. I would never have hurt Melissa.”

Nevertheless, the judge terminated all her rights to the baby.

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“I was afraid to say it at the time of the trial because I didn’t know what Judge Sorkow was going to do to me,” Whitehead-Gould says, lighting a Newport cigarette at her kitchen table, “but I’m not afraid now: The judge was a rotten, horrible man, and I don’t know how he sleeps at night.” (Neither Sorkow nor the Sterns will comment on Whitehead-Gould or her book.)

While recovering from the court decision that ended her parental rights, Mary Beth Whitehead met Dean Gould on a vacation in St. Thomas, and she later became pregnant with his child. Ten months after Sorkow’s decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the award of custody to the Sterns, reinstated Whitehead’s maternal rights and declared Elizabeth Stern’s adoption invalid.

Visitation Rights

Mary Beth Whitehead and her husband, Richard, were divorced, and two weeks later she married Gould. Last year she gave birth to her second son, Austin Dean Gould. Last year also, on her 31st birthday, another New Jersey judge awarded Mary Beth Gould liberal visitation rights and ordered that she and the Sterns enter psychological counseling together for the sake of the child they share.

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“The progress has been much better than anyone ever expected,” Whitehead-Gould says. “We’re civil. The Sterns won’t let me into their lives, but there are no big disagreements anymore. We have come to terms with what works. We make the transition with my visitation as easily as can be. It’s a start.”

Mary Beth Whitehead-Gould emerges as a more sympathetic character in her book than the nation saw portrayed during her trial. She says she wrote the book to set the record straight, because she was misjudged and misunderstood, and to steer other women away from becoming “paid breeders.” If she makes a little money, that’s OK too.

“If one girl reads it and decides not to go into surrogacy, then I think the book was worth it,” she says. “These girls stand up publicly and say: ‘It’s wonderful. I’m giving the gift of life.’ I have great sympathy for people that are infertile, but a life is not something you can give away.”

Her book, written in collaboration with Philadelphia journalist Loretta Schwartz-Nobel, has already hit the bookstores with a 100,000-copy first printing. It is a main selection of the Doubleday Book Club, an alternate selection of the Literary Guild and will be serialized in Family Circle magazine.

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It is a personal trip through the emotional moments of a woman confused, maybe even crazed, by surrogate motherhood. Whitehead-Gould writes about the night after she surrendered her baby to the Sterns:

“The room was dark, and I was lying in a pool of milk. The sheets were full of milk. I knew it was time to feed my baby. I knew she was hungry, but I could not hear her crying. The room was quiet as I sat up in bed, alone in the darkness, with the milk running down my chest and soaking my nightgown. I held out my empty arms and screamed at the top of my lungs, ‘Oh God, what have I done? I want my baby.’ ”

If her book is a sad soap opera, so was Mary Beth Whitehead’s surrogate motherhood, but the emotions, like the product, are real.

“When she grows up, Sassy may look at Bill Stern and say, ‘How could you do that to my mother?’ She may be angry at me. But I know this, if I didn’t fight to keep her, she’d be mad as hell. She’d say, ‘How could you sell me? What kind of a mother are you?’ There’s so much that could still happen. Nobody knows. Time will tell.”

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Just about everybody involved in the Baby M case came away with something. Just about everybody except Richard Whitehead. He didn’t even get the Shetland sheep dogs, Corky and Jenny. After his wife divorced him, he didn’t work for almost a year. He doesn’t want to talk about his old life.

“He’s lonely,” his ex-wife says. “He misses me. He misses the kids. He came here when we moved in, and he painted and watched the baby. My kids want me to build a garage apartment in the back yard or get a bigger house with a wing for daddy. I really wouldn’t have a problem with that because we all do get along very well. But I don’t think that’s real healthy for Dean and Rick.”

Richard Whitehead just got a job driving a cement truck in Florida, and his ex-wife will split the money from her book with him. “It’s part of the divorce decree,” she says. “We will always love each other, but after all we went through, it died between us. I think Rick has what he wants now. He wanted to be footloose and fancy free. He’s always had a hard time dealing with the responsibilities of a wife and children. So he really did get what he wanted, which is nothing.”

Her new husband for 15 months is a tall, dark, quiet man who wears glasses and white paint in his hair. He’s been putting up rabbit wallpaper. Ryan and Tuesday Whitehead kiddingly call him Poindexter, the name of a wacky character in the movie “Revenge of the Nerds.”

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Mary Beth Whitehead-Gould says the emotional cost of surrogate motherhood may have been too high for her, but at least her third child, the girl who calls herself Sassy, is alive and lively.

“They (the Sterns) refer to me as Bop. I used to call Melissa ‘Oodie-Bop,’ and the Sterns have turned it around. Show her a picture of me and she says ‘Bop.’ They don’t acknowledge me as Melissa’s mother, and I really feel like someday it’s going to come back to get them. They’re naive to think that this child is not going to have problems.”

The enemies in the Baby M case go to counseling together. They’re not friends, but there’s no more fighting. They all love Melissa. She’s a feisty girl, but she won’t be a little girl forever. She is, after all, Sassy, testy and demanding, just like her mother.

“The Sterns are intelligent people, with degrees in human genetics and everything,” says Mary Beth Whitehead-Gould. “They must know that this child is going to grow up, maybe look like me, maybe act like me. There are certain characteristics that are hereditary, you know. How are they going to deal with a little Mary Beth growing up in their house?”

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