Talking to: Sivan Almoz, 49, lives in Karkur, social worker and director of First Hug Association. Where: The organization’s headquarters in Ramat Gan. When: Thursday at 9:30 A.M.
About 300 babies are abandoned in Israel every year. How extensively does First Hug, the nonprofit association you head, address this sad phenomenon?
The abandonment of babies is a phenomenon that has existed since the dawn of Jewish history, beginning with Moses. It’s painful and harsh for an infant to be torn away from its parents, and it’s not always done in the wake of a cold, conscious decision. Our association, which is funded by private donations and operates in 29 hospitals and rehabilitative institutions, reaches out to these babies through a network of 500 volunteers [mostly women but also men].
Under what circumstances are infants abandoned in hospitals?
Healthy babies, even those whose parents don’t want them, are discharged from the hospital after a few days. Those that are left behind are generally sick or have some sort of birth defect, and are hospitalized for lengthy periods. They lie alone in a cradle under fluorescent lights, and no one comes to hug them. Infants have no sense of time – they don’t know whether they’ve been alone for two hours or a week. Subjectively, they feel that no one is responding to them, no one is holding them in her arms. That is what should touch us all.
The circumstances are different and diverse, of course. Some parents announce that they simply cannot or do not wish to raise the child, because he is sick or has a problem. There are cases in which the mother is on drugs and the baby is born addicted. In the best case, when the mother decides that she wants to keep the baby, she enters a rehabilitative institution and her baby remains in the hospital. She has no access to him. Infants who are weaned from drugs suffer tremendous pain; they receive powerful painkillers together with a synthetic drug substitute. The only thing that calms them is being held, but that is something his mother, who is undergoing very tough rehab herself, cannot do.
There are also tragic cases of mothers who die in childbirth. Where the father has another small child at home and cannot handle a preemie. In some cases, the mother is a convict in prison and is not allowed to be with the newborn while he is in the hospital. And there are the shocking stories of infants whose parents are under arrest on suspicion of abuse and are not allowed to be with them, so we are with them instead.
What do your volunteers actually do?
They come regularly, and over a period of time, to hug the baby and look after him throughout the hospitalization period, until he is discharged. They give warmth and love, bathe the baby and sing him songs. Over and above the important contribution of the hug to the infant’s emotional and social development, the sense of security it affords, the emotional regularization, our role – that of the volunteer caregiver – is to mediate the external world to the infant. As a parent, you are able to read your baby’s crying, but this baby doesn’t have a parent who’s attentive to him. An infant who cries once, twice, three times, 10 times and doesn’t get a response, develops a sense of despair.
He grasps that he has no influence on the external world. He disconnects.
One of the saddest things, from our point of view, is to encounter babies who are incapable of crying.
It happens: There are babies who don’t cry. It’s not because they’re mute. It’s just heartbreaking to see a baby like that, who is connected to all kinds of machines and not crying.
It takes a great deal of inner fortitude to engage in the volunteering you describe. Beyond the difficult circumstances, this is a very complex dynamic of connecting and parting. In the end, you are parting from the baby forever.
Yes. Again, bear in mind the circumstances of the abandonment. Some newborns are very sick and have a life expectancy of only a few months. The parents decide that they will part from the baby and he remains in the hospital until his death. The volunteers know that this infant could die at any moment, but they still visit with him.
All our volunteers receive training and support from the association’s social workers. We make a point of conducting a process of parting, of closure, both in cases of mortally ill infants and with those who go on to other places. That helps the volunteer to recover a little, to go on to the next infant. In our matchmaking between volunteers and infants, we try to match a volunteer who lost an infant herself with a healthy infant who will be put up for adoption, so she will have an easier experience. But yes, it’s far from simple.
What does a volunteer know about the baby she will be hugging?
We don’t tell her anything. She knows only the age, medical condition, the hospital’s requirements in terms of feeding and sustaining the life of the infant, and whether he is abandoned or his parents are in the picture in some way. The volunteer has to connect with the infant, not the parents. Her role is extremely important: She can change the entire course of the baby’s life.
By giving him a proper experience of attachment, even if it’s partial.
Yes, and in some cases much more. Newborns with a disability will be moved from the hospital to a rehabilitative institution or into rehabilitative foster care. In a rehab institution, the infant is in a room with a few other babies and is treated by the staff. In contrast, rehabilitative foster care is a family in every respect; it’s a home with parents who receive support specifically to care for a child with problems. There are infants whose defects prevent them from being bottle-fed [or nursing]. Our volunteers teach them to suckle. That changes an infant’s life radically – if he’s not on medical support – because he can then go into foster care rather than an institution. For months our volunteers very patiently teach the infant to suckle – 2 cc. at first, then five, then 10, until he learns. An infant who has learned to suckle will get a mother and a family, not a bed in an institution.
How difficult it must be to let go, in the knowledge that a hard life is in store for this baby – that these months when he was hugged may well turn out to be the best period of his life.
It’s hugely difficult. Not long ago, at an instant’s notice, I took a volunteer to an abandoned baby who’d been given just a few days to live. I told the volunteer, who is a very emotionally resilient woman, that I would understand if she said no. But that wasn’t an option for her; obviously she was going to go, so that the baby would leave this world hugged and loved and not alone. But the baby died that very night [before she arrived]. When I called to tell her, she said she felt terribly sad for not having hugged him until the very end. You know, we believe that we are equipping him for a journey and we imagine that he is going to a better place.
How do you select the volunteers?
They undergo a very deep and complex selection process.
I always dreamed of volunteering in your association. I suppose that someone like me, who’s been crying since we started to talk, wouldn’t make the cut.
You’re right. A woman in such an emotional state would not be able to cope. It’s also important to say that we are not in need of volunteers at the moment. We have a very low volunteer turnover rate. When we interview potential volunteers, what we try to understand is the root of their wish to work with us. Why they want to volunteer to take care of an infant.
What’s the right answer?
There is no one answer. They all say they want to give and contribute. I tell them that the babies can be very sick or have problems, that some are hooked up to equipment, that some suffer from all kinds of medical conditions and are not easy to look at. That some of them are on the verge of death.
You shatter the illusion of a cute baby wrapped in a soft blanket.
Yes. Many of the women who come to us are nostalgic for the smell of a baby, based on some sort of fantasy. There are also cases in which women start and then realize it’s not for them. You know, one time I went to see a very disabled infant who was also bloated from cortisone. One of the office staff went with me. The volunteer just picked up the baby and said, “My beauty, my gorgeous baby,” and kissed her intensively, even though she was completely smeared with an ointment. The office worker was stunned. “‘My beauty?’ And to kiss her? I couldn’t do it.” Our volunteers are truly special women. I myself, at the personal level, am simply not capable of hugging infants.
I’m incapable of doing what my volunteers do ... The connection between helplessness and disability touches me too deeply.
I don’t know whether it’s related to my own personal story. My [adoptive] mother was told that it wouldn’t be worthwhile taking me home from the orphanage, because I wasn’t a pretty girl, and that it was better to wait for someone cuter.
The match between your life story and your job is so perfect, the kind of thing that wouldn’t be acceptable if it were in a screenplay.
Totally. I was born in Korea. When I was one day old, I was left in a basket at the door of an orphanage, with a note on which my name and date of birth were written. I grew up in the orphanage. When I was 3, I was adopted by an Israeli couple who lived in Paris. I lived in Paris until the age of 6, and then I went to Israel with them. Because of my story, people make the mistake of thinking that I’m the one who founded the association, but the truth is that I came to First Hug as a social worker. I had a job interview and was hired. The first months brought to the surface all the questions I’d never asked myself. I didn’t even know how it was that I’d never asked them. Why was I abandoned? How could my parents give me up?
Do you remember anything from the orphanage?
Nothing. I only know that I had a regular nanny named Bobo, because that was written in the documents my parents received. I think that the hugging and warmth that she gave me, together with the great love I received from my parents, made me the person I am today.
You have no memory at all? Of a person, of the view from the window?
Nothing. In fact, I don’t remember the Paris years, either. My mother relates that the transition was so quick and smooth, that she herself didn’t believe I came from an orphanage. Until one day she was cleaning my play area and found food I’d hidden in a drawer – half a biscuit and some cheese. She told me that it was like a punch in the stomach, that she understood I was an orphan and that I had had to fight for my survival. As a parent myself [to four children], I truly understand how painful it is, how much it pained her.
That this is what was imbued in you.
Yes. Survival as something existential. You know, my [biological] parents wrote the name they had given me on the note they left: Yan Soon. In Korean, that means, “all the tenderness in the world.” They gave me a name. That was important to them. Some newborns don’t even get that.
But you don’t know anything about the circumstances of your birth – is there no adoption file you could see?
No. Years ago I passed by the Korean Embassy and went in, spontaneously. I spoke with the ambassador and told him my story. He immediately offered to try to help me locate my parents; he said he would speak to journalists, to the staff at the orphanage. He asked what my birth name was, and I told him: Yan Soon Park. It turns out that Park is probably the most common name in Korea, like Cohen or Levy in Israel.
You’ve never visited Korea?
No. I thought I would visit when I turned 50, but it’s not happening. If and when I visit, it will be as a tourist, not in order to trace my origins.
But if you do go back, the memories you’ve repressed could suddenly surface – triggered by a smell you haven’t experienced since then, even by the language.
It’s clear that one of the reasons I don’t remember anything until the age of 6 is repression, a defense mechanism. I came to my parents speaking fluent Korean, but now I don’t remember even one word. The memories I have from the age of 4 or 5 are not mine; they are stories my parents told me. For years I was certain that the pit within me was something I needed to fill, but in time I understood that it’s not so. It’s simply possible to live with that pit, which I call a “cloud,” that always accompanies me. The story doesn’t have to be solved. For me, my adoptive parents are my parents. They gave me an education, they hugged me and pampered me. I am very much like my mother, I can absolutely see the traits I received from her, and my ties to her are very strong. She is already an elderly woman, my mother. I think that when she passes away, I will feel truly an orphan. Even though I was an orphan from Day 1.
When you had your first child, didn’t these questions come up?
The truth is that I had a delightful pregnancy and a highly emotional delivery, because my water broke as soon as the news of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination was announced.
That too was the product of a bad screenwriter.
Yes, the atmosphere was very grim. I discovered that my greatest difficulty with my firstborn daughter was not to give up. Because it’s terribly easy, certainly for someone like me, just to give up.
Is that what you felt?
Yes – inside, of course. Naturally I didn’t say it aloud, but I fought with myself not to give her up because she was exhausting or she was screaming, and it was hard for me. The easiest thing is to abandon a child. That’s what happened to me. I wasn’t wanted and I was left for others. I had to speak to myself in a different voice and say: No, she is mine, and even if it’s difficult I will not give up and I will not leave her. Once my ex-husband threw words like that at me – that I give up easily. I told him he didn’t understand how hard it is for someone like me, who was unwanted, to get up every morning and say anew, “I want them, they are mine and I want them.” Because for most people, to abandon a child is not an option, it’s not something they can even imagine. But I know it’s possible.
I understand you.
My children are so amazing, really, so special. I am very happy and accepting of the place I’m at today. So much so, that a few years ago I simply demanded that my mother – who is old-fashioned, you know – tell me how much she loved me. I just stopped the car and told her, “I am not going on until you say a few good words to me, about me.” She started to cry and said, “You are so wonderful. Didn’t I ever tell you that?” I replied, “No, you didn’t, and it’s something I need to hear.” The work I do very much strengthened my ties with my mother. My success gives her such a lift. It paints the whole abandonment story in such beautiful colors, and that is the healing that I am doing. I wish there were a stronger word than “abandonment.” I wish I had a different word, one that contains greater hope. I want the conclusion, whatever you choose, to be optimistic.