By Valarie Honeycutt Spears, Lexington Herald-Leader, KY,
November 13, 2005
Says pregnancy for best-selling author dominated his wife’s life
LEBANON – Jack Bendschneider, a factory worker and Casey County volunteer firefighter, says he lay in bed at night and worried about his own two young children after his wife insisted on carrying a surrogate baby for another couple.
Speaking out for the first time in a case that has garnered national attention, Bendschneider, 32, told the Herald-Leader last week that the surrogacy agreement with best-selling author Jacquelyn Mitchard consumed his wife, Arletta, to the detriment of her own two children. He says that’s why he asked for a divorce in August.
Because Jack and Arletta Bendschneider were married when Arletta became pregnant, Kentucky law presumes that Jack is the surrogate child’s legal father.
The baby boy, born Nov. 1, is in Massachusetts with Mitchard and her husband, but legal custody has not been determined because Jack Bendschneider has refused to sign an order giving up his rights. In the interview, he said he is not trying to block Mitchard from getting the child; he just doesn’t want anything more to do with Arletta and doesn’t think it is necessary to sign the document.
“I don’t understand why I have to sign,” he said Thursday in his attorney’s office in Lebanon. “That baby has nothing to do with me.”
Jack Bendschneider said he’s not against surrogacy arrangements, but he said the decision made by his wife, a Danville city building inspector, was not a good one for their family. He also fears their young girl and boy will be ridiculed in the traditional farming communities around their Kings Mountain home.
“You don’t do this in a town this size,” he said. “I was physically sick. I couldn’t sleep at night thinking my children are going to have to discuss this with people later in life. How do you explain this to a 7-year-old — one day Mommy has a baby in her tummy, and the next day it’s gone.”
Arletta Bendschneider disputes her husband’s contention that her actions in any way interfered with her being an attentive mother.
“I am totally devoted to our children,” she said in an interview Friday.
Dr. Phil wants an interview
Jack Bendschneider said he never expected that his impending divorce, a judge’s decision to give him temporary custody of his children and a legal dispute over the baby his wife carried would become national news.
Now syndicated talk show host Dr. Phil wants an interview with him, his attorney says.
And Arletta Bendschneider recently appeared on the nationally syndicated television show Inside Edition to discuss how her marriage failed and how a judge took away her home and children when she chose to become a surrogate for Mitchard. Arletta said she went public because it is not appropriate for her husband to have sole custody — even temporarily — and that she and her children desperately want to be together.
“I didn’t want this to happen to anyone else,” she said.
As courts in both Massachusetts and Casey County try to adjudicate the dispute, the case is being held up nationally as an example of how custody laws haven’t caught up with the scientific advances that allow surrogacy.
Jack Bendschneider says his decisions in the case have been misrepresented by news media and on Internet Web sites, blogs and chat rooms.
“It’s a divorce action, not a surrogacy case. I’m a loving father, and I want to respect my family’s privacy,” he said.
Arletta Bendschneider has told her side of the story in several media interviews and in a Web site she created called www.wombofhope.com. She says her husband cooperated with the surrogacy until he “blindsided” her by filing for divorce and initiating a custody fight for their children.
Jack Bendschneider said his marriage was in trouble well over a year ago, months before the surrogacy situation arose.
He says his estranged wife thought surrogacy might improve their finances. But he said the topic first came up because the Bendschneiders’ neighbors were having trouble conceiving.
The neighbors conceived a child on their own, but Arletta persisted in looking for another couple, he said.
Arletta Bendschneider says money had nothing to do with her decision. She said she has accepted only $1,000 so far from Mitchard and her husband and doesn’t anticipate taking any more money, although they had agreed that she accept $5,000 in living expenses. Arletta Bendschneider says she feels she was “placed on earth” to help another couple have a child, and that it is her “life’s calling.”
Jack Bendschneider said that when he protested the surrogacy arrangement, his wife refused to speak to him. To keep peace in the family and improve the atmosphere at home for their children, he said he accompanied her to Ohio to meet Mitchard and to Wisconsin to have the embryo implanted.
Author’s family in limbo
But he said that once Arletta Bendschneider became pregnant with the surrogate child, she became less attentive to her own children — Max, 2, and Madison, 7.
And that, he claims, “was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“Her life revolved around the pregnancy,” Jack Bendschneider said. Specifically, he said, it was up to him to make sure the children were bathed, fed and generally cared for when they weren’t staying with his parents.
Arletta Bendschneider disputed that claim Friday.
“We shared responsibilities because we both had full-time jobs. But for him to suggest that I didn’t care for the children is just untrue,” she said.
She returned to Kentucky last week after giving birth to a baby boy named Atticus Stuart Brent. She turned the baby over to Mitchard and Mitchard’s husband, Christopher Brent.
Atticus, “a healthy little boy with blond hair and the puzzled dark blue eyes all newborns have,” is named after the character in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, says Mitchard, who has been writing about the situation on her Web site.
Arletta Bendschneider said she did not know that Mitchard was nationally known when she decided to become her surrogate. Mitchard’s book, The Deep End of the Ocean, was chosen as an Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club feature, and it was the basis of the 1999 film of the same title starring Michelle Pfeiffer. Mitchard also is the author of three children’s books and five other books, the most recent being The Breakdown Lane.
In a telephone interview Friday, Mitchard said her family is in limbo.
“Our baby doesn’t have a birth certificate. We are hung out to dry. Our wish is that our private lives return,” Mitchard said.
Melissa Brisman, a nationally known attorney who specializes in surrogacy and represents Mitchard, has said that Jack Bendschneider is making it difficult to resolve custody issues involving the surrogate baby.
Neither of the Bendschneiders has biological ties to the baby. The boy grew from an embryo frozen three years ago from an unnamed egg donor and the sperm of Mitchard’s husband, Christopher Brent, according to Massachusetts court documents. The baby is the couple’s seventh child. Mitchard has declined to say which children are biological and which are adopted.
Without Jack Bendschneider’s signature, a court in Barnstable, Mass., will have to determine that he is not the biological father, Brisman said. She said she didn’t know when the decision would be made.
In the meantime, there is an injunction preventing the hospital from registering the birth.
Arrangements for children
Jack Bendschneider’s attorney, Ted Lavit of Lebanon, said Brisman suggested to him that Jack Bendschneider might have to pay child support for the surrogate child if he continues to refuse to sign documents giving Mitchard and her husband legal custody. It’s a suggestion Lavit says he finds ludicrous.
Lavit says that it is easy enough to show that Mitchard and Brent are the legal parents without Jack Bendschneider’s participation.
For example, he said, a physician in Wisconsin where Mitchard was living when the embryo was implanted signed an affidavit on Aug. 3 saying the child “is and can only be the child of Christopher Brent and Jacquelyn Mitchard.”
In the coming weeks, Arletta Bendschneider will try to obtain joint custody of her children. Now, she can see them only every other weekend and for about eight hours during the week under a ruling that gives Jack Bendschneider temporary sole custody. Lavit says that while the children live with Jack, Jack’s parents also care for them several hours each day while he works. Jack Bendschneider is a crew leader at the RR Donnelley & Sons factory in Danville, where he has been employed for 11 years.
Casey Circuit Judge James Weddle had said Arletta Bendschneider couldn’t care for her own children while giving birth in another state, and he pledged to make a final decision about the two Bendschneider children once Arletta returned to Kentucky. Arletta said on Friday that the case might return to court before the end of the month.
The judge has ordered Arletta Bendschneider to leave the family home. Jack Bendschneider said that’s not as harsh a ruling as it seems. He said he knew his wife could live with relatives until she went to Massachusetts to give birth.
Arletta Bendschneider, who has served as president of the Liberty Elementary PTO in Casey County, said the rhetoric in the custody case has surprised her because the couple “have no skeletons in our closet.”
On Friday, Arletta Bendschneider was back in Central Kentucky, taking her 7-year-old to Girl Scouts and making preparations for the day when she has joint custody of her children.
Meanwhile, Jack Bendschneider said that with him, “My children will be taken care of. They are No. 1.”