Saturday, August 30, 2008
Maude has two
We are incredibly lucky to live in a state that allows second-parent adoption. This means that I can adopt Maude and become a legal parent, and have my name appear on her birth certificate, just as her biological mother is also a legal parent, with her name on the birth certificate.
When GF and I visited the lawyer before Maude was born, she told us that our state, and especially our city, seemed to be moving towards near-total acceptance of LGBT families. With the caution of one who has seen the political winds change many times, our lawyer stressed that this progress was not something we could absolutely count on forever, and that it was possible for states to roll back such adoptions and leave the status of non-bio parents up for grabs. But she told us how a conservative judge she routinely works with decided on his own that it was unfair to require a social worker to visit the homes of LGBT parents when no such visit was required of heterosexual parents. Her eyes twinkling, she said she never would have imagined that this particular judge would make such a decision, but that she had learned in her many years of practice to be surprised by human fairness.
She also told us that what we were doing was important. While we might think of our adoption as merely a personal or family decision, it was in her mind a political act to insist on the parenting rights of non-bio LGBT partners, and she applauded us for choosing to be out, proud, and legal. Finally, as a last act of personal and professional generosity, she waived half her fee when she found out I was a law student. And told me not to tell anyone she had done so.
Before Maude was born I liked to address her by name whenever possible, throwing my voice at wherever my vague sense of location imagined her to be. A thump that moved GF's belly or made it jump might be a leg, or a fist, if only I could figure out her position. I remember rubbing a hard, solid little rectangle that would float up against the roof of skin still sheltering her, somewhere above GF's bellybutton, and I thought it had to be her butt. Now that I hold her in the crook of my elbow with one hand against that hard little triangle, I know I was right. "Hey little Maude," I would croon to her. "Hey Maudie Maude." In my mind she was already, always, inevitably my daughter because I had called her, planned for her, bought sperm, strategized with GF which donors to choose and why, and called her by name, for all the long months leading up to her birth. Even now I look at her and I see my grandmother's smile, and the shadow of my own baby smile, and my sister's dark hair, and my mother's fierce eyes, and it is hard to remember that she is not actually biologically related to me. But she is mine.
She is mine when I feed her in the blue lavalamp glow of 3 a.m., and she looks at me with those bottomless eyes. She is mine when she hunches against me, trying to burp, or sleep, and rests her awkward big head wearily on my shoulder, my chest. She is mine when she snuggles against me in the morning, as one or the other of us brings her into the bed in hopes that all of us can catch just a half hour or an hour more of sleep, and little baby sighs mark her deep breathing. She is mine when she snores, and when she suffers, as all babies suffer. She is mine every time I sing her a song and her eyes close, and her head sags, and she lets me carry her past the stony gates of sleep to the rest she longs for.
Under the law, unless you live in one of those enlightened states that recognize de facto parenting (and there aren't many), a lesbian non-bio mom has no custody or visitation rights. I would have no right to guard Maude, or speak for her, or advocate as her parent, without a second-parent adoption. Now that I have one, I can access her medical records, enroll her in school, take her to the doctor, travel across state lines, and do whatever else it is that parents routinely do for the biological and adopted children they love.
All summer I read custody cases where biological mothers tried to deny visitation to lesbian ex-partners, and I answered calls from anguished parents trying desperately to see the children that they had raised from infancy, who had been taken away from them by biological moms trying to move on after a break-up. Most of these lesbian moms were heartbroken, and more worried about the children than about themselves. Most of them didn't have a leg to stand on, either.
A ballot initiative prohibiting unmarried couples living together from adoption and foster care just cleared in Arkansas. Senator McCain has stated that he doesn't believe in gay adoption, and Utah bans adoptions by unmarried cohabiting adults. These initiative just keep getting introduced every year, despite the fact that every state needs more adoptive and foster families to take in children, not fewer.
On Maude's adoption day she wore a pink sweater hand-knitted for her by an old-timey lesbian activist colleague of GF's. The sweater came with a matching pink wool blanket. She also wore a beautiful little white dress and socks made to look like little black mary jane shoes. We went into the Daley Center and waited in the family room with GF's sister and a few friends who had taken off work. One of the friends had made her the gift of a college fund. Another had turned over the invoice to me for a freelancing project she actually had done herself, and had thus paid for the entire adoption.
At one point an official leaned over the counter and tapped the sleeping baby with official papers, thus serving process telling Maude that she was required to appear in court. She never even woke up.
GF and I stood before the judge and he asked us our names and occupations. He asked our friends if we would be good parents. He admired the baby. I was nervous because I had just signed a paper stipulating that we were of good moral character, and financially able to raise a child. GF and I had looked at each other, mouthing the words "lie" and "lie" as we waited for the judge. The court seemed to treat these words as mere formalities, but I wondered at their presence in the documents. What would happen if they were ever activated? What in the world was good moral character? Does anyone have enough money to raise children these days, really?
It was a lot like being married by a JP, or at least what I imagine it would be like to be married by a JP. It was jocular but bureaucratic, stately but mundane, a little like a wedding and a lot like getting a driver's license. Sometimes it was bizarre, as when the incredibly crusty bailiff took my fingerprints and warned me, with a straight face drained of all amusement, that now that I was in the system, I had better wear gloves if I wanted to take up a life of crime. He also lost all cognition trying to take down my vital stats. "Hair . . .color?" He asked, clearly flailing in deep waters far beyond his meager social abilities. "Brown?" I queried back, unable to say for sure. Brown under all that blonde, perhaps. Or perhaps the truth of my hair was simply what it appeared to be, or what I said it was. I should have said blonde.
There are many ways that the law can make LGBT people feel like liars, like imposters. It tells you that you cannot marry in the eyes of the federal government, even though you may feel married and act married and need the benefits of marriage for your lover and your children. In many states--Michigan is one--it can tell you your children are not yours if you are a non-bio LGBT parent. In many states it will not recognize that you have changed your gender to fit the truth of your life.
When the law recognizes you, on the other hand, it can make you feel coherent and validated. The other day it told me I was a parent, with responsibilities and rights over the daughter I had helped plan, conceive, and care for. Our lawyer said as much when she took pains to emphasize the language to me of the temporary custody order granting me parental rights until the final adoption went through. In Daley Plaza there is a Picasso sculpture that soars heavenwards, a kind of beast with its legs on the pavement, wearing its strange mask, with mandolin wings and a harp for a heart, towering over pedestrians in the crisp morning. I stood in its shadow and I felt my spirits rise. I think I will always remember how tall I felt that day after our adoption, standing in the sun, still unbelieving, next to my stroller, my partner, and my little, my most beloved and cherished new daughter.