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.


Monday, August 18, 2008

maude's ocean


She cries, and the sound stabs the night. It is time for a night feeding, and one or both of us rushes to soothe her. Sometimes she wakes up in pain, from gas in her still-developing digestive system, and her cry is angry, desperate. Sometimes she is hungry, and her cry is clear and hard. When she is uncomfortable from a diaper, she whimpers restlessly. When she is lonely and wants to be picked up, she wails in short little bursts.

I know some people are driven crazy by the constant cries of newborns, but right now, Maude's cries just fill me with pity and tenderness. Why, why, little one? Why so much sadness for just a meal, or a diaper? I toss her a little, up and down in the way she likes, to startle her out of her jag. I say her name over and over. It often works, and she stops crying and gazes long at me with her dark, expressive eyes. She doesn't want to have to cry, any more than we want to have to listen to it. It's a terrible job she's been given, and her mute look tells me there are no hard feelings, just limited means of communication.

Yesterday she grew angrier and more desperate, waiting for food that was a little long in coming, and when I kissed her eyes I tasted salt. "She cries real tears," I reported to GF, and she told me it was a kind of baby milestone. Crying real salt tears means you are growing up.

In the night I change her one-handed, holding a bottle in her mouth while trying to wipe her clean and fasten a new diaper. I wrap her and sing her songs--mill songs, mining songs, slave songs, Christmas carols. If she likes a song she grows still and listens with her whole being. Her face locks into one expression and her eyes grow dark and far away, yet rapt. Maude loves music, and strains even now to recognize songs she knows.

She has a "sleep sheep" that plays white noise for her--rain, a stream, the ocean. The sheep is a traveling model, one with velcro straps to fasten to a bassinette or a stroller on the go. When she has eaten and been changed, she is rocked and bundled, and we sing her songs, and eventually, carefully lower her to her bed, where we turn on the sleep sheep. The ocean crashes over her head and her feet in the little bed, the ebb and flow of the waves hissing back and forth in a round hollow echo in the darkness. I wonder if the ocean is for her, or for us, imaginary waves breaking on the shores of our rental bedroom, in a city far from the sea.

We are from the coasts, one of us from each side, meeting in the middle of the country. Sometimes I think of the nineteen-seventies country childhood I had, with fields of tall summer grass hot with the sun and tall sticky pines trees to play in, roll in, climb, smell, and dream by, and I could weep for Maude and her programmed urban future. Will she ever know a summer week in York Beach, Maine, running from the icy salt waves on the barren coastline that was my childhood ocean? Will we take her to swim in the hippie swimming hole that is a bend in the river in Sandwich, New Hampshire? Will she know what crickets sound like? And horses--what if she is horse crazy and I, unlike my parents, don't have an acre of field to fence in for a 4H horse for her to buy with her babysitting money?

The sleep sheep blows a dream of oceans into her ear, and I remember what it was to choke on Wordsworth when I tried to explain him to a class of Florida freshman ten long years ago. Then it was homesickness for New England that made my eyes tear up when I tried to explain what he meant by:
Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

Now I think it is also some sense of calm trust, some sense of knowing the way the world works, and feeling the interconnectedness of all things, that Wordsworth's speaker misses when he speaks longingly of the ocean. How far I feel from the ocean sometimes, here in the middle of the country, far from the coasts, far from home. Deep in the middle of life, it seems like a long way back to the beaches of childhood, to quiet contemplation and a peace beyond words, to the origin of things that is the ocean.

In the quiet night, though, my child cries and I hold her and comfort her, and it makes me feel oddly calm. She is simple right now, and her simplicity makes me simple too. All that matters is food, and sleep, and comfort, and trust in the arms that are there to hold you through the dark hours. The sleep sheep sings its salty ocean song, breathing the waves of my childhood, and maybe hers, in the early hours of morning. I like the sleep sheep, for all its artifice. It is a bird that sings of Byzantium. Maude is my immortal sea, and I am the waves of her ocean, patient, rocking her body until she trusts her eyes to close. It is still night, and Maude, the sheep, and I rock together to the sound of waves.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

she is born


At 6:30 a.m. on Friday I woke to GF chirping something unintelligible from the bathroom. The fans were going in our bedroom and all I could hear was something about "water." I got up and went in. She was sitting on the toilet smiling. "My water broke!" she said. I said something lame like "oh wow!"

My first thought was coffee, because I'm a selfish caffeine addict. Her first thought was to call the hospital. They wanted her in immediately.

This wasn't the way we'd planned it.

I don't know what exactly I thought would happen, but I left work on Thursday fully expecting to go back the next day. My desk was a sea of paper punctuated by half-empty diet coke bottles. I know due dates are approximate, but I think I really believed the old wives' tale that first babies are late. I think I thought we'd spend the weekend at the beach.

When the hospital told us to come in, my heart sank. I was excited, but I also knew that labor lasted for hours, and the standard advice in all the birth books is to wait as long as possible at home, relaxing, before heading to the micromanaged zone of Labor and Delivery. Still, when the bag of waters breaks, the risk of infection increases, so off we went. It was a sunny day, there were no contractions as yet, and we had time for showers and coffee and bagels.

We arrived at the hospital and the valet took our keys. It still felt like we were pretending. Did someone else have to park our car, really? GF wasn't in labor. She could walk just fine. There was no emergency. No police escort was needed.

By nine we were checked in and I began calling and texting the news. Some of our friends got so excited they called in sick to work and camped out at a nearby house, watching movies together and making plans. We thought we'd have a baby by nightfall.

As the morning passed, though, there were still no contractions, so the nurses started GF on pitocin to get things going. By early afternoon her contractions were strong enough that she asked for the epidural, and by late afternoon she was dilated four centimeters. The doctor came in to visit and see how things were going. She had switched shifts with the other ob-gyn when she heard GF was in labor. I love this doctor. When I first heard about her--that she could be brusque, that she was a good labor coach, that she kept her patients from tearing during delivery, that she was an older lesbian with a partner and kids--I just knew she would be our doctor. "That's her," I told GF. Now she teased us and laughed when I told her the hospital was like a casino because it was impossible to know what time it was or how long you'd been there once you were in one of these delivery rooms. She told us she'd see us soon. We agreed.

That's when things began to slow down.

As the anaesthesiologist explained the epidural process to her, GF peppered him with questions. Should she walk? Would her legs go numb? Could she lie down flat? And last, what if the medicine ran out before she had the baby?

The anaesthesiologist chuckled. "This lasts eight hours," he told her. "You'll have a baby before this runs out."

That was at three o'clock in the afternoon. At seven there had been little change, and I phoned the friends who had skipped work to tell them the baby might be later coming than we had supposed. At nine there was still no change, and the doctor upped the pitocin. At two in the morning, GF was finally dilated to eight centimeters.

Great! We thought. Only two more to go!

At this point the epidural had begun to wear off. GF was all for letting it end so she could feel the contractions and visualize her body opening up. The doctor reminded her that she still had two or three hours to go before she got to ten centimeters, and that when she got there she would have some hard pushing to do. We decided to get some sleep, GF started the epidural again, and we turned the lights off in the room.

At 5 a.m. the nurses woke us and the doctor told us to get ready to push. I woke up out of my chair, washed my face, and realized I hadn't eaten anything for twelve hours. The nurses brought me a turkey loaf sandwich on wheat bread. I remember GF putting a little mayo on the bread, squeezed from out of one of those little packets. She was naked from the waist down, propped up in the bed, fixing my sandwich. Even better, she started to push, and in between contractions, I ate my sandwich.

The contractions started coming fast. I could see them coming on the monitor by the bed, the numbers rising and falling with each peak and ebb. When the numbers began to go up, I would grab one of GF's legs with my right arm, put my left arm around her head, and she would pull into a crunch position and push as hard as she could to the count of ten. Then she would lean back, take a deep breath, and crunch again for another ten, and another. Each contraction had three sets of ten crunch-pushes. We did this for two and a half hours.

At 7:50 a.m. the doctor felt for the head and muttered something about it being too big. GF mentioned that our donor was 6 feet one, and I thought the doctor was going to explode. "Six one! Six one!" she spluttered. "A woman your size has no business with a six-one donor!" GF whispered that they didn't really let many short men donate sperm, which is true, and the doctor shook her head. "I want you to give one last big push," she ordered. "And I want this one to be the biggest, hardest, most productive one yet."

Now, GF is a strong little woman, and she wanted to please the doctor, and she had been pushing so hard and with so much effort her face was red and her legs shaking. But still she pushed with all her being, pushed so hard she groaned, pushed as if by pushing this one last time she could finally turn the tide and bring this baby down.

The doctor felt again. It was no good. the head was still too high. "The baby's head is getting a cone shape," she told us. "The back of the head is trying to get down the birth canal, but the major bones of the head still have to come through. I'm comfortable using forceps in situations like this, but I'm not comfortable doing it here." GF and I didn't even have to confer; we looked at each other without a word and she told the doctor a caesarian was fine with her. I felt my throat tighten and my eyes sting, not because I was committed to a vaginal birth, but because it seemed like so much to put GF through abdominal surgery after twenty four-hours of labor. Plus operations are scary. Plus I've seen too many ERs and Grey's Anatomys featuring dead delivering moms not to think anything could go terribly wrong at any moment no matter how routine the procedure.

I kissed her goodbye and they brought me blue paper scrubs to put on. When I got to the operating room I saw GF, strapped down in a crucified position with her head sticking out of a tall blue tent. Her teeth were chattering uncontrollably from the anaesthesia. She looked more tired than I've ever seen her look.

I took a seat by her head and waited. I heard the doctor discussing the incision with a resident, then I heard her call my name. "Stand up!" she said. "Come see your daughter be born!"

I ran around the tent just in time to see GF's stomach looking like a Thanksgiving turkey, and then a flailing baby with an impossibly thick white umbilical cord pulled out like stuffing and hoisted over the table, dark red and covered with what looked to be a thin layer of goat cheese. The nurses brought her to a table and started to dry her off. I touched her and called her name, and she stopped crying and cocked one dark eye at me. The other one wouldn't quite open, but the more they dried her the wider it got. Two dark black eyes looked me over from under a thick dark head of hair. She pursed her lips. "Hello Maudie," I whispered softly. "She's responding to your voice," the nurses told me. They gave me scissors to trim her tough little garden hose of an umbilical cord, then wrapped her up tight and handed her to me. I brought her over to GF to kiss.

GF gamely kissed the baby, and then went back to throwing up into a pink plastic container. Nurses and doctors offered their congratulations and I thanked them. Our doctor came towards me, her eyes merry over her surgical mask. "Well congratulations!" she said, reaching out her hand. I opened my arms to hug her. She bent towards me, and I gave her a big kiss on the cheek of gratitude and relief. She chuckled.

SInce then every day with Maude is new and strange. When she cries we've twirled her in the night, sung her songs, made up rap poems about who loves babies (Everyone loves babies), and looked deep and long into her dark, otherworldly eyes. Sometimes she looks back at me, and I see that she's come from a far place to be with us, and I fall in love. The three of us move in the house now through the long afternoons and cool evenings, all of us just looking at each other, over and over. And life feels perfect.