Thursday, January 14, 2010

Second-Parent Adoption

On Wednesday, I officially adopted Ira. Since we live in Massachusetts and are married, I have actually been a legal parent to Ira since his birth. We opted to go through a second-parent adoption process in order to provide me with legal protections outside of the state of Massachusetts. Because many states (as well as the federal government) do not recognize our marriage, they also may not recognize my legal claim to Ira in the absence of an adoption. This adoption protects me in case Lyn and I should ever break up. Without the adoption in hand, Lyn could choose to move to another state and fairly easily shut me out of Ira's life. Three years ago, Lyn similarly adopted Leigh. (Actually, as an interested aside, in reality we both adopted Ira on Wednesday -- that's how it works any time you do a step-parent or second-parent adoption. Of course that is really a legal fiction and we all know that I was the only parent whose status was really in question.)

Not all lesbian couples in Massachusetts do a second parent adoption. We know couples who have opted against it because of the substantial expense, deciding to rely on their status as a married couple for protection. We know of one couple who did the adoption but were very angry that they had to. Lyn and I haven't ever felt angry about jumping through the legal hoops (although I wouldn't mind it if the lawyer gave us back that fat stack of cash). So I wanted to say something about why we have chosen this route.

It comes down to something the judge said just before she signed our papers. "This adoption is a permanent decree. When this paper is signed and registered with the court it is permanent and irrevocable." Those words struck me very deeply, and I turned them over and over in my head for the rest of the day. At the end of the day I found that the word "irrevocable" had really impacted Lyn as well. It is the revocability of the relationship between a child and his non-biological mother that gets at the heart of the difficulty in establishing and maintaining a lesbian-headed family with two moms.

Without legal protections, a bio-mom can revoke the parenthood of a non-bio-mom any time she chooses. Non-biological mothers in most states don't have legal protections which leads to mothers losing their children and children losing their mothers. If I knew that Lyn could take Ira away from me it would change our whole relationship. It would change my relationship with Ira, setting up Lyn as the mediator of our relationship, even if neither of us intended that to be the case. That's what makes that word, irrevocable, mean so much. It normalizes my relationship with both Lyn and Ira. It means that my community cares enough about my family to invest each of our relationships with Ira with equal importance.

Too often, we don't take lesbian parenting relationships seriously enough. In most places lesbians are not allowed to marry; our relationships are not taken seriously by the larger community. In our hearts, too many of us believe that our relationships really are second rate and that the bio-mom is really is the "real" mom. I feel so blessed that the state has imbued my marriage with legal backing and my parenthood with serious and irrevocable status. It makes my marriage and my family stronger.


martha said...

Congratulations on your legal recognition - We were doing the same thing on Wednesday.

I also love the way you've written about the ways that it does change your relationship because that's all been in my head but I haven't been able to get it out into words as well as you have.

Bionic Baby Mama said...

Thank you for this post. I just had a somewhat frustrating conversation with a friend about all this -- they've done everything their state allows, as far as I know, but bio-mom seems fundamentally unworried in a way that upset me for reasons I had trouble expressing. Her attitude seemed to be roughly that they weren't going to do anything horrible to each other, so why fret, but the symbolism of that unconcern seems to me too rooted in the notion that the non-gestational parent's parenthood is an act of grace on the part of the gestational parent.

I do think the difference in attitude (between my friend and me) is inflected by the fact that I live in a state where I can be kind-of-legally married and she does not. I'm surprised but grateful to find that getting even the pseudo-recognition our state grants has lessened the "us against the world!" feeling of living with an entirely unrecognized relationship. I suppose it's paradoxical that such a change should lead to what could be seen as decisions to trust ourselves (versus laws) less...but maybe I should stop filling up this leeetle comment box and write my own blog post about it!

N said...

Congrats, and yes a million times. A beautifully written post on what it means to have these privileges.

nutella said...

Congrats on the irrevocability. But it makes me angry that it's even an issue. I feel lucky that we had the option to do it in our state and very glad that we took advantage of it right away. But it's infuriating all the same.

Lex said...

I, too, believe in the importance of doing a second-parent adoption, even for families (like ours as well) that live in MA where both parents names are on the birth certificate from the start.

We had our twins before marriage was legal and thus my wife's name was not originally on the twins' birth certificates since I had gestated and birthed the babies. We knew that adoption was important, but lacked funds (of any kind) with which to hire a lawyer, and were wary of doing the adoption ourselves (wrongly so, I might add, since we have now learned how simple the process is, having been through it). We figured that the adoption could wait until we were in a better place financially, feeling lucky to live in a place where no one--not teachers or doctors or hospital workers-- questioned my wife's status as our boys' mother.

While waiting for "financial stability," our marriage went through an extremely rocky period, coming to a crisis point when our twins were about 18 months old (while I'm sure that both my wife and I were at fault in our failure to attend to our marriage, I should note that it was my wife who questioned whether or not she wanted to stay in the marriage). It is somewhat horrifying for me to admit it now, but at the time I certainly thought, "well at least she has no legal rights to the kids." I was absolutely prepared to keep her from them. In that moment, I felt they were mine, and I was so glad that we had not yet done the adoption.

We worked hard on our marriage and within a year had gotten ourselves to a place of true healing and felt like we were better for having struggled so intensely. We went forward with trying for a third baby, and conceived again when our twins were newly three. It wasn't until we were about half-way through that pregnancy that we began the process of second-parent adoption. So our twins were close to four by the time it was completed. At that point, after all we had been through, I would have guessed that the event would feel insignificant. But I was totally wrong. It still felt pretty huge--especially for my wife. She didn't expect to feel differently post-adoption, but she did. It made me wonder if perhaps things would have gone differently with our marriage early on if she had adopted the babies right off the bat (in re: to her commitment to our family).

The benefit to having waited so long to go through with it is that both of our twins clearly remember the day of the adoption. Driving by the courthouse the other day, one of our six-year-olds said, "hey, that's where I was adopted!" (When they were younger, they used to say, "that's where we adopted Mama!"). Knowing more about adoption now than they used to, he followed this up with a question, "WHY was I adopted anyway? I mean, if you and Mama HAD me, why did you have to also adopt me?" It proved to be a great starting point to a conversation about lesbian families and the government and sperm donors . . . issues we've always talked to our kids about, but that they've only recently began to understand or act interested in.

As much as I believe in second-parent adoption, we have yet to do it for our three-year-old (I gestated) or our six-month-old (my wife gestated). Perhaps we do feel some extra protection in the fact that at least in MA, we are both recognized as legal parents. But it's more that we are just busy parents who haven't gotten around to it yet. This conversation has motivated me, though. I think I will stop by the Family Court and pick up the paperwork today (we are planning to do the adoptions sans lawyer this time around).

Thank you for bringing this up, and congratulations on having completed the process with Ira!

Anonymous said...

A) Mazel tov to all four of you! Your family is even more protected now, and I'm glad of it.

B) Thanks for writing about this, and for reminding all of us that even if we live in a priveleged area, we have a responsiblity to seek all of the rights and protections available to us. If people in progressive areas get complacent, that will set everyone back.

C) As we prepare for our second round of second-parent adoption, I'm saddened that folks are already starting to tell us "Oh, you don't need to do THAT anymore." Not parents, mind you, but people who incorrectly think that our state's domestic partnership law could somehow cover us in the case of interstate travel. No, it won't. (Please please please educate yourselves about the Langbehn case in Florida before you tell me that nobody will attempt to keep me from my "adopted" child during an emergency situation.)

Anonymous said...

I, too, appreciate this post. Where I live (UT), we aren't allowed to do adoptions of any kind and, as a result, I lost my 5yo daughter almost three years ago. And to add to it, because of my case, Utah now has a ruling that supports a biological parent to make this awful choice.
If you live where it's possible, it seems ungrateful not to take advantage of it.
Congratulations to you & your family. - gives me another reason to move to MA. :)

Lyn said...

piecesofgray -- I've followed your story (found you by way of An Accident of Hope when it was around) and it is so sad. Thank you so much for commenting here. I can't imagine how hard it must be to move on after such a loss. Congrats on your new (well, I guess not so new!) daughter. (and yes, MA is fabulous. Drop us a line if you are at all serious about a move and we'll give you the scoop or show you around. really.)

Ashley said...

I've followed your awesome blog on and off since last winter when my wife and I welcomed our son and scoured the Internet to find stories from families like ours. We especially appreciated your posts about nursing with all of the related feelings and dilemmas involved.

This post surprised me, though, and I thought I'd leave a comment. First, congratulations on the second-parent adoption! We also live in MA, are married, and completed a second-parent adoption (SPA) last summer. Of course we want all the peace of mind we can legally secure for our family.

But I was surprised by the rationale you used-- I don't think taking/losing a child even crossed our minds when we pursued the SPA. We were not concerned that either of us would invalidated the other as our son's mother; we were/are concerned that many states (those that passively or actively don't recognize equal marriage) and the Federal government invalidate us. If we end up in an ER in an unfriendly state, we want to secure our rights to access each other and our child. A SPA is the only way to make certain of that. I have a feeling those slights (to use a very mild word!) occur far more often than the horrific stories of taking/losing children.

Heck, tonight we went shopping at our local Trader Joe's and were asked by both the clerk and the manager if we were "all one order." Um, yes, two moms, a baby, and one shopping cart is "one order." I can't even buy groceries with my family without being invalidated. And the stakes are pretty low when it's just buying groceries. Infuriating and all too common for our families.

But whatever the reason for securing the protection, I am grateful that we have the right to do so. Congratulations again!


GIsen said...

"We were not concerned that either of us would invalidated the other as our son's mother"

@Ashley...i'm sure none of the lesbian couples battling it out in court thought the other would try to terminate the others parental rights either,but they have and are doing just that.

Heather T said...

This was a wonderful read in the vein of validating both members of queer couples as equal in parenting. I have a question which may be naive. You say in this post and in the past that even though MA recognizes your marriage, you and Lyn have gone through the process of second adoption twice now to ensure that no matter what, you both are legal parents to your two children. But isn't it possible that another state might reject this court action as easily by saying that a child can't have two mothers? I hope not, but it seems like if they have the right to say two women (or two men) can't get married that they could state that a child could have no more than one mother (or father). I'm just wondering about this; if you know anything about it, I would like to hear.

(maybe this is answered by piecesofgray's experience in Utah?)

Lyn said...

HeatherT -- Our understanding of the law (based on what we know from our lawyer, other couples, and asking the internet, so please, speak up if you have more authority than that) is that second parent adoption (at least here in MA) uses exactly the same law that applies for straight families for things like step-parent adoptions. This body of law is well respected across state lines, and according to our lawyer, we are good in all 50 US states (there used to be some doubt about Oklahoma). Internationally there is a bit more question but I don't know details there. If, however, our adoption were based on a separate body of law for same-sex couples only, we'd be on much shakier ground.

Ashley -- Thanks for reading and thanks for the well-thought comment. I love it when people finally speak up around here! While protections like the ones you describe were part of our motivation (and are also part of the reason we always travel with our legal papers), I really think there's just no way around the fact that for families like ours, the primary reason for an adoption is to protect a child and non-bio-mom in case of family dissolution, either due to divorce or death. It's not nice to think about, and dear g-d I hope we never end up there. Gail talked about this a bit in her post, and I think it's true that this matters even on a day-to-day basis, even in a healthy marriage. Discrepancies in power dynamics that emerge without equal parental rights can and do undermine the foundation of any marriage (Lex alludes to this).

Lex -- Your story is really powerful. I doubt your reaction to marital strife was at all unique, but isn't it horrifying to think that Lena could have been separated from your boys, and by your own hand? Thank goodness you worked through it.

Thanks all for the smart comments. You guys are awesome.

meridith said...

"permanent and irrevocable". An absolutely lovely state. Congratulations.

amy said...

i couldn't agree with you more. and though my partner and i both counter adopted our children (obviously the one we didn't give birth to), and felt like a real mom to said child before the legal status was secured, there was definitely something about the "irrevocability" that solidified our family's safety status, no doubt about it.