Amy Rice, left, and Rachel Dabney, right, holding Griffin, appear in Baltimore City Circuit Court to finalize Dabney’s adoption of Griffin and his twin, Henry. Next to Rice is the couple’s 3-year-old son, Sawyer. (Mary F. Calvert/For The Washington Post)

There had been little time to dwell on the uncertainty until now, as she entered the quiet courtroom.

For Rachel Dabney, the right to be legally called a mother would be decided in Docket No. 24-A-12-000043. Whether she would be deemed “fit and proper” to raise the children whose diapers she had been changing for more than a year now rested in the hands of a judge, an inch-thick case file and exhibits A through O.

Since Dabney and Amy Rice spent hours talking on their first date at Hamburger Mary’s in 2003, the two New Jersey transplants had moved from the District to the suburbs, bought a home, saved for fertility treatments and shared in the awe of childbirth. But when they left a delivery room in Montgomery County last year, after Rice had given birth to twin boys, they quickly fell into the legal bog of every lesbian couple with a child in Maryland. Because Rice was the one to give birth, she was, in the eyes of the state at least, the twins’ mother. Dabney was a legal stranger, her name not on the children’s birth certificates.

In the 14 months since the twins were born, the legal limbo had hung over their lives. Dabney had quit her job as a home decorator to care for the boys. She was the one who built the pirate-themed nursery and painted a mural of sea creatures.

But the simple task of taking them to a doctor’s appointment meant she had to go armed with a permission slip from Rice. Before too long, it could mean not being able to pick them up from school if they were sick, or even to sign them up to play T-ball. At worst, if Rice were to die, it could mean a monstrous legal battle to keep Dabney and the boys together.

Maryland referendum primer

“You think about it every day, not knowing what could happen, so you can’t wait for it to be over,” Dabney said near the end of a sprint on a recent Friday morning to get the boys changed, fed, through security and into the courtroom. “And yet, it’s been strange. I always felt like they were mine. It was odd to think I had to adopt what I perceived to be my children.”■

■As the clock struck 9 a.m., a silver-haired judge entered the room and called Dabney’s name. She rose, her eyes filled with tears.

If Maryland becomes the first state to legalize same-sex marriage by a popular vote next month, the victory would be built in part on a campaign message pushed by Gov. Martin O’Malley. Vote for gay marriage, he often says, “for the kids.”

“We cannot rightly conclude that the children of some parents should have lesser protections under the law than children of other parents,” O’Malley (D) recently told a group of deep-pocketed donors in the District, imploring them to open their checkbooks to fund an ad campaign defending the state’s same-sex marriage law. Petitioned to referendum by opponents, it appears as Question 6 on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Like the governor’s own long journey from opposition to support of same-sex marriage, his urging of voters to back the measure for the sake of suburban kids of gay parents is evolutions away from the gay-rights movement’s origins.

It’s also at the heart of the first wave of ads launched by opponents seeking to use Question 6 to upend the state’s same-sex marriage law.

“Marriage provides children the best chance of being raised by a mother and father,” a narrator says in an ad the Maryland Marriage Alliance began airing across the state on Tuesday. “Children do best when raised by their married mom and dad.”

If Maryland voters affirm the law, lawyers say raising children will become easier for same-sex couples who marry.

Both of the women in a lesbian marriage would become presumed parents if one gives birth to a child.

Same-sex couples would also have greater rights to act as legal guardians. And if gay couples break up, both may be able to retain legal rights to help raise a child. They would still need to adopt to ensure their parental rights when traveling to states where gay marriage isn’t recognized as legal.

But instead of dwelling on such details, proponents of Maryland’s same-sex marriage law have favored a campaign focusing on the broad themes of dignity, respect and equality. To that end, some have played down O’Malley’s focus on the rights of children.

While O’Malley’s message is important, said Marylanders for Marriage Equality spokesman Kevin Nix, “marriage is about much more than visitation rights and health benefits — it is about values.”

Still, it’s a reason cited by two Republican state lawmakers who voted for same-sex marriage in the spring, and O’Malley maintains that it is a persuasive argument.

“Children are the great convening place for people of good will when making these tough decisions,” he said.

Laying the legal groundwork

As with most births to gay couples in Maryland, Virginia and 32 other states where parental rights remain vague, Dabney, 45, and Rice, 41, had begun laying the legal groundwork for adoption even before the boys were embryos.

Rice, who manages a homeless shelter in the District, carefully documented their Shady Grove fertility clinic’s use of sperm from an anonymous donor so that no one could later claim fatherhood.

The two also made the decision to trek to Baltimore from their home in Cheverly to have their case heard in the state’s only jurisdiction that has declared itself friendly to gay adoptions.

Few have trusted courtrooms elsewhere in the state since a judge in Montgomery wrote in a 2000 opinion that he believed it was unclear under Maryland law whether he had the authority to approve an adoption to a same-sex couple.

The two even made a calculation that Rice should be the one to be impregnated in part because her family was more supportive of their relationship. Should tragedy strike, they believed that Rice’s mom would support Dabney’s quest for custody of the children.

Before Rice was due, the two also prepared documents giving Dabney medical power of attorney and temporary guardianship over the infants should anything happen to her during labor.

On the morning of July 18, 2011, Henry, who has turned out to be the rambunctious one, came out first, at 11:22 a.m. Griffin, the cuddler, three minutes later.

Dabney has cared for the boys daily since, but as she entered the Baltimore courthouse, she knew her countless hours with the twins would carry little weight.

She had been here before: The couple had completed the adoption of Rice’s firstborn, 3-year-old Sawyer, in a remarkably speedy three months.

But this time, the smallest error — a doctor’s misdated letter — had set the process back by months. Fixing the paper trail amid the chaos of raising three boys had pushed the legal marathon into a second year.

In April, they had submitted their tax returns (exhibits A and B). In May, updated their wills and advanced health-care directives (Exhibit F). After that, a letter explaining why Dabney quit her job and that they could still provide for the boys (Exhibit G). There were also character references from four friends, including a letter from the rector of their church attesting to Dabney as “an amazingly creative and caring person” (Exhibit J). Dabney, Rice and the twins had also recently spent a day schlepping to doctors’ offices for physicals, family histories and even blood tests for sexually transmitted diseases (exhibits L, M, N and O).

“It’s far more than any heterosexual couple has to go through,” said Rice, still mystified that as the birth mother she, too, had to undergo a physical.

“It’s irritating. I gave birth to them. She has cared for them every day since. What if one of us did have a major disease? If one of us had cancer?”

‘These are my favorite days’

In the courtroom last month, Dabney balanced Griffin on her hip. Henry wandered toward the judge’s bench. When their case was called, Rice moved forward slowly. Dabney and Sawyer kept pace, Henry teetered ahead.

The documents were in order. The legalese quickly gave way. They had spent more than a year preparing for this moment, which was over in less than a minute.

“These are my favorite days,” said the judge, an O’Malley appointee.

She gazed down from the bench at Dabney.

“The State of Maryland hereby finds you fit and proper.”

For Dabney and Rice, marriage remains somewhere on the horizon. They could get married elsewhere, but they wanted to wait until it’s legal in their home state.

Now, they are waiting for something else.

Each day, they check their mailbox, looking for the new birth certificates for Henry and Griffin that list both women as parents.