In Facebook groups and other forums where queer parents gather, the question of whether a second-parent adoption is still necessary, in the age of marriage equality, has been hotly debated, and even this week’s decision is unlikely to put it to rest. The more cautious among us insist on completing this lengthy, costly procedure, which often requires a visit from a social worker to deem a home suitable for children. Others felt secure enough in the court’s original ruling and balked at the cost and invasive nature of the adoption procedure.
The lawyer who helped us complete a second-parent adoption for my son, now almost 8, told us that after the same-sex marriage decision, her firm was still advising couples to pursue adoption. A certificate of adoption is ironclad, the reasoning goes, and impermeable to shifting political winds, state lines and the retirement of justices. A marriage can be undone by divorce or, possibly, by legislation, but an adoption is essentially forever. Terminating a legal parent’s rights is much more difficult than running down to the courthouse and getting hitched.
In 2009, just before the birth of our first child, my partner Sarah and I got married in Connecticut. Although we couldn’t legally get married in our home state, we could be married. New York was recognizing as legal any marriages conducted out-of-state, and we had heard that non-birthing spouses were being listed as parents on birth certificates. When filing our paperwork at the hospital, though, we were told by a nurse, “We don’t do that here.” Disappointed but undeterred, when Max’s first birth certificate arrived, we took it and baby Max down to the courthouse to petition that Sarah’s name be added. We filed more paperwork and, a few weeks later, received Max’s real birth certificate. The word father is crossed out and replaced with the word parent, and there is Sarah’s name in its rightful place.
In 2014, when our daughter was born, we easily filed the paperwork at the hospital and soon received a clean birth certificate that listed us both as parents — which, in my daughter’s case, you could argue is a biological truth, because Sarah is the genetic parent and I am the gestational parent (I carried a baby made using Sarah’s egg.)
But what this week’s decision affirms is, I believe, bigger than my individual rights as a lesbian mom. It’s the acknowledgment of a truth that those of us in so-called nontraditional families have long known: that producing a child is so much more than science. A child is not only the code inscribed in her DNA; she is also the story that her parents tell her of her origins. Bringing a child into the world makes parents the authors of a creation story that may or may not require a touch of the fantastical, but is decidedly true.
I am not arguing that information, biological or otherwise, should ever be kept from children or parents. What I am saying is that our lived reality — the one laws are supposed to protect — is not always the same as biological fact. Sarah is 100 percent Max’s mother. They share a last name and a long list of personality traits. As Max is fond of reminding me, “Me and Mom have a hard time being patient!” Olive is my daughter not because I carried or breast-fed her, but because I was one of the people who set into motion the events that brought her into our family.
Our babies are the fruit of our words as well as our wombs. I think of an adopted child whose mother tells her that while she did not grow in Mommy’s tummy, she grew in Mommy’s heart. Or of the children of trans parents who know exactly who their real father is, regardless of the name listed as mother on their birth certificate.
Our children are ours because they are the story that we tell. And whether that story involves a donor, an adoption or a married man claiming a child as his own, it is the law’s job, as the court affirmed this week, not to test parental DNA, but to protect the families we have worked so hard to build.
Marie Holmes is a mother and freelance writer. She lives in New York with her partner and two children.
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