My stomach began to flutter as we pulled into the parking lot.
“Why am I nervous?”
My wife looked at me and gave a knowing smile. “Because you’ve never been the subject of a court proceeding before.”
We were early, so my wife gave Baby a quick nursing session before we went inside. It was my turn to nurse her, but I was worried that I would run into a client and create an awkward situation. As a lawyer in a small town sitting in a courthouse parking lot, the odds of that were great.
“There she is!” The security guard’s booming voice greeted us warmly as we entered the building. “And you brought the little one!”
Ever since Baby arrived, court staff always gave me grief any time I showed up without her. “I can’t bring her to my hearings,” I would tell them, to which they would respond, “Excuses, excuses.” Everyone loved Baby.
“Why are you three here today?” They asked my wife and me.
“I’m here to adopt my own daughter,” I replied.
We had been preparing for this day for months. As a lawyer, I understood the importance of protecting my legal rights to my daughter, and her legal rights to me. I knew that my name on her birth certificate was not enough. I had read horror stories of families ripped apart and of the less traumatic but no less frustrating denial of dependent health insurance coverage. As a mother, I was frustrated that we had to jump through these hoops that heterosexual couples did not. My wife and I had planned for Baby, we worked together to choose a donor, to draft a contract and have it reviewed by another attorney, to conduct at-home inseminations, to carry a fetus for nine months, and to birth this tiny miracle. Baby was born into my arms, my name appeared on her birth certificate. I nurse Baby with my own body. I have her face memorized. Her smile brightens my day. She is my world. And yet, there I was – pleading with a judge to legitimize my role as her mother.
Vermont law demands a lot of same-sex couples who wish to solidify their families through second parent adoptions. Tasks include:
- Filing an extensive petition to adopt which includes but is not limited to financial statements, disclosures about extended family, a description of the length of time the petitioner has resided with the child and “how the petitioner obtained physical custody of the child including the date when placement happened and the petitioner’s relationship to the person or agency that placed the child with them” which, for many petitioners, is all of the child’s life;
- Filing a copy of the child’s birth certificate;
- Preparing and filing a notarized relinquishment by the sperm donor and waiver of counsel;
- Preparing and filing a notarized consent by the child’s biological parent;
- Filing copies of marriage and/or divorce certificates;
- Conducting a preplacement evaluation (home study) by a court-appointed qualified evaluator who may charge the petitioner a reasonable fee and preparing an extensive report containing detailed information;
- Background information about the social and health history of the child, history of any physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, school records, a social and health history of the child’s parents and extended family including but not limited to genetic history, hereditary conditions, racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, educational or vocational achievements, and learning disabilities; and
- A criminal record check of the petitioner, including an FBI national criminal history record check accompanied by a set of the petitioner’s fingerprints and a fee.
Thankfully, our local judge allows couples to forego the most invasive part of the process, the home study, so long as the couple provides the judge with ample recommendation letters. However, even that process is degrading and cumbersome.
We shuffled into a small side room near Courtroom 1. I tried not to draw attention, but colleagues who spotted us in the hall ran over to express their congratulations as well as their outrage. As one friend put it, “I’m glad we live in a time where this is possible, but I am sorry we live in a time where this is necessary.”
The judge didn’t seem to think it was necessary. He acted annoyed that we had taken up his time with, as he sees it, a superfluous procedure. We sat awkwardly as he carried on a one-sided conversation about how he’s seen an influx of second parent adoption petitions since Trump was elected president. No kidding, I thought.
“I only had one issue with your application,” the judge stated. “You sent me thirty recommendation letters from all over the world. I would have liked to see some more local people attest to your fitness to be a parent.”
I was appalled. Does he know how humiliating this procedure is? Does he have any idea what it’s like to have to ask someone’s permission to be a mother? Does he know how unfair it feels to have to adopt your own very planned-for baby when hetero couples get to be automatic parents after a one night stand? Clearly, he does not. I took a deep breath and forced out an apologetic smile.
The judge pushed over a few papers for us to sign. He signed his part, and then said he had to run.
Well that was anticlimactic, I thought as we walked back out into the hallway. Anticlimactic at best, uncomfortable and maddening at worst.
“Hey,” my wife said, trying to be encouraging. “This is your day. Let’s make it special.”
“Yeah,” I said. I smiled back at her. “Let’s go take some pictures.” We went back in the small room where our family was finalized and we celebrated. We celebrated legal recognition and legal protection. We celebrated Baby and we celebrated each other.
As we left, I realized that the judge forgot a crucial form, and sent my wife back in to sign it with the clerk. Ugh. I should run for Probate Judge, I thought. I would at least have the sense to fulfill the statutory requirements and to honor the families going through these types of proceedings.
Maybe someday, but not that day. That day, we left the courthouse and decided to explore. We went to Providence and ate a delicious vegan meal at a restaurant called The Grange. We put Baby in her stroller for the first time and checked out Brown University. Maybe you’ll go here someday, we dreamed.
Night descended and we returned to our car for the long drive home. I looked in the rearview mirror to catch Baby’s reflection as she slept soundly in her car seat.
It’s you and me kid, and today it’s official.