By Diane Silver
For any mother, the day her child turns 18 is a milestone, but for a lesbian mom that particular birthday can be overwhelming.
The day my son turned 18 was routine, as birthdays go. I went to work. I made jokes about how I couldn’t possibly be old enough for him to be 18. A high school senior, Tony played trumpet in the marching band, and his friends surprised him that night with an impromptu concert on our front lawn. They stayed for cake and ice cream and then jammed in my living room.
It was a good day, but it was also odd. As much as I enjoyed it, I felt strange. It wasn’t that I felt bad; I felt relieved, but I couldn’t figure out why. Tony had always been healthy. He got good grades. He was a normal, rowdy teen. I couldn’t figure out why I was so incredibly relieved that he had turned 18.
Nothing made sense until I had a “eureka” moment in the shower the next morning. Tony had reached the age of adulthood. No one had the legal right to rip him away from his family anymore.
Tony is the biological child of my late life partner, who died of breast cancer more than a decade ago. As co-parent – particularly as co-parent in the very red state of Kansas – I was a legal nonentity.
I was there when he was born. I held out my hands for his first step. I heard his first words. I sat up all night with him when he had his first cold. I went to every single parent-teacher conference. I paid for his doctor checkups and school fees, and I kept him in shoes. I held him when his birth mother died when he was just 7. I love him more than I ever knew you could love any soul. Despite all that, without the intervention of a court, I wouldn’t have had the legal right to be in the same room with him, let alone to be his parent.
We were lucky, though.
I was able to legally adopt him, largely because my partner’s family supported me. I might not have succeeded if they hadn’t.
I didn’t know how close Tony came to being torn away until my late partner’s brother told me he considered taking my son after his sister died. He consulted a psychologist friend. That psychologist – bless him – told the man I still consider to be my brother-in-law that taking me away from Tony would mean that he would lose both parents and not just one, with the death of his birth mother.
Even though this good man had seen me with Tony for years and knew how close we were, it never occurred to him to think of me as Tony’s parent. To his credit, my brother-in-law saw the truth in his friend’s statement and supported the adoption.
Think about how close that was. What if my partner’s brother couldn’t see the wisdom of his friend’s words? What if he had talked to a different friend?
My son and I are blessed. Despite one tragedy, our family avoided another. We stayed together when so many other families have been forced apart. In the 1990s, 12-year-old Cassie was taken from her mother, Mary Ward, in Florida and given to her father – a convicted murderer. In 2006 and 2007, the children of Keri Jones of Utah and B.F. in Kentucky lost the right to even visit their co-parents. Today, Kathryn Kutil and Cheryl Hess of West Virginia are fighting to keep custody of the baby they fostered when no one else wanted a child born to a drug addict.
Despite our family’s good fortune, it wasn’t until my son became a legal adult that I realized how frightened I had been. I never knew whether the people who believe I’m an abomination would find a way to legally remove my son from the only family he had ever known.
This is just a taste of what it is like to be a lesbian or gay parent in the United States today. With the 2008 passage of the adoption ban in Arkansas and the Religious right’s continuing agitation for other bans, our families face repeated attacks.
If an adoption ban had been in effect when my partner died, it would have been impossible for me to adopt Tony. What a tragedy that would have been.