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The Day That Hallmark Forgot

child holding adult hand

While his classmates cut symmetrical hearts from folded pink paper, one little boy sat sadly at the back of the room -- so I pictured him -- with no one to give his heart to. That is, he had no mother, and this was a Mother's Day project.

He had a birth mother, of course, but he didn't know much about her. What he did know fully was his actual family: the two fathers who had adopted him nearly at birth. They were sensitive men, highly alert to slights that might compromise their son's (or perhaps their own) feelings of normalcy. That such feelings were already compromised by reality -- they were, after all, the only such family in that school, and one of very few, even now, in the country -- is a paradox but not a contradiction. They wanted their unusual family to be normal in their son's eyes, as any parents would. And so, seeing, or imagining, his alienation from the community of happy children in the matricentric classroom, they complained to the teacher. And pled with the principal. And wrote letters to the editor and articles for educational journals. Which is how they became, according to some New York tabloids, the Grinches who stole Mother's Day.

"Happy Mother's Day, Dad"

I know these guys: I introduced them, many years ago. They are not particularly radical. Their crusade against the pink-heart brigade might have sputtered out quickly had the responses they received along the way not proved (to them, at least) that their concerns were well founded. They were asked: Was there not some female in the family the boy could make his card for instead? (There was, but that was not the point.) They were asked: Why should the school remove from the curriculum something so traditional and innocuous? To the fathers it was neither: not innocuous by definition, because it "harmed" their son; not traditional because even though the official observance dated back to 1914 it had long since been co-opted as a crass marketing campaign for florists and Hallmark. My friends countered: What was Mother's Day doing in the curriculum anyway? It had no educational relevance. And surely there were other kids, kids whose mothers had died or jumped ship or divorced and moved away, who were similarly estranged by the compulsory momolatry.

The trouble was that none of those other kids, or their families, ever complained. Nor did I, though I am also a gay father, when the subject came up at my boys' schools. While I was sympathetic to my friends' feeling of injury, I simply didn't feel injured; I think it's healthy for kids to experience and accommodate, in a safe way, the truth of their difference from the mainstream. In fact, I've been delighted when my boys over the years have brought home their handmade cards, given them to me or to my partner with their spent lunch bags and said "Happy Mother's Day, Dad." Or even "Happy Mother's Day, Mom."

The rituals and holidays and gift-giving orgies by which we signpost (and thus try to direct) our reality take on new and often awkward meanings when applied to the newfangled families many of us are forming. I have been invited to parties celebrating not just birthdays but adoption days. Parents of children born -- even if not raised -- in other cultures sometimes observe or adapt the festivities attached to those cultures: Chinese New Year, Kwanzaa, or for that matter Mothers' Day (plural). Lacking the bright line of legal marriage, gay couples are especially open (or vulnerable) to these gerrymandered celebrations, forced to mark innumerable vague anniversaries instead of one vivid milestone. My partner and I don't even know how to compute the length of our relationship. Do we count from the day that Andy and I met? That was in April, 1995. From our first date, that June? From the first time we slept together -- which was not the same evening, mind you? Or should we institutionalize the date from which, having agreed to be faithful, we counted out the waiting period for any preexisting infection to show up on an HIV test? That was July 1, like a fiscal year -- and about as romantic.

Because our two boys are now 8 and 10, it makes very little difference which of those anniversaries we choose; none will be observed more than cursorily. We're too tired and busy. Instead we focus on the boys' birthdays, not just because everyone does, but because their birthdays are the one thing they have always owned, and gave to us. We are religious about honoring those days with proper presents, as we are about no other commemoration. By "proper present," I keep telling Andy, who once gave me a remaindered novel in a grocery bag for my birthday, I mean a thing in a box. Not an "I love you," nice as that is, or a promise of a gift that will come sometime later, but a tangible item wrapped, knotted with ribbon, and delivered on the actual day one was born.

Lack of Tradition

We give the boys what we aren't quite comfortable giving ourselves. How do you wholeheartedly celebrate the traditional milestones of family life when tradition utterly rejects you? It is probably willful that I can't even remember what day our status as domestic partners was made official at the Municipal Building in downtown Manhattan, though I know it was in the fall of 2001 because there were armed guards everywhere, and the pop of our champagne cork in the marble halls nearly caused an incident. Perhaps the event's lack of emotional resonance (though it was emotional at the time) is the result of our calculating rather than celebratory motivation in seeking recognition, however second-class, for our relationship: health insurance. (As the domestic partner of a municipal employee -- Andy is a high-school guidance counselor in Brooklyn -- I am eligible to share his city-provided benefits.) Had we arrived with more romantic notions, they would have been shot down in any case. The line for registering as domestic partners was also the line for registering as lobbyists. ("I'd like to fake-marry my boyfriend here, and, while I'm at it, urge the city to consider the myriad benefits of natural gas, the clean fuel!") Later, the suitable-for-framing certificates, printed on a computer along with our receipt, were slid through a crack by a bored clerk who had helpfully taped a warning on his grubby, bulletproof window: "Don't ask for a pen I don't have one." We signed with our own.

I had once been given a pen without asking. When I was a teenager, the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution sponsored a citizenship prize, awarded to the highest scorers on a history test they administered. On Philadelphia's tony Main Line in the early 1970s, the D.A.R. was still a going concern, even though the high WASP barons who built their famous estates there had long since given way to middle-class ethnics in modest ranch houses. Several of the interbred and overindulged descendants of the old guard remained, sitting stuporously in the back of my classes in junior high school. But they could not have passed a blood-alcohol test, let alone one that required some knowledge of the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause. So it was no surprise to me, though it must have been to the D.A.R., that the winners from my school turned out to be two Jewish boys and a black girl. That the award luncheon was held at the Merion Cricket Club -- a vast red-brick pile infamous for its policy restricting the admission of Jews and blacks -- was an irony not lost on our kindly hosts, one of whom, remembering at the last moment that the entree was pork, whispered to me in a fluster, "Do you mind being Jewish?" I think she meant to put a comma in there somewhere.

I didn't mind. In fact I was unreasonably delighted by the whole experience of infiltrating an exclusive club, especially when I was handed a prize for doing so. The rectangular white box tied with a blue ribbon turned out to contain a nice silver pen, which I proceeded to use, as much as possible, to write things that would surely have made the delicate ladies of the D.A.R. faint.

Many years later, at the Municipal Building, signing our domestic partnership forms felt like another infiltration of mainstream life, albeit a compromised one. Gay people are accustomed to that compromise: accepting the imprimatur of normalcy when it is helpful and available, while making the rest up on our own. For me, it has always been a badge of honor that I needed no borrowed ceremony to prioritize and solemnize my human engagements; I can choose whom to love, and understand the responsibilities that choice entails, without governmental or religious approval.

Recognitions

But badges of honor are often really badges of injury, purple hearts for the disaffected. I remember the bruise of Bowers v. Hardwick, the notorious 1986 Supreme Court decision upholding state laws that criminalize private, consensual gay sex. A majority of the justices found the argument that such conduct falls within the nation's tradition of liberty to be "at best, facetious." Facetious? So be it. If the law could disregard me as a joke, I could return the favor. What was the law anyway but another exclusive club, the kind I declined to join because it declined to have me as a member?

So I stopped looking to the law to give me the recognition it gave other people, and began to disdain the celebrations concocted in honor of such recognitions, which now seemed merely snobby and frivolous. This freed up my social calendar, for the days we observe as a matter of tradition are with only one exception artificial inventions, not byproducts of biology. Anniversaries are made possible by the civic fact of marriage. Bar Mitzvahs, brises, christenings, and Sweet Sixteens sanctify entirely random moments in a child's life. Graduation, Mother's Day, Father's Day, Fourth of July: all are mere commercial or calendrical oddities, and I began to resent them. The only modern celebration that life itself insists upon is the day a child is born.

And that was the day, once I had children -- or rather once they had me -- that finally began to matter.

Fatherhood, for all that it welcomes even the least qualified heterosexual, is for a gay man the most exclusive club of all. To have a child by any method, but especially by adoption -- where, in effect, you steal the fruit of heterosexuality -- is an extreme act of infiltration. And yet the responsibility for young lives is so neutering and normalizing that you soon identify more with what you've infiltrated than what you've left. Seen by most people as a parent rather than as a homosexual, you almost forget that beyond the near circles of family, friends, and (if you're lucky, as we are) neighborhood, most schools, states, and social rituals still prefer to exclude you. All due respect to the Grinches, but Mother's Day is the least of it.

When I met Andy, he had already adopted one boy, whom he named Erez; before the first of our various potential anniversaries passed, he adopted another, whom we named Lucas. Each was just a few weeks old when he came home from an agency in the Southwest whose clientele of birth mothers was predominantly Hispanic. Because the agency operates in a state that is vigorously conservative (its sodomy laws remained in force until Bowers was overturned in 2003), Andy would have been the sole legal parent in each adoption regardless of my arrival on the scene. But by the time I had to teach my younger boy what name to call me, it was clear that I was becoming a father whether the law acknowledged it or not.

And the boys, no less and no more so than biological offspring, were becoming like their fathers. Not physically, thank God; one aspect of our inheritance we're happy not to pass along is pasty skin and skinny legs. If you know the boys' genetic background and look closely, you can see that they look rather different from us and each other: Lucas with his tawny skin and jet black hair, Erez with his linebacker build. Otherwise you will see them as they really are: each other's brother, our sons, New York Jews. We needed no document to show we were a family; we felt like one. And yet each time a milestone was marked -- each time I had to explain myself at a birthday venue, or adapt a preprinted form to reflect our reality -- I felt illegitimate. (How many times can you cross out the word "mother" and write "father"?) It wasn't the way I was being treated by the people around me that made me feel this way; most people are kind. It was my own sense that the secret infiltration of an exclusive club -- passing, in effect -- was an act of bad faith, no matter how lovely the gift you emerged with. Anyway, I had the gift; now the club had to be changed.

Cutting Through the Red Tape

The process has not been speedy, though it was a Judge Turbow who eventually saw us in a Brooklyn court on a fine spring morning in 2003 for the "finalization" of my stepparent adoption of Erez and Lucas. We had begun the process almost two years earlier and sometimes it seemed as if the applications had gone permanently AWOL in the backlogged court system. But there we all were in our ties and jackets, waiting what seemed like one last interminable hour-and-a-half in the dingy courthouse hallway, as other families got called in and then emerged, wet around the eyes. While Andy chatted them up and I stewed in my own nervousness, Erez studied his Yu-Gi-Oh! cards and Lucas drew characters from Captain Underpants, as if to prove how utterly normal they are.

When it was our turn, we were ushered into an uninspiring law library and introduced to the judge. The boys reacted in their characteristic ways. Erez manfully went up and shook his hand (much as I had kissed damp great-aunts in my childhood) and recited his full name and birth date as if he were at a spelling bee. Lucas, uncowed and uncowable, told the robed judge that he looked like he was graduating from college. (Turbow, who has a semi-combover, took this as a compliment.) A clerk presented me with forms I had signed so long ago and asked that I confirm my signature. Then the Judge, flourishing his pen, signed too. He said it was "neat" that the law, at least in New York, now allowed the recognition of families that, not so long ago, were invisible as far as justice was concerned. He forgot to say, but was surely aware, that there was something still unfair about the process, even leaving aside the thousands of dollars in legal fees it took us to get there -- fees that would have been unnecessary if Andy and I could be married.

Truth be told, I forgot that too, at least for a moment. Back outside, before heading off for school, Erez wished me a happy Father's Day, even though it was April. Lucas said, "We're officious now!" Of course, we always were.

Moving as the finalizations were, to honor that date as special would be to honor the day I finessed a bad situation and was altered by the law. I would rather honor the day the law is altered by me. For there is another wrinkle here: although the adoptions are permanent and unimpeachable, the state in which the boys were born has declined to acknowledge (as they would automatically do in any heterosexual adoption) the new legal reality. Refusing to alter the boys' birth certificates to include my name, that state's Department of Health responded to the court order with a pleasant "Dear Customer" letter:

Health & Safety Code 192.008 states the supplementary birth certificate of an adopted child must be in the names of the adoptive parents, one of whom must be a female, named as the mother, and the other of whom must be a male, named as the father. It will be necessary for you to designate one father to be shown on the birth certificate.

Though we were told to expect this, it was no less shocking; we are exploring a class action lawsuit against the state. If we win, or if someone else does eventually, that will seem like a day worth celebrating. In the meantime, are there to be no Father's Day celebrations, no things in boxes, for my family? Must those of us who are only grudgingly and incompletely included in tradition abjure it like Grinches?

Before I became a parent, my answer was a defensive yes. With only my own fate in my hands (or so I thought) it was easy to assume I would never want what was not willingly given. The failed world was rejectable, and with it its ridiculous ceremonies. When asked if I wanted to be married I always answered that I wanted the Calphalon. That I cried at weddings anyway, and brises and christenings when I was forced to attend, might have been a clue that some sort of ambivalence was at play. Indeed, it was at my younger son's bris -- performed, appropriately, by a female mohel who was herself a convert to Judaism -- that I for the first time fully felt the power of even imperfect observances. Trembling not before God, but before my own life, and my child's life stretching deep into the future, I realized that in rejecting all rites I had given them as much power as if I had blindly accepted them. People whose lives are based entirely on dreams of other worlds never find them, if anyone does. The real work of the imagination is not to build false realities from false premises, but to see what is true and somehow make it meaningful.

Adoption is, in part, an act of imagination -- an act that biological birth requires, too, if less obviously. How is this new life connected to you? How do you make it yours? The legal fiction of finalization was useful to us here, in that it erased (or at least shut away in vaults) all other possibilities. Some people see this as a kind of theft from the child -- a theft of a "true" life that is somehow realer than the real one they're living -- and see the choice not to acknowledge that as proof of the crime. But, at least for kids adopted near birth, the "adoption wound" I am often told about seems to me to be a projection of our own concerns about legitimacy as parents. A healthy child, adopted or not, may be curious about other lives he might have led, but it's a parent's regret about lives actually chosen that is usually being expressed in talk of the wound. And yet, however fictional, it's a wound that picking at makes real.

Which is why I worry as much about compulsively honoring so-called birth culture as about strenuously protecting my children from the normative truths of their society. I would no sooner insist that my kids learn Spanish than refuse to let them read books about mom-and-dad families. It is not separateness and a sense of injury I want to nurture; children will be separate enough, and possibly injured enough, in time, on their own. What needs nurturing is the imagination to see how the reality of who we are, and what the world is, can be reconciled. I was never happier with who I was as a father than on that Mother's Day when my older boy called me "Mom." It was a joke and a truth and (because he knew how much I loved my own mother) a present, too. He had figured out how to express his unconventional truth in conventional terms. For him no less than for me, the satisfaction came in the complicated work of untying the knot that kept the thing -- the gift of his love regardless of law -- in its box.

 

Originally published on AmericanBaby.com, October 2006.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.