Ben Has Two Moms
By Deb Kinder
Issue 98, January - February 2000
Our family journey began almost five years ago, when I was reunited with the woman who is now my life partner and co-mother of our son. We had been friends for seven years, but had been separated geographically for most of that time. A year after our reunion, we took our first conscious step toward creating a family. On a brilliant early morning of the autumn equinox, Rose and I made our way down to the banks of a nearby river where we read our letters of commitment to each other, and exchanged rings among the cattails and the Canadian geese. Our ceremony and the celebration that followed was our way of acknowledging our commitment and asking friends and family to stand by us should we falter. We keep our commitment letters on file, and should there ever be a law passed that recognizes our partnership, we will have "proof" of how long we have been together.
Soon after our commitment ceremony we started talking about having children. We undertook much research and heart searching, and two years later, chose a name together to symbolize our commitment to each other and demonstrate to our child(ren) that we were a family. We wrote down the letters in both of our last names and started pronouncing reasonable (and some unreasonable) sounding combinations to create a family name. The name we created was "Kinder," and only after agreeing that we liked the sound of it that we remembered that it was a German word for "child." That confirmed our choice, and we have been Kinders ever since. Our birth names were kept as our middle names because our new names were not only our creation, but a part of our history, too.
We began the process of legalizing our new name next, choosing a lawyer who we knew would welcome working with us. She drew up the documents and submitted them to the court separately in hopes that the two different judges would review the petitions—thereby lessening the chance that a judge would notice that two women at the same address wanted the same last name, which could have jeopardized our request.
Throughout all of our legal proceedings, we have seen firsthand how arbitrary the legal system in Virginia can be regarding issues involving lesbians and gay men. Our partnership is not legally sanctioned in our home state, and a significant portion of the populace actively works against laws and institutions that would recognize our family.Around the time Rose and I began planning our family, A Virginia woman successfully sued her lesbian daughter for custody of the grandson. This decision, so hostile to gay and lesbian parents, made us feel the need to cover all bases. Often, it's a little more than luck that determines who one encounters as a lawyer, judge, or court official—all of whom have the potential to make life-altering decisions on our behalf. After a few months of anxious waiting, though, we received the wonderful news that we had succeeded in our second step of creating a family: our name was Kinder.
From a Couple to a Family
Now we were ready to take the next step of actually creating a child! We were committed to engaging in the process as a couple. We never want to be dishonest with our children about who we are, and we believed that engaging in lies (or cover-ups or omissions) from the beginning would only start us off on the wrong track. We found a fertility clinic in our town that had experience working with lesbian couples, and we received two years of excellent support from the staff there. After more than a year of related surgery and unsuccessful attempts for Rose to become pregnant though, we decided that I would try to conceive. I opened myself to the soul that would first find a home in my womb and then in our arms, welcoming our child before he was even known to me in any form. Once that incredible event happened, I was in constant communion. I knew that our baby would be a boy, and my incessant and insatiable desire to be out doors while I was pregnant told me that he would love nature.
My pregnancy was one of the first times in our process of creating a family that could have been private. Somewhat ironically, we wanted to shout with happiness, instead! We received joyful and consistent support from many different people in our lives. Our families rejoiced with us, encouraging us through the phone calls and notes, and even hosted a baby shower. Our colleagues celebrated with us—despite the fact that both Rose and I work in fairly conservative fields. Our spiritual community (a Unitarian Universalist church) has been endlessly supportive.
During my pregnancy, Rose and I spent many evenings at a local bookstore café pouring over books on every conceivable detail of pregnancy and birth. Like many expectant parents, we spent hours wondering what our baby would look like and be like. Each morning, Rose would talk to our baby as she rubbed my growing abdomen with cocoa butter. We attended a birth class together to cover the intellectual aspects of birth, and joined a pregnancy yoga class to nurture our spirits and commune with other mothers.
Even though we knew there is no such thing as "planning a birth," our son's arrival was quite different than what we'd anticipated. From the beginning we had worked with a midwife and were looking forward to a homebirth. Partway through the pregnancy, however, I developed placenta previa and my pregnancy became high risk.
Our son was born on April 14, 1997 by cesarean section. On that joyous day we became the new parents of Benjamin Russell, in all his glorious 5 pounds and 15 ounces!
We did have trepidation about how the hospital staff would treat Rose, but I believe we gave clear verbal and non-verbal messages that we were both Ben's mothers, and the staff was overwhelmingly respectful and supportive. During the birth, the doctor called Rose into the operating room as soon as I was under anesthesia, which was virtually unheard of for this kind of birth. As it turned out, not only was I unconsious for the birth, but I was separated from Ben for nearly three hours. Rose, who was there for the entire birth, and who held our soon soon after he was born, has become my link to what otherwise would have been a gap in my birthing memory.
While I was separated from Ben, our midwife suggested that she, he, and Rose go into the quiet birthing room. Once there, she asked Rose if she would like to "nurse" Ben. (He'd been looking for my nipple since the moment he was born!) And so Rose nursed our baby. Though he received no milk from her, the comfort of nursing allowed Ben to settle into his new surroundings. He and Rose had a bonding experience that they never would have shared if I had been there. That thought still gives me inexpressible comfort and brings tears of joy. I thank our midwife for her insight, wisdom, and courage.
Rose and I then embraced the exhilarating and exhausting task of being Mom and Mommy. Like most aspects of our parenting, this was both an emotional and legal undertaking. Shortly before Ben's birth we had drawn up a co-parenting agreement, and after his birth a lawyer reviewed it, witnessed it, and notarized the document. Although it carries no legal weight, it demonstrates our intent as Benjamin's parents specifying the responsibilities each of us accepts for Ben as a couple, but also in the event that we should separate. It also outlines the channels that would be taken to resolve any disputes (such as appointing a mediator, and time frames within which decisions would be made).
Because we are not legally recognized as a family, there are no structures in place to support our parenting obligations and responsibilities, whether we are a couple or separated; this document provides us with something to hold ourselves to in the heat of any possible breakup. Our wills provide for Benjamin's care and custody if one of us dies, but with both of us living, there are no custody laws ensuring that we both continue to care for our child. As strange as it was to draft a document about breaking up when we were so very much in love and pregnant with our first child, it was important to us that Ben be cared for in every situation. So, the coparenting agreement,the fifth step in our process of creating a family, was added to our ever-growing legal file.
I was now three months into my leave of absence as a teacher and was scheduled to attend a week-long planning session at school when I found myself fraught with tears and on the phone with my midwife. "Am I still going to feel like this in six weeks when I'm supposed to go back to my teaching job? Can I please come talk with you?" Although it hadn't seemed fiscally possible for me to stay home with Ben, the thought of leaving him was emotionally and physiologically unfathomable to me. What surprised me most about motherhood were the overwhelming emotions that came with carrying, birthing, nursing, and generally loving this soul with which I had been blessed. I realized Rose and I would have to find a way for me to nurture our son at home for at least his first year of life, so we sat down and discussed our feelings and fears and the logistics of our potential decision.
Of all of the choices we had made in our parenting relationship thus far, this step toward creating our family was by far the hardest for me. As strongly as I felt that my only option was to be with Ben, it was challenging for me to shift from being a fiscal contributor in our family to being completely financially dependent on Rose. It required a leap of faith; a deeper trusting in my relationship with her. Unlike a legally sanctioned marriage where a financially dependent spouse is often protected should a breakup occur, there were no such provisions for me. I needed to trust Rose completely, not only to provide for us financially, but to avoid resenting our decision and to stay committed should our relationship begin to dissolve. Once again, we were in a situation of considering the worst possible scenario when we were making a very positive and proactive decision for our family
Over the next few days, Rose and I mulled over our feelings, and crunched numbers again. I would nurture Benjamin at home and take care of our household, Rose would support us and care for Ben when she was home. This felt different than the commitment letters we had written and all of the legal documents we had signed together. This was real life. We were truly being a family. Rose and I had moved into a realm of no guarantees; it was about us, giving to each other. Even during the difficult times, when we each feel a little weary with our singular tasks (even in their multiplicity), I feel joyous and proud of our commitment as parents.
Serendipitously, Rose received several pay raises during Ben's first year of life, enabling us to consider my parenting our son at home for the longer term. There remained, however, the critical issue of insurance coverage. Because we weren't considered "family" neither Ben nor I could be covered by Rose's insurance policy. The Human Resources staff of Rose's employer agree that Ben would be eligible for coverage if Rose had legal joint custody. One of the risks of seeking joint custody, however, was that I could potentially lose custody if the court ruled that being a lesbian made a woman an unfit mother—a decision that had legal precedent. We'd already considered the possibility of Rose adopting Ben, but in Virginia that would have required that I terminate my legal rights as a parent. This was not a choice we were willing to make.
Back to Court
After some careful emotional deliberation, and with the support of family, friends, and our church community, we decided to seek joint custody—our seventh major step in creating a family. Our lawyer drafted the petition and sent it to court. Because ours was not a contested case, we hoped that Rose would be granted custody without a hearing. Instead the local sheriff served us a legal summons to appear before a juvenile court.
Soon after receiving the summons, Rose, Ben, and I went to the Juvenile and Domestic Relations court with our lawyer, Rose's mother, and our minister. As we drove into town, I had an ominous feeing in the bottom of my belly that comes when a complete stranger is about to make a very intimate decision about your family. After a nerve-wracking wait in the lobby, Rose and I were called into the courtroom while Ben remained outside with his grandmother.
Our lawyer made an excellent argument explaining why it was in Ben's best interests for Rose to have joint custody, and I felt very encouraged. Meanwhile the bailiff, who had the sports section of the local paper open on his desk, was writing something on a sticky note. The judge only occasionally looked up from the bench to take in the argument. My hope sank just a bit.
After the lawyer's statement, the judge decided to continue the case; she wanted to be sure that Benjamin's interests were represented, so she appointed a guardian ad litem—an attorney for Ben. A new court date was scheduled. The bailiff handed an appointment card to Rose and one to me. Rose's had the sticky note attached, and I braced myself for an anti-gay message. Instead the note read, "There is no reason we should deny what you are asking. We see kids every day that nobody wants. Good luck!" Wow! Between the note and the fact that our new court date was on Ben's first birthday, we both felt very encouraged and hopeful.
Before the second hearing, Ben's lawyer visited us in our home and a week later we went back to court. On that day—Benjamin's first birthday—we were granted joint custody. What an incredibly joyous, liberating feeling! Benjamin truly has two moms!
Special thanks to Rose, Susie, Holly, Lane, Julie, Elizabeth, and Sandra.
Deb Kinder is the co-mother of Benjamin with Rose. In a former life, Deb was a middle school science teacher; she is now an at-home mom and hopes to homeschool Benjamin. She lives with her family in Virginia.
Photo by Lyn Jones.