Thursday, December 10, 2009

Same-Sex Marriage and Parenting, and Interview on Being Gay and Having Kids

E-interview (questions and responses) with a WIU student:

1. Are you and your partner married?

Yes, Sandy and I were married in Niagara Falls, Canada back in February 2005. We had been a couple, living together, for almost two years. After doing a bit of research on line, we learned that we needed to sign documents and register with the City of Ontario as well as make an appointment with a Justice of the Peace - just as any heterosexual couple would have to do. We made two trips over the border in the process. During the first trip we went to City Hall to file paperwork and sign documents. We were treated very kindly by the staff we encountered. Then, the next day, we finished the process by meeting with a Justice of the Peace, with whom we pronounced our vows and were proclaimed married partners. She had her children with her, and they served as our witnesses. At the time, my parents were not in support of our marriage so they did not attend the informal ceremony. We made the plans on short notice, and so we went on our own. Later that summer, my parents threw a very nice party in honor of our marriage. Many of our friends and family members attended, and the recognition of our marriage as well as the show of support meant a lot to us.

Shortly after we married, we took our marriage certificate to the local Social Security Office in the hopes that we could change my name legally by virtue of our marriage. This is a right that heterosexual couples are extended (upon their marriages). We were not sure what would happen but we thought we would try - after all, the lack of recognition of our marriage in a legal context in which I would be denied the right to change my name (whereas a heterosexual woman would not be denied such a right) is a clear case of discrimination. At the office, we were initially met with disapproval but lucked out, so to speak, when the - female - office manager said, "Well, they were married legally in Canada. I don't see what the problem is," and took the decision upon herself. Surely, if she had consulted someone higher up in the ranks they would have told her to deny us on the basis that our marriage was not recognized legally by the U.S. federal government. But we managed to slip though, and my name is now Jessica Mason McFadden. I received a new social security card stating that. I don't know what other same-sex couples who have tried to do the same have encountered. If we were denied, we would have been forced to go through a much more elaborate process and to court to change my name.

2. Did you and your partner adopt your children or did one of you give birth to the children?

My partner and I hoped to have a child with the help of a sperm donor - either an anonymous or known donor. We asked friends for ideas, but had never really found an appropriate potential donor. Most potential donors wanted a fatherly role in our child's life and we weren't comfortable with that. We figured we would work with a doctor and order sperm through a sperm bank, and we knew it would cost a lot of money (it is not covered by our insurance company). After we moved to Macomb, we met a man, Adam, through a mutual friend. We mentioned our ideal situation and asked him if he would ever consider donating. He spent a few weeks thinking about it, and decided that it was something he wanted to do. He did not want the responsibility of having children but had always been curious about bringing a child into the world. Through the process of trying to get pregnant, we grew to be friends. We figured that the more positive, loving people in our child's life, the better. We planned to try to impregnate me on our own (without the involvement of doctors), and we were able to make that happen. We devised an informal document (NOT signed before a notary or involving lawyers) spelling out the nature of our arrangement, and everyone involved signed it. The document spelled out things that each of us were concerned about: that Adam would never be responsible for our child financially or otherwise and that Adam would never request any degree of custody of any child resulting from our arrangement. In other words, it defined Adam as a sperm donor and Sandy and me as parents.

We spent about seven months trying different methods, until we were successful. I had a healthy pregnancy and gave birth to a precious little girl, Dar Dar (and yes, her name is McFadden because both of her mother's share the name McFadden), nine months later. We then decided to have a second child. The two children are about twenty-two months apart. Our youngest daughter was born in October 2009. We figured, after our first child was born, that she would be covered automatically by my partner, Sandy's, insurance company because I was covered as a "domestic partner." The University's insurance policy recognizes same-sex couples as domestic partners and offers insurance benefits. The process of qualifying for insurance as a same-sex partner is different than the process that a married, heterosexual partner goes through. Married, heterosexual couples do not have to "prove" their relationship, whereas -because they do not have the ability to be married legally- homosexual couples and non-married heterosexual couples must provide elaborate documentation of their partnership before qualifying a dependent partner under the insurance policy. For instance, they must prove that they have lived together for a year - heterosexual, married couples do not have to show that they live together. Many people believe that, under the law, domestic partners will receive the same benefits as married partners but this is not true. Married couples are afforded many rights and protections that domestic partners are not afforded. For instance, if domestic partners want to be insured they can be denied on the basis that they are not married legally - this is unfair because they do not have the ability to marry legally. Even if a state recognizes same-sex marriage, federal laws override state laws - private businesses can refuse to insure same-sex couples on the basis that they are not married. It is a widespread misconception that, at this point, domestic partnership benefits are the same as marriage benefits. Many websites, including that of the Human Rights Campaign, offer detailed comparisons between marriage and civil unions/domestic partnerships that reveal the inequities. When people argue that civil unions are the same as marriages, they are displaying a "separate but equal" mentality. Separate is not equal.

We are now in the process of a legal adoption. Sandy is adopting both of our children. The main reason that Sandy is adopting the children is to ensure that they will receive health benefits through her insurance company. It also insures that she will receive complete custody of the children if something were to happen to me and I was unable to care for them. Our desire to have Sandy adopt our children was born out of a difficult and stressful situation that arose after our first daughter, Dar, was born. We assumed that since I was covered as a dependent under Sandy's insurance policy (through a domestic partnership policy), our child would also be covered. We were not informed previous to Dar's birth of any reason to doubt that assumption: naturally if I am Sandy's dependent then my child would also be her dependent. Much to our dismay, we learned a month after Dar's birth that she was uninsured and would be until Sandy obtained some form of legal documentation proving her parental status over Dar. It was truly ridiculous. According to the policy, partners of employees could receive coverage BUT children of partners could NOT receive coverage. In order to be covered by the insurance policy, Sandy must adopt Dar. We were frantic at first when we learned this fact. We had thirty days from the moment we found out to obtain documentation. Our saving grace was that the insurance company would accept temporary guardianship. Still, thirty days was not a long time to make arrangements with a lawyer to obtain documentation through court for guardianship. We were very nervous and angry at first, fearing that Darah would be uninsured during a critical time in her life (especially with high hospital bills waiting for insurance payments). We feared the worst and looked into Illinois' public funding program for uninsured children. Luckily, we had an excellent lawyer helping us through the process - she sped things up as much as possible. We also had Adam nearby, and he signed away his rights before we went to court to obtain the guardianship. We had to meet with our lawyer and with a Guardian Ad Litem throughout the thirty day period; it was a very stressful time and we just managed to obtain the guardianship in time to receive coverage. We were relieved, of course, but also angry for all of the outrageous inequities that we encountered.

We received a lot of support at the time from friends in the community and at the university. One special friend with a lot of connections brought our circumstances up to the WIU Union and put us in touch with the Macomb Feminist Network. They were very kind after learning about our situation; they even offered to have a member accompany us to meetings with local politicians. A wonderful woman from the MFN accompanied us to a meeting with Illinois Senator John Sullivan. We told him about our situation and all of its overreaching implications, and urged him to do whatever was in his power to change the legislation so that this would not affect negatively others in the future (since, after all, it was state legislation that denied our daughter coverage in the first place). He was very kind and sympathetic, and we felt very good about being able to bring our experience to his attention rather than suffering in silence. The support of various communities was very touching; we are very proud to be a part of Western and its communal spirit. We are in the process of the adoption, and will complete it in court very soon. And on that note, another example of an inequity we discovered:  A heterosexual woman can put her male partner's name on her child's birth certificate if it is her intention that he be the father of the child. He does not have to be the biological father to be placed on the birth certificate as long as they are married. I was unable to put Sandy on the birth certificate for two reasons - first, because there are only slots for one mother and one father (not two mothers or two "parents") and, second, because we are same-sex partners and our marriage is not legally recognized by the state of Illinois, or *more importantly* the federal government. As a further detail, in a heterosexual adoption case, once the adoption is complete a new birth certificate is sent with the adoptive parent's name on it. We are not sure what will happen when our adoption is processed. We are hoping we will be sent a new birth certificate for each child with Sandy's name on it, but we are not sure how it will be handled considering the heterosexual-centered forms that are used (one father, one mother) and the fact that we are a same-sex couple. Sandy will be their legal parent, just as I am; however she does not fit the criteria of "father." It will be interesting to see how it is handled. If we are not sent new birth certificates with Sandy's name on them, then that will be another form of discrimination (an extension of the core federal discrimination).

3. Who primarily takes care of the children or do both of you share the duties equally?

We do not think of childcare as duties to be divided equally or otherwise, we just consider ourselves supportive partners in parenting. It's a give-and-take - we give wherever we can and we lean on each other for support. I am with the children most of the time, since I am a stay-at-home mom. Sandy works outside the home as an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Western Illinois University. When we are both home, we tend to fall into roles that are comfortable for us. When she is home, Sandy prepares most of our meals. I spend a lot of time breastfeeding, changing diapers, and caring for the children; but Sandy also fills in with some of the activities I engage in regularly. Neither of us feels as though the other one is not giving enough of herself; each of us is giving a lot and each of us feels grateful for the support of the other. We try to build on each other's strengths. We want to make it as easy as possible for each other because we love each other very much. I try to do whatever I can to make her life as easy and happy as possible, and I know she does the same for me.

4. Have you ever experienced discrimination towards you and your family?

I expanded on some of our experiences, in the above responses, in order to review the element of discrimination. The forms of discrimination that really show up on our personal radar are the ones that affect the well being of our children in some way - they also happen to be ones that are legalistic (dealing with our federal rights). As long as homosexuals are discriminated against in federal legislation, the effects of that huge discrimination will trickle down, having various repercussions that range in intensity as well as in form (from legal to institutional to social discrimination). Some effects of the legislative discrimination are transparent while others fall into a gray area. The legal, institutional and social dimensions of discrimination that we face are both singular and intersecting. Social discrimination is more difficult to pinpoint and approach. A hate crime, for instance, may be an extreme form of social discrimination; the use of language that is not inclusive in a classroom, on the other hand, would be a less extreme form of social discrimination. Each needs to be addressed, but they require the use of different strategies. A hate crime would need to be addressed both legally and socially; whereas oppressive language in the classroom would need, for the most part, to be addressed socially (however, it could also be addressed institutionally through the use of programs and policies in academia that promote acceptance and inclusivity).

I, personally, deal with the small, social forms of discrimination by trying to be very open about my sexuality and my family status. When I feel like it, I will take a simple moment of ignorance and make it a moment of learning. By being upfront and honest about myself and my sexual/personal identity, I am often creating an opportunity for others to learn (if they are open to that opportunity). For someone who might feel uncomfortable with same-sex relationships, it might be transformative to actually encounter a REAL, live same-sex relationship - it might make an otherwise judgmental person question some of their prejudices and stereotypes about what it means to be a homosexual. So just by correcting someone who assumes that Sandy is my mother or friend, I am making them stop and think about their quickly made assumption. It's not always fun, especially when the person on the other end looks at us like we're aliens when I say "No, she's actually my partner" or "Actually, we're both Dar's mothers - we're same-sex partners." Most of the time we are met with kindness, though, which is reassuring. I have found my overly upfront approach to be helpful, in that it calms my own anxieties over situational discomfort, wrong assumptions and fear of rejection. I can overdo it, sometimes - like, "Hi, I'm Jessica and this is my partner, Sandy. We're a two mom household. We have a big age difference, too, which some people are uncomfortable with...but really we're happy. What's your name?" Naw, not really (but close!). And we do have compassion for most of the assumptions that are made. We know that its understandable for people to think that Sandy is my mother and Darah's grandmother. When we feel confident and safe, we correct the mistaken assumption.When we suspect we might be faced with violence or hostility then we don't correct the mistaken assumption. We are happy to live our lives honestly and openly, yet at the same time we don't put ourselves in a potentially dangerous or disturbingly awkward situation.

5. What is a typical day like in your life?

Well, a typical day in my life is probably like what a typical day in a lot of stay-at-home mothers' lives is like. Sandy and I usually wake up to the baby fussing because she is hungry or to our toddler's movements, who wakes up on most mornings between us. We watch the news, feed the kids, clean ourselves (if you're lucky...ha), get dressed, have something to eat, turn on the lights, check our email messages,...we get moving - sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. Sounds pretty boring, and it is, but we're very happy with it. We just enjoy each other's company, so we don't mind hanging out at home most of the time. After Sandy leaves for work, usually around 8 AM, I will start getting myself and the kids ready for the day. Dar will snack and play in her playroom and color and read books and watch movies, and I will do those things with her as well as change diapers, give baths, breastfeed every two or three hours, pick up around the house, do laundry, vacuum, check my email, make phone calls, Skype with Dar's grandparents, and so on. When Sandy gets home from work, we usually hang out for an hour or so and then she makes dinner (usually while I am breastfeeding the baby). We eat, clean up and then do whatever we feel like: sometimes we read, sometimes we go out to get groceries, sometimes we hang out in Dar's playroom, usually we watch television. We read Dar a few books before bed every night, we play with flashlights on the ceiling for five minutes and then we *try* to go to sleep.

We also have certain weekly rituals. It's been more difficult with a second baby to get out of the house (especially because we are a one car family - which we are glad to be!),  but I try to get Dar off to at least one playgroup a week. We are part of two playgroups - one is held at a church and the other is held at a Catholic school (in the gym). I try to make it out with the kids to a monthly breastfeeding meeting (La Leche League). Dar and I attend a Kindermusik class on Thursday nights while Sandy stays home with Elan and makes dinner (our usual Thursday night meal is salmon patties with mashed potatoes and corn). Dar goes to Rumble Tumble at the YMCA on Saturday mornings, and every two weeks we meet a friend and her son for a Lunch and Library outing on Saturday afternoon. In the Spring, I plan to enroll in a swim class with Dar. We had been doing this, but stopped when I became pregnant with Elan. I also may take yoga classes again, since I stopped when I became pregnant, but it will not be until Elan is a little older. Twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays, Dar and Elan's biological father (who Dar calls Biodad) and one of his partner's (he's Polyamorous), Elisa, come over for a two to two and a half hour visit. They usually take Dar out for a wagon ride or a visit to the tiny lake nearby. She loves their visits and enjoys spending time with them. For the past few months, we have had a guest staying in our home twice a week - a graduate student, Sara, was staying with us two nights a week in the bedroom we have on the lower level. Other than that, we attend community and campus events when we can. We also enjoy visits to Buffalo twice a year to see my family. They visit us every three or four months, as well.

6. Do you and your partner talk to your children about having 2 same sex parents?

Well, our children are very young so we haven't formally discussed it, and she (Dar) hasn't ever questioned anything yet. She's not yet two, and Elan is only six weeks old! Dar calls Sandy Momma Si or Si (Dar came up with the "Si" portion herself...we originally intended for her to call her Momma Sandy), and she calls me Mummy or Mommy or Mom. She calls both Biodad and Elisa the same name usually (that's Elisa), but sometimes she calls him "Ba dah." It will probably be a long time before she seriously questions the fact that she has two moms and that her biological father does not live with her. Our plan has always been to simply be as honest as possible with her, while also being sensitive to her age and abilities to comprehend. I think she will feel lucky that she has so many loving people in her life - two moms who love and adore her, a biological dad who loves her, as well as friends and extended family who love and care about her. Yes, her family dynamics are different than most of her peers. But we're hoping she feels special because of that difference. We realize that not everyone will be nice about it - there will likely be times when she encounters negative messages (in school and so on) about having two moms (and one who is much older than the other). We are hoping that we will provide her with enough information, love, compassion, and support that she will be able to handle it without internalizing those negative messages. We cannot control what others say and how others feel, but we can (to some extent) control what we think and feel about ourselves AND we can choose how to react to others' negativity. We know it will hurt terribly to see our child hurting because of something insensitive another child says or does, but we also know that children can be insensitive sometimes, period. Children say insensitive things to other children for a variety of reasons, not just because of parental dynamics. We are hoping that Dar (and Elan) will grow to feel confident and be intelligent enough to know that the opinions of others do not determine their self-worth. We want them to feel capable of both standing up for themselves AND turning to us for help and support. Maybe they will even be so confident as to stand up for others, as well.

7. Have you had any legal problems facing your children? If so, could you please explain.

Please read the response to question number two. Let me know if you have any other questions about the insurance situation. Best of luck with your project.

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