The Bureaucracy of Us

Even when members of a family know what their bond means to them, they have no idea what it means to the state.

Three days after the birth of my daughter, a nurse handed me the paperwork for her birth certificate. In the section for mother’s name, I wrote Marta’s full name. For the name of the baby, I put our daughter’s name. In the remaining section, I scratched out the word father, wrote the word mother, and put down my name.

“You think it’ll work?” I asked Marta, who was lying in the hospital bed holding our three-day-old baby.

“Who knows?” she said.

You could say the same about a lot of our relationship.

We met at a bar in Iowa City in 2009 when we were both finishing our graduate degrees. But we didn’t realize we were into each other until a month later at a rally to celebrate Iowa becoming the third state to legalize same-sex marriage. The rally was in the town’s center, in front of an elegant stone building that once housed the state’s capitol, and for the first hour or so, a line of celebrants climbed up on a make-shift stage, one after the next, to give enthusiastic speeches about gays, marriage, love, and human rights. I was handing out oatmeal cookies that I’d baked that morning, cookies I’d renamed “gay marriage cookies” after hearing the news, and I gave one to Marta. I asked what she thought of the rally. She smiled.

“It’s fine,” she said. “But when are they going to stop talking? In Spain they danced when this happened.”

I liked her immediately. She was irreverent and European and wore a leather jacket. I was Midwestern and optimistic and just beginning to think about settling down. We started dating soon after the rally. I sewed her a heart pillow that Valentine’s Day. She took me to Spain to meet her parents the following winter. Still, it took us another three years to exercise the right that the Iowa State Supreme Court had given us that day.

We married in January of 2013 in a small ceremony at her brother’s house with a hand-made tulle archway and my siblings and her parents watching our vows via Skype. Our reception was at a local pub with friends. My parents gave us matching Bride and Bride ball caps. Another friend gifted me three family-size bags of Cheetos.

Five months later, the U.S. Supreme Court made our marriage legal at a federal level, too. The day that decision came down, I wrote on Facebook, “I went to sleep last night Iowa-married and woke up this morning federally married. How about that.” One hundred and twenty-two of my “friends” liked what I had to say. But really what I was saying was a close equivalent to Marta’s “Who knows?” when I asked her about our child’s birth certificate. We were married in Iowa, yes, and we were then married federally, too, but when it comes to places like Florida, Alabama, Texas—who knows?

Four months after getting married, our daughter was born (yes, that makes ours a shotgun lesbian wedding). It was emergency C-section. Our daughter was breach and no one had realized until too late. When we got to the hospital, Marta was already dilated three inches. Within an hour she had dilated to seven. By the time they rolled her into the surgery room she was at ten.

The doctor’s pulled our daughter out of Marta’s sliced-open abdomen at 12:10 p.m. She had a full head of hair and limbs like spaghetti. In the nursery, where they took her while the doctors were sewing Marta up, one nurse asked me if I was the baby’s aunt. Another asked if I was the grandmother. I was 34 then. I said I was the mother.

Two days later, while we were still in the hospital but hadn’t yet signed the birth certificate paperwork, the Iowa Supreme Court again handed down a ruling that would change the way our new family was defined.

The case was Gartner v. Iowa Department of Public Health, and it involved whether or not legally married lesbians in the state, like legally married straight couples, could put both their names on their child’s birth certificate. Though same-sex marriage had been legal in the state for four years, the state agency in charge of birth certificates had continued to reject applications in which both the parents listed were women. They argued that it just wasn’t possible that both women were actually the biological parents of that child.

The justices said this was wrong. In their May 3rd decision, Justice David Wiggins wrote, “These realities demonstrate that the disparate treatment of married lesbian couples is less effective and efficient, and that some other unarticulated reason, such as stereotype or prejudice, may explain the real objective of the state.”

Marta’s brother stopped by our hospital room and handed us a copy of a local news bulletin that included a short write-up on the ruling. We were thrilled. Sleep-deprived and slaphappy about the baby, we received the decision as prophecy, as if some legal gods were blessing our new family.

You see, we had planned to go to court to make me a legal mom. This was the norm—and a $3,000 norm a that—for lesbian parents in Iowa before the ruling.

“Now,” I told Marta. “We won’t have to do any of that.”

Our daughter was making little squirrel noises in her sleep. We spoke to her in Spanish, calling her una ardilla. Her hands were so small.

“I’m your mom now,” I told her. “Legally.”

We turned in the birth certificate paperwork and the next day took our daughter home and began trying to be parents. We slept very little. When I finally did sleep, I’d wake with a start from dreams that I’d accidentally dropped her on the floor. We bathed her and she peed all over both of us. I sang her show tunes my mom used to sing me when I couldn’t sleep. We took her to the farmers’ market in a kangaroo pouch and on walks through the woods near our house.

Then one day, the birth certificate arrived in the mail. I called to Marta from the other room as I was opening it. She came up behind me just as I began scanning for my name. But there were only two: Marta’s and our daughter’s. The space beside “Father” was blank.

Marta called the hospital and spoke to a secretary who eventually put her through to the clerk in charge of typing up birth certificate applications and sending them on to the state. The clerk said after she’d seen our paperwork, she’d called the department of public services for advice and someone there had told her to proceed as normal. They told her to ignore my name.

We then called the department of public services and someone there told us they were waiting for further instruction from the state’s supreme court before beginning to enforce the May 3 ruling. They told us we could apply for an amended birth certificate if and when the change in operating procedure was approved. They told us such amendments could take months.

We gave up. Some friends advised us to keep fighting, but at that moment it was more important to me to be a legal mom than to wait on hold for a state worker who was essentially powerless. Also, we were moving away from Iowa in two months and both of us wanted to make me legal before we left. Because, again: Who knows?

On June 10 of last year, the three of us, our new family, went to the county court house where a judge asked me if I was willing to accept the “legal, economic, moral and emotional obligations” to our child. I said I already had. Then I cradled our month-old daughter in one arm, raised the other, and swore to do so, legally. Our daughter farted away contentedly as the judge pronounced me her new legal mom.

“I’m sorry you had to do all this,” he said afterwards, referring to the court decision. We said we were sorry, too. Then we all posed for happy adoption day pictures.

I tell this story not because it still makes me angry, but because it illustrates what it means to be a same-sex couple with children in this country. There is a constant nagging feeling, even when the laws and opinion polls are changing in our favor, that we are illegitimate. When Marta and I are together with our daughter, people often ask if I am the sister or a friend. A pediatrician comes into the room and asks, “So who’s  baby’s mom?” When I say both of us, she gets flustered and stops making eye contact. When we take our daughter to daycare. When we show up for her swim lessons. When we try to get a family membership at our university gym. Each time, we need to explain ourselves. No one ever says, “You must be the other mom.” At least not in the parts of America where we have been living.

We are told we should be grateful for the changes that are taking place. But often, we just get tired of having to explain ourselves. Often the bureaucracy of it exhausts us.

And recently it’s gotten worse. Three months after our daughter was born, we moved from Iowa to Texas. If I had written a Facebook post about that move, it would have read: “I went to sleep last night in Iowa married and woke up in Texas unmarried.” Since we’ve moved here, lots of people who live in more liberal places have asked us: “But why would you move to Texas?” I tell them it’s complicated.

When we decided to move here, we were still living under the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Marta was finishing her PhD and needed a job that would sponsor her to stay in this country after she graduated. That meant she went on the job search and I agreed to move with her wherever she found the best offer. That was Texas.

Now that DOMA has been overthrown, I could sponsor Marta to stay in this country. But we’ve already moved. She’s already started a tenure-track job. I’ve started working on a PhD. We made a decision based on DOMA, on the assumption that our relationship was illegitimate, and now we live in West Texas.

Marta has a good academic job here and a decent insurance package, but I cannot be on her insurance policy. Her university lists sexual orientation as a “protected class” in instances of discrimination. And yet, because the university is a public university, the state of Texas prohibits it from recognizing same-sex marriages. The same is true for any state agency in Texas. When I go to fill out paperwork to register our car, the woman behind the counter asks if I am married. “I am,” I tell her. “But not in your state.” When we ask for a couple’s membership at the university gym, we’re only granted one because the kid filling out our paperwork has no idea that he’s breaking the law. And we don’t tell him.

Meanwhile, tax season just passed, and there was the question of the adoption. In federal tax code, there is a special deduction for adoption expenses. Some of our lesbian mom friends in Iowa who went through the same adoption process we did, but years earlier, took that exemption and later declared it the one benefit of homophobia.

But then, as I was getting our tax papers together in April, I looked up the tax code on the adoption exemption. It read: “Qualified adoption expenses do not include expenses that a taxpayer pays to adopt the child of the taxpayer’s spouse.”

I mentioned this to Marta as we were dropping off some checks at the federal credit union near our house. Our daughter was asleep in her car seat. She was nine months old by then. She loved avocados, beets, and spinach and was just beginning to say “mamá.” She had not yet learned to crawl, but she did scoot backwards. The doctors told us she was going to be tall.

“So if we were Iowa-married when I adopted her but not yet federally married, does that make you my spouse with regards to the federal adoption exemption for last year’s taxes?” I asked.

Marta looked confused. She said of course we could take the exemption, our friends had taken it and they were married lesbians moms just like us. But they were only state-married, I reminded her—that was before DOMA was overturned—and federal marriage is what matters in taxes. Marta sighed. I could almost hear her thoughts: in Spain things are not so complicated.

“We better be able to take it,” is what she finally said. I agreed. And in the end we did take it. But we still don’t now if it was legal. We know who we are to each other, we know who our daughter is to us, but in times like these we often have no idea who we are under the law.