Am I father? Mother? Parent 1? Questions of language and gender cluster around same-sex adoption
Baxter’s official birth certificate from Arizona lists Clay Wirestone as his father and Clay’s husband, Max, as his mother. Complete with a maiden name!
Clay (left), Max and an 18-day-old Baxter Wirestone on May 1, 2011.
It’s good to be a dad.
It’s good to be a mom too, I suppose, even if my gender makes that difficult.
But according to various forms, I am both father and mother to my 2-year-old adopted son. I’m not alone – my husband is also a father and mother, according to those same forms. Let’s just say there’s been lot of uncertainty in our house.
As a writer and copy editor, I try to avoid gender-neutral language. Someone is a chairman or chairwoman instead of chairperson, for example. It’s clearer. At least that’s what I always thought (and what my journalism professors insisted upon).
In the real world, though, unclear language would have spared us several headache-inducing moments.
It all started with Person A and Person B.
When my husband and I were civilly united back in 2008, the forms provided by the New Hampshire secretary of state’s office were simple. Instead of a line for the man’s name and a line for the woman’s name, some kindly bureaucrat decided to have a line for Person A and a line for Person B.
We decided, after a little playful back-and-forth, to list Max as Person A. It’s hard to escape the value judgment there, but I decided that discretion was the better part of valor.
So when it came time for us to list our names on state adoption paperwork some three years later, Max still went first. The reason was simple. He had been the first to talk about adoption. He had, after a number of years, persuaded me to take the plunge and look into the lengthy and expensive process. And he was the one beside me as I welcomed the miracle that is our son, Baxter, into the world.
But the form contained a trap, something neither he nor I quite appreciated at the time. Instead of simply being for Person A and Person B, the form had spaces for a Mother/Parent A and a Father/Parent B.
Max could accept being Mother/Parent A. At least he was still in first place, right? And if I had to be listed second, at least I had the consolation of being the one actually listed as father.
But the consequences of that decision didn’t stop with a single form.
The birth certificate
One of the strange complications of domestic adoption is that you don’t get your child’s birth certificate in the normal way (that is, filling out paperwork at the hospital). Instead, the birth mother is given the opportunity to name her baby, and a birth certificate is issued listing her and the name she picked.
So far, so good.
Many months later, after the adoption is finalized, adoptive parents then file a form to “amend” their son or daughter’s birth certificate. That word isn’t quite accurate. What actually happens is that the child’s birth certificate is rewritten. The adoptive parents’ names appear as the child’s parents, and their name for the child is listed at the top.
The original information on the first birth certificate is sealed. In our case this seems strange, given that we have remained in touch and on good terms with Baxter’s birth mother. But whatever. The point is, the birth certificate is changed.
A separate piece could be written about our wrangling with the state of Arizona, where Baxter was born. Suffice to say, my husband and I waded through a bureaucratic labyrinth for three months. After finally getting the state to accept the New Hampshire form listing us as adoptive parents, we requested a copy of the amended certificate.
This is when things got weird.
His maiden name?
Staff in Arizona performing the search for our son’s certificate were troubled that we were both men.
They weren’t troubled about this for the reasons you might expect. No one expressed any opinion about gay marriage or same-sex couples (as a matter of fact, hospital staffers in Mesa, Ariz., where we attended the birth of our son, were exceptionally supportive).
They were troubled because they didn’t know how to search for our names on the birth certificate. In Arizona, birth certificate searches are based on the mother’s maiden name. Even if the birth certificate was amended. Even if both parents are men.
Max was listed as Mother/Parent A in New Hampshire, but Arizona had a line for “Mother” only.
Did my husband fit? Did he have a maiden name? The lady talking to me was very concerned. “I can’t promise how it’s going to appear on the certificate,” she told me.
As it turned out, Max did have a maiden name. Kind of. A year before adopting Baxter, we had changed our last names (McCuistion and Crowe respectively) to the shared Wirestone. I gave the woman his former last name and hoped for the best.
A few days later, the birth certificate arrived. It listed our son’s correct name and date of birth. It listed me as the father. And in the place of the mother, there was my husband. Listed under his “maiden name” – which also wasn’t his legal name at any step of the process.
It was a bit absurd. Yet we delighted to finally have this piece of paper, non-gender neutral though it was, to show our official status.
Off to Social Security
That wasn’t the end, though.
Now that we had the birth certificate, we could finally register Baxter with the federal government. It was time to assign him a Social Security number.
When it came time to fill out the federal application, I knew to look for lines where I had to list our son’s parents. To their credit, the feds are more gender inclusive than Arizona. They have a line for Parent/Mother, followed by one for Parent/Father. Things were looking good, I thought.
The Arizona birth certificate, which was the crucial piece of identification the Social Security folks needed, listed me first, as father. Max followed, as mother. So I decided to list myself in the first spot, and Max as the second. At least the two forms would line up, I thought.
No one at the Social Security office gave us any trouble. But after submitting the form, I realized that my husband was now listed as Baxter’s father to the federal government and Baxter’s mother to the state of Arizona. I was listed as his father to Arizona and his mother to the feds.
Thankfully, this made no practical difference. Baxter received his Social Security number the next day. No one knocked on our door in the middle of the night and demanded to take DNA samples to determine our actual genders.
It does make me worry a bit. Knowing the power of bureaucracy, surely this will cause mischief somewhere at some point. Will Baxter eventually have to explain that he does not have inter-sex parents? Will it be assumed he somehow has four legal guardians, who inexplicably share male first names?
At least we can be confident that Baxter is loved, and loved well. By his dad/moms, mom/dads, or whatever you want to call us.
(Clay Wirestone can be reached at 369-3305 or