As a same-sex couple raising kids, my wife and I had to file for second-parent adoption — here's why

Writer Laura Leigh Abby (right) and her wife went through a second-parent adoption to secure their parental rights. (Photo: Courtesy of Laura Leigh Abby)
Writer Laura Leigh Abby (right) and her wife went through a second-parent adoption to secure their parental rights. (Photo: Courtesy of Laura Leigh Abby)

When I gave birth to our first son in 2016, my wife Sam and I assumed that our family was legally protected. We were married. We had purchased our donor sperm through a cryobank. We were both named on our son’s birth certificate.

After Sam delivered our second boy in February 2020, however, we felt a sudden urgency to formally and legally safeguard our family as the backlash to the recent progress of LGBTQ rights revealed growing homophobia throughout the nation. That autumn, we paid a retainer fee for a New York State adoption attorney. I didn’t know when I dropped my check in the mailbox that news of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death was only hours away, and that the future legal protections of queer families like ours was at stake.

Family Equality, an organization that fights for the rights of LGBTQ families, illustrates some of the perks of second-parent adoption on their blog, including, but not limited to, parental equality when it comes to the child’s medical care, educational needs and entitlement to inheritance rights. “Any challenge to your relationship with the child is eradicated," it pledges. In short, it is a safeguard that protects our families from interference from anyone, anywhere.

I had heard that the adoption process was invasive, so I asked our attorney for details during our first phone call. “There will be background checks,” she told us. “You will both be fingerprinted, you’ll need three letters of reference, there will be a home visit from a social worker and we’ll need 28 years of past addresses.” I did some quick math in my head. I’ve had a handful of addresses since I was 7 years old, very few of which I could remember.

When we hung up with our attorney, anxiety hives crept up my neck. I’ve never been arrested or convicted of a crime. Neither has my wife. Are there nude photos of me on the internet? Not that I know of. But my immediate reaction to this unfair, expensive and invasive process was embarrassment. How humiliating to think that after four years of parenting I would need letters of reference and a judge to officially deem me qualified to be something that I already was: a mother.

Soon after that call, I posted about second-parent adoption on our family instagram account. I was shocked by the responses. Many queer parents commented that they were both on their kids’ birth certificates, so they didn’t think adoption was necessary, while some shared stories of bigoted judges. Some commenters admitted the embarrassment they felt asking their pediatrician to write a letter of recommendation, and others confessed they couldn’t handle the financial burden of adoption at all. Legal issues differed across states, but there was one thing all of us had in common: We would do anything in our power to protect our families.

Ashley West and her wife Emma are raising three children — aged 8 months to 4 years — in a suburb outside of Washington, D.C. “We are just two working moms juggling three babies while trying to keep our sanity,” explains West, who says that she and Emma began looking into second-parent adoption before they were even married. “We did not want to be in a position where something as serious as a medical emergency, or as simple as daycare pick-up, essentially stripped us of our parental rights.”

Abby's family after finalizing the adoption process online. (Photo: Laura Leigh Abby)
Abby's family after finalizing the adoption process online. (Photo: Laura Leigh Abby)

According to the National Center for Lesbian Rights, “having your name on the birth certificate does not guarantee protections if your legal rights are challenged in court — only an adoption or parentage judgment can ensure that parental rights will be respected.” It’s no surprise to anyone in a same-sex couple that we are held to a higher standard when it comes to parenting.

West says that when she and her wife first spoke to a lawyer about the adoption process she was shocked by the expense. “We saw prices anywhere between $5 to $10,000 to make sure we had the same rights as other parents," she says. "Not more. Or extra. The same. We felt completely exploited.”

Madeleine Kahan Lee and her wife Ilana felt safe as same-sex parents in New York City, “but as a family who loves to travel, we felt that getting some additional protection would give us peace of mind.” They too felt exploited by the invasive process of second-parent adoption. “I was very upset to hear that a social worker would have to come into our home to observe us as a family,” she says. Ultimately, the couple chose to do an order of parentage, which became available in New York state in 2021. “We were assured by various attorneys that this would be sufficient protection for our family.” Still, the couple spent $3,000 on associated fees.

By the time the adoption of my own children was finalized in June 2021 — a bittersweet way to kick off Pride Month — Sam and I felt less celebratory and mostly exhausted. The hearing was virtual due to COVID-19 restrictions and honestly, we were OK with that. We just wanted to put the experience behind us and move forward as a family, because nothing had really changed.

Barriers in marrying and creating our families are nothing new to anyone in the queer community, but it’s not always clear just what those barriers are. For queer parents across the country, safeguarding our privacy and the safety of our children comes at a cost, one that isn’t limited to the financial. “I don’t care if wedding photographers turned us away because we listed two brides on our contact list. That doesn’t bother me.” says West. “But we are going to make sure that we never have to feel hopeless or fearful in any scenario that involves making decisions for our family.”

This mindset is what propels us through hoops, both legal and otherwise, and inspires us to share our stories and celebrate our families. Being a parent is a universal challenge, but for LGBTQ parents, it’s one that doesn’t come easy.

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