It was a pretense and notion that having documentation would liberate our early melanated ancestors in the first days of America. All throughout our time in the land of free, papyrus—while not the answer—has mattered.
Serving as a protective shield, it helped some of us avoid death or move between states. It allowed for access. One might say having the right papers may be just as important as having money. Maybe through early memories, perhaps epigenetics, I learned that in this country having receipts, ahem paperwork, matters.
Kendal and I started dating over 10 years ago. When we first met, I did not want to include her 6-year-old daughter in our relationship. But despite my futile objections, Emmy was always an equal part of our relationship. Like her mother, Emmy was and continues to be a beautiful spirit, balancing intelligence, kindness, introspection, loyalty, beauty, and humor.
Anytime you saw Kendal and Emmy, you would see me.
As time passed and Kendal’s trust in me grew, my role in Emmy’s life expanded. Kendal’s ability to get time off of work was limited due to her job as a secretary at an assisted living facility. (It’s incredible the scarce resources we provide families, especially single parents.)
So after the first year of dating Kendal monogamously, you could find Emmy and me at her doctor’s appointments, explaining cold symptoms, tummy aches, or the occasional heat rash. While they didn’t question or push it, at the time I felt uneasy putting “mother” on the health forms. I did not like lying in front of Emmy. And honestly, neither of us thought that designation was appropriate.
Couple that with living in Florida, a state known for orange juice, moderate conservatism, and homophobia. I feared that someone at the doctor’s office would see through our thinly veiled rouse. My mind would conjure up worse-case scenarios where both Kendal and Emmy would face extreme punishments.
Becoming Mom 2 (Mom Too)
Two years into our relationship, Kendal and I decided to live together and genuinely commit to each other, sans any legal paperwork. The closest thing to proof was both of our names on our apartment’s lease.
It was really a natural progression of our increased interdependence with each other. Anytime you saw Kendal and Emmy, you would see me. Anytime you saw me, you would see Kendal and Emmy. We were three peas in a pod.
At parent-teacher conferences, her fourth-grade teacher loved to greet Kendal and me with hugs. I took pictures and beamed with pride as Emmy sang in her school’s annual Black History Month and Christmas performances. You would find Kendal and me at Emmy’s school carnivals and fairs. I was a regular at the after-school pick up, and if any random kid would point at me, Emmy’s friends stated, “Oh, that’s Summer.”
By words, actions, and deeds, Emmy gave me the all clear. Slowly and consciously, I transitioned into being “Mom 2” (Mom Too) and she into my daughter. When it was time to pick a middle school, we collectively visited campuses and chose Emmy’s preferred school.
Yet as our relationship deepened and the years passed, I felt that something was amiss. I realized that our commitments to each other and our family were solely verbal. While our words to each other solidified our journey to being a forever family, it meant little to anyone outside of our brood.
Despite my 5’ 1/2” petite stature, I am a fiercely protective person. (In my best impersonation of former Real Housewife of New Jersey Caroline Manzo, “Nobody messes with me and my family.”) Though I am not one to really care about the opinions of others, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the exposure of our separate and unequal family* with an asterisk. What if something happened to me? How could I ensure that Kendal and Emmy were taken care of? What if something happened to Kendal?
We had no way to protect Emmy. I couldn’t guarantee that she would be in my care should the worst happen.
The Universe heard my soul’s anxiety. Several critical legal decisions converged for our family. States began to recognize marriage between same-sex couples.
Getting Dem Papers
Separately, in 2010, the Florida Court of Appeals ruled the law that explicitly prohibited lesbians and gay men from adopting children was unconstitutional. Thirty-three years later, Florida’s most celebrated right-wing, queer-phobic, nut job Anita Bryant’s 1977 successful crusade of discriminating against Florida’s LGBTQ population—whom she called “sick and pathetic”—was finally being reversed.
Kendal and I now had a way to address our needs. A second-parent adoption allows a second parent to adopt a child without the “first parent” losing any parental rights. We finally had an option that gave Emmy two legal parents. That paper gave me the ability to put Emmy on my health insurance and other benefits I received at work. All of the rights and privileges I had could now be transferred to her, all because of some paper.
In 2011 we sat down as a family and decided to move forward. Kendal and I were going to get married in New York, and I was going to adopt Emmy.
At first, Emmy didn’t understand the point of adoption. Kendal and I were engaged. In her mind, since I already gave my word, stayed home with her when she was sick, played ”Rock Band” til our hands got sore, and embarrassed her at piano recitals, there was nothing else to do. Also as a shy and private person, she understandably wasn’t thrilled that we would have a home study and that she would have to talk to a social worker.
I explained to Emmy that the commitment I was making through adoption was unbreakable. Marriage to her mom didn’t legally require me to take care of her. The Adoption was my oath that no matter what happened, even if Kendal and I didn’t make it to forever, I was obligated to take care of her by law.
She understood the gravity and importance this meant to me and that it was another declaration of my love for both her and Kendal.
I legally became Emmy’s parent and her, my firstborn daughter.
But she wasn’t alone in her apprehension. In addition to it being expensive (as in thousands of dollars), I did not want to go through the emotionally arduous process. I was being poked and examined from every conceivable angle, both literally and figuratively:
I had to retain both a lawyer and a licensed social worker. Beyond Kendal’s expressed written consent, I had to fill out a 10-page questionnaire, get six letters of recommendation, an FBI background check, an employment confirmation, credit check, and a financial review.
I also had to get a full physical, including STD and HIV testing.
A social worker had to interview all of us together and separately, and also observe us during a home visit.
Lastly, we had to designate who Emmy would go to, should both Kendal and I pass away.
I understand all of the scrutinies—being responsible for someone else’s life is a big deal. It’s interesting though that biological parents do not have to go through this.
I have to admit, despite being overwhelming and a lot of work, I appreciated the support I received throughout the process. Kendal without question is always my best friend and encourager. Emmy’s grandmother and her teachers wrote the most incredible and touching recommendation letters. We were lucky and selected a kind and caring social worker who made all of us feel at ease. She wrote a glowing report for the court affirming our Black, Queer, healthy, and loving family.
A year after the process started, and three months after Kendal and I got married, we went in front of the judge, and I legally became Emmy’s parent and her, my firstborn daughter. I got dem papers, and she has my last name, officially turning us to the Es in the Pod. She stopped calling me Summer, and now I am affectionately known as Ma, the same title I use for my mother.