Forever for my girlfriend M and I began on a blissful day in May of 2004. I stood before my bride, at the ceremony of our domestic partnership, with an ardent vision for the rest of our lives. While the country distressed over whether the union between the two of us should be defined as marriage — the president denounced it, the Pope declared it evil — while constrained by policy and pure white bodices, we exchanged a marriage-like promise.
M was my everything. I wanted to give her the entire world. So it’s devastatingly ironic that she would later take my entire world away: my son.
The two of us wanted children. During the time we discussed having a baby, our marriage was troubled. In hindsight, the trajectory of failure is clear: the marriage was never going to succeed. However, my love for M and my desire to become a mother were my primary focus.
I filled myself with hope and a plan: M and I addressed the growing distance between us and the probable reasons for it and headed to therapy. The honest work we did for our marriage temporarily mended our emotional wounds, but it couldn’t help the inescapably diverse visions we each had for our respective futures: I always wanted to be a mom, even when I was young and crazy. M didn’t feel the same.
But we made it through and somehow stayed together. We began, albeit naively, starting to talk about a family together and it felt like we could make it work.
The thread of warmth and optimism that held us together was our future baby.
We decided M should be the one to carry the baby. After she attempted artificial insemination twice, unsuccessfully, it was then that I decided to attempt the process to become pregnant.
On my second try, I was successful. I was pregnant and over the moon! We were elated to become mothers. Nine months later, I gave birth to our son, K.
Right away, there was a huge financial burden. M was always on/off with work throughout our marriage, so much so that I had to stop breastfeeding K after only two months so I could go back to work. M was happy about that, saying she wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. She was good with K and one of us needed to work to pay the normal life expenses (food, rent, gas) so I supported her staying home to try out a single paycheck home.
Soon after, my son was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease that required daily medication to keep him from bleeding out. Anyone who has dealt with someone who has a chronic disease knows what the constant stress of medication can be. Although my health insurance helped, it was still tough on everyone.
Every relationship changes when you have a baby. Your focus is so narrowly on your child that you notice less of the things your partner is doing within the dynamic. It took me until about a year and a half before I noticed M had finally checked out of our marriage.
Our sex life was non-existent; twice a year was about normal. It felt as though, despite M lying in the same bed as I, that I was going to sleep alone every night. I couldn’t keep us going. I would do anything for K and wouldn’t dream of doing anything to make his life harder, but M and I were hopeless. So we split up.
Ever since we’d had K, there was never really a question about who his parents were. M and I covered all the bases, despite me being his birth mother and the one with all custodial responsibilities. But eventually, M decided she wanted to adopt K, officially.
At the time, it didn’t seem like a big deal. She wanted it; K loved M and it wouldn’t change anything day-to-day, so I went along with it. When K was about 3, M became his adopted mother, even though we were no longer together.
Over the course of 5 years, things didn’t get much better. M and I still split the parenting load but I was still paying for everything. I had multiple spine surgeries, five total, and still worked in between, as M was still sporadically employed. I was even so nice as to keep M on my health insurance for 4 years after we split up. I wouldn’t have been able to face K if I hadn’t covered her and something were to happen.
Then June 2016 came. I was still barely managing to get by when I was served with papers. It was a packet from the courthouse saying M was taking legal action for full custody of K, sighting the amount of time she spent with him and my absence as a parent. (Mind you, my absence was due to work as I was the only financial supporter for K now.)
I was in shock. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Why would she do this? Why now? The most I got out of her about this was she “inherited $33,000 and hired a lawyer.” So, instead of using this influx of money for the betterment of our son, she decided it was in his best interest to get a court to forcibly remove my son from my custody, except for 4 days out of every month and 5 hours every Tuesday.
The feeling that took over me was the same insecure feeling of swimming in deep murky waters, vulnerable in a possibly threatening vastness, that feeling that leaves you breathless. While I could not predict the outcome of her threat, losing my son would be like succumbing to the threats that I feared swam below me.
The next feeling that overcame me was betrayal. It was I, after all, who allowed her to adopt him. It was I who secured M’s relationship with K subsequent to our separation.
That moment began the fight of my life. Those documents turned spring into winter, and I was swimming, breathlessly. I was overwhelmed by the prospect of losing custody of my son and incapacitated by the knowledge that I lacked the resources to wage a worthy court battle.
I was nauseated with idea that my relationship with my son was threatened because I couldn’t afford the high cost of legal assistance. How could a society make it possible to usurp the naturally endowed power of a birth mother and put her child up for sale? How is this an option?
A child deserves both of their parents. Some things should not be for sale.
It’s prudent to consider that maybe it wasn’t the lack of financial resources that weakened my legal maternal connection to my son. Was it something that money couldn’t buy, but I still couldn’t afford? Could it possibly be my homosexuality that socially bankrupted my odds of keeping my birthrights to my child? Could parental favor have been granted to M because the family she now lives within is heterosexual?
After M and I ended our relationship, I continued to live the lifestyle I had always chosen. M, however, began dating men. She met a man with whom she’s maintained a long-term relationship and now lives with — the same man who was entered into court documents as the head-of-household, responsible for all household finances. M, still, the stay-at-home mom. I, still, the working lesbian, living within a lesbian-led family with children.
As a desperate measure, I procured the resources to retain a lawyer by applying for a credit card. It was hardly the best option, but it was my only option. Prior to retaining a lawyer, I briefly attempted to represent myself. I filled out and filed a breadth of documents, in order to, at least, be a viable opponent in pursuit of my son and to preserve our relationship.
With my lack of knowledge of the legal system, my efforts proved to be futile and untimely. My case entered what is known as default. Essentially, that meant that whatever M has asked for would be granted. Even with the enlisted legal help and increasing credit card debt, the odds were not ever in my favor.
On a very early November morning, I sat beside my lawyer, in a room of towering wooden walls. The hearing was requested by my lawyer in an attempt to set aside the default and ask the court if my case could be presented: that with a lack of resources for proper legal counsel, I, as K’s birth mother, should be allowed to present arguments in pursuit of child custody battle, despite my case’s default status. My request was denied.
The judge lacked any sympathy for my position. The relationship to which I have dedicated my entire life was disregarded and denied any dignity.
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There was no pause for reflection for the judgment entered. I shrank inside of myself sitting in that frigid courtroom. The devastation inside me masqueraded as numbness until the grief consumed me: The woman I allowed to adopt my son used the same legal system to legally kidnap him.
And with one fell swoop, I lost the relationship I value most. I was removed from the natural rhythm of my son’s life.
I lost most of his bedtimes, his playtimes, our special battle-times when we use almost five feet of table space and spread out his figurines in an imagined Plants vs. Zombies game.
I was removed from every single school drop-off, all of the kisses goodbye. I lost most of his joyous laughter that fills the house, the face snuggles before an “I love you, mom.”
The courts told my son that I am not as important as M and my worst fear is that he will begin to believe it, even though I have told him his entire life that there is no one more important or more loved than him.
The grief is powerful. It’s massive. We all attempt to move it around to get the laundry done and to cook dinner, but a little of the life in our house has leaked out of the cracks. My fight will continue until justice is found within the legal system and the value of my family is recognized. A child deserves both of their parents.
Love is not for sale. Love is not vengeful. Love fights like hell until her boy comes home. I plan to appeal this judgment and any judgment not in favor of giving a child the right to spend equal time with both of his mothers.
This article was originally published in January 2017.
Marni Harris has been an author with YourTango since 2017.