The invisible parent

While many courts won't recognize the rights of non-biological gay parents, one woman refused to let go of her child.


Lu Vickers
May 25, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Witness the archetypal ex-wife: She is uncooperative and bitchy. She sets unreasonable guidelines. She moves the kids out of state. She is manipulative. She sleeps with your lawyer. She jacks up the child support and spends the money on herself. The anger divorced men feel is palpable. And justly so.

The estimated 42 percent of men who fade out of their children's lives after a divorce are in pain. That they lost their children -- and their money -- is all her fault. Some men are egalitarian enough to shift the focus to themselves. An old student of mine said he thought it was best for his child if he simply disappeared; the back and forth between parents was too hard on the boy. He nobly gave his son up so the boy could be adopted by his stepfather. My therapist's ex-husband told her that it was too painful for him to see their child every other week. He couldn't take the heartbreak; he loved his boy too much. She volunteered this information to me when I was sitting on her couch, seeking ways to maintain contact with my own son in the midst of a bitter breakup. Despite her suggestions, I did not want to join the pack of fathers slouching toward invisibility.

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Actually, I was already invisible as a father to everyone but my son, Jordan. I am a woman after all. A female father, as it were. I'm gay, and my ex-girlfriend of seven years turned uncooperative and bitchy when it came to letting me see my son. Five years into our relationship, we had Jordan, but since she birthed him, the law was on her side. Unlike a "real," biological parent, I didn't exist in the eyes of the law. In fact, acknowledging my existence might have endangered Jordan's relationship, not only with me, but also with his mother. We live in Florida, and here, announcing that you are lesbian is reason enough to lose your child, even if you are the biological parent. As recently as 1996 a judge awarded custody of a child to her father, a convicted murderer, because the child's mother was a lesbian, and therefore legally unfit. Florida is also the only state that legally prohibits gays from adopting children or acting as foster parents.

Like heterosexual couples, gay partners can establish one another as legal guardian in the event that one or the other parent dies. The problem is that these wishes may not be enforced by the courts, depending on where you live. However, the situation is improving. About 20 states allow second parent adoptions, in which one partner adopts the child of the parent who already had legal custody, either through adoption or birth.

In 1989, the year before Jordan was born, Minnie Bruce Pratt published "Crime Against Nature," a collection of poems about losing custody of her children because she wouldn't deny being a lesbian. She wrote: "If I had been more ashamed, if I had not wanted the world / If I had hid my lust, I might not have lost them. This is where the shame starts." I took her words to heart.

As if being invisible in the "law" wasn't enough, now that we were breaking up, I ceased to exist in my ex's eyes as well. Never mind that I had raised Jordan for two years; never mind that he considered me his parent too. One day, on my arrival at his preschool, he nearly tackled another kid in his hurry to reach me. "That's my daddy," he shouted. I guess I am a sort of daddy, the lesbian version of pater. The one who didn't give birth. The not-mother. The truth is though, I don't consider myself a father and Jordan has called me daddy only that one day. For most kids, though, people come in male-female pairs. They fill in the blanks the only way they know how. "Oh, you're not his mama? You must be his daddy." Never mind that I have ample breasts and a swivel in my hips.

Ending the relationship with my ex nearly killed me, because it meant that seeing Jordan would depend on her moods. Sometimes she let me see him; sometimes she didn't. I was angry, but I was also committed to staying in Jordan's life. Over the months, the inconsistency of our visits took their toll. I cried every time I dropped Jordan off, and I had nightmares about losing him or misplacing him. I became fed-up with my ex's jerking me around. Plus, Jordan started to act out at his pre-school, his baggy-eyed teacher telling me tales of biting and spitting. I finally understood how a man would decide that the pain of hanging on to a child is too great. Better to just let the vine wither, let the fruit fall away.

A less committed parent might have given up, but I could not. Was my inability to let go of my son a natural byproduct of being a woman, of having "maternal instincts?" Was I more mama than papa? Or was I simply more committed to my child than many divorced fathers are? Ultimately, my gender didn't have a lot to do with my staying power. I made a promise to Jordan at his birth -- I will always take care of you -- and I meant to keep my promise.

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Since going to court was out of the question, I was going to have to deal with my ex directly, one on one. She wanted me to play with Jordan at her house -- I played with Jordan at her house. She forbid me to take him out of the city limits -- I stayed within the city limits. I left this woman because I felt strangled by her; now to see our son, I had to let her call the shots all over again. Dealing with her angered me to no end, but I kept reminding myself that this battle was about Jordan, not about her. I was willing to do anything to see my child. Then, a few months after our breakup, Jordan's mother announced that she didn't want me to ever see Jordan again. "You're not his parent," she said. "He'll forget you. It will be best."

During the four months Jordan and I were apart, I didn't know if I would ever see him again. I could have mourned his loss and moved on with my life. I could have convinced myself that I was doing the right thing, that yes, he would forget me. But that wasn't how I felt. I was insane with grief; I felt like he'd been kidnapped and I needed to look for him 24 hours a day. Of course I knew where he was physically, but I was forbidden to see him. Many divorced fathers find themselves in the same situation: Their ex-wives won't let them see their kids and if custody has been decided by a court of law, they, like me, have no legal recourse.

One Web site, Divorcecoach.com, suggests that divorced fathers view the positive aspects of not seeing their children, that they should think: "I have uninterrupted time to devote to my work/career, the opportunity to spend adult time with friends, and the opportunity to spend time with a new partner ... Rejoice that your children are with their mom so that you can get your work done and develop or nurture new relationships." This sounds like most men's lives before divorce to me. I believe that little bit of advice reveals the reason so many men walk away from their children. They are simply never taught to value their children above themselves or their work. The men who manage to overcome the odds and maintain relationships with their children are the ones who are able to reject a lifetime of cultural baggage, often at great personal and professional costs.

Unlike men, who are told to throw themselves at everything but their children, for once the cultural baggage was on my side. If I didn't do something to see my child, something was wrong with me as a woman, as a mother. I had to be proactive. To paraphrase Zora Neale Hurston, I did not belong to the sobbing school of fatherhood who held that nature somehow had given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings were all hurt about it. No, I didn't weep at the world -- I was too busy sharpening my oyster knife.

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I had ditched my therapist for telling me to get over the loss and move on like her ex-husband had, so I went to see the minister of a church to ask for help. She didn't tell me to focus on my job or my love life. She told me to think of my boy, send him thoughts of love. Zing 'em right through the air. She told me stories of people separated who hadn't given up on loving each other. When they were finally reunited, their love was just as strong as it had been before, because it had been kept alive in each of their heads. On a more practical level, she suggested I use the post office.

And I did. I spent hours making cards for Jordan and sending them off every few days. For me, those hours were equivalent to the time I might have spent in court arguing my case. The fact that I was exercising my right to spend time with my son, even when he wasn't present, was my way of tackling the situation, of shouting at my ex, "You can't control my love!" Every second I spent drawing, cutting and pasting was time spent thinking of my son. I almost felt like we'd been together. I was forcing my ex to face up to her unfair control of the situation. She would have to throw mail meant for Jordan into the garbage; she would have to lie to him, to hide from him a loving relationship. In the end she couldn't do it. I made Jordan a killer Valentine and a week or so later my ex called and asked me when I wanted to see him. Today?

When I finally did see Jordan again, it had been four months. He was almost 3 years old. My deepest fear was that he would not recognize me, that I would be just another face in the room. Had he forgotten? When I saw him, he smiled and stretched out his arms to me. He said, "I cried for you." So much for thinking children have the brains of blue crabs, that they can ever forget a parent.

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Jordan is now 9 years old. So much has changed in those six years. I have a new girlfriend and we have two other children, Samuel, 3, and Elias, 4 months. Jordan is with us at least four days a week. He does his homework, sweeps the porch, sells lemonade, terrorizes and adores his little brothers. His mother is still a giant pain in the ass, but we have all learned to put up with and even appreciate her shenanigans -- how she shows up at dinnertime to pick Jordan up, and ends up eating all our leftovers; how she invites us over for dinner and somehow gets us to cook the meal. She is a necessary evil. The way my partner and I see it, we have joint custody of her until Jordan is 18 and then we can let that vine wither, let that funky fruit fall away.


Lu Vickers

Lu Vickers lives in Tallahassee, Fla.

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