December 4, 2020

When the Forms Don’t Fit Your Family

I’ve already signed dozens of forms for my two children just three years into parenthood, and each one adds to my building frustration, pain and exhaustion. Every time, I start off my relationship with the institutions caring for my children feeling resentment, because of the carelessness behind a few simple words.

Almost all of the forms ask for information about my children’s mother and father. But, like the majority of American families with children, our family does not consist of two different-sex parents in their first marriage. My kids have two mothers and no father. So, 16 years after marriage equality came to my state of Massachusetts, and five years after it became recognized in all of the United States, why am I still filling out forms that don’t reflect the reality of a modern family structure?

Signing yet another field-trip permission slip is probably not high on many parents’ lists of what they love about parenthood, but for L.G.B.T.Q. parents, stepparents, single parents and others who don’t fit neatly into a one-mom–one-dad family structure, the familiar dread is not simply about a tedious chore. Knowing that the staff working with your kids didn’t care enough about your family’s existence to change a line in a Word document hurts.

I started worrying about parental paperwork before my kids were even born. It began with concerns about how my wife and I would be listed on their birth certificates, and then on their adoption paperwork. I gave birth to our first child and my wife to our second, and with each the non-carrying mother had to adopt the baby to secure her parental rights, even though they were both born into our marriage. Asking a judge permission to be the mother that I already am was an enraging and humiliating process to have to go through at all, but the language of the paperwork was an extra kick in the gut.

I was shocked when I saw Mother and Father, and Husband and Wife, on the forms for me to adopt our second child in Massachusetts, a state that, after all, became the first in the country to change the marriage license to ask for Party A and Party B, in 2004. I sat at the kitchen table seething with resentment as I read over the two pages I had to fill out to request that the court waive the required home study by the Department of Children and Family Services. I remembered during the adoption of our first child, in Connecticut, when our 4-month-old’s court-appointed advocate stopped by our apartment to make sure all was in order after our judge told us, “I’ve never waived an adoption home study before, so I’m not going to start now.”

The first page of the Massachusetts home-study waiver started with “I am the male petitioner in the within adoption of my wife’s natural child” and the other with “I am the female petitioner in the within adoption of my natural child.” I emailed the court clerk to help me fill it out myself to avoid paying a lawyer. I kept my tone calm and professional, but my blood was boiling. She replied that I would be the male petitioner and I should cross out “male” and “husband” and write in the correct terms. I swallowed my anger and did as she instructed.

After the adoptions came sign-up forms for pediatricians’ offices, baby music classes, a pediatric dentist, preschool. When we were choosing a day care for our firstborn, we agreed that a form asking for Mother and Father information, instead of Parent/Guardian, would be a deal breaker. We didn’t want our child taught by people who hadn’t given a moment’s thought to our family. Then we found that every day care in our area used the form language we feared.

“Maybe it’s small to some people, but it’s a big deal to us,” Darcie Palin, a counselor at a day program for people with disabilities, who lives in Bristol, Connecticut, told me. She was furious when one day she received a letter confirming enrollment from her 6-year-old son’s public school, which listed her wife as the father. Palin had already filled out the school enrollment form by crossing out “father” and writing in “parent,” an approach many L.G.B.T.Q. parents use. That night, as soon as her son had gone to bed, Palin exploded into a venting session with her wife.

Palin contacted the principal of the school, who said she had made a change at the district level within days of hearing about the issue. However, weeks later when Palin received follow-up school paperwork the envelope addressed her wife as “Mr.” What bothers Palin the most is wondering what would have happened if a school nurse or other staff member had glanced at that paperwork and asked her son about contacting his dad. “That would have thrown him off and made him feel like he has to explain himself, explain his family,” she said.

For Tiffany Muskrat, an artist, student and barista living in Lynnwood, Wash., every parent-teacher conference takes five minutes longer than expected because the teacher needs to go get a third set of papers and a third chair, never anticipating that a family might have more than two parents involved. Muskrat, a gender-fluid stepparent to four children who have five involved parental figures, “feels like a bother instead of a participant” when asked if a third line should be drawn so that they are able to sign their stepchild’s forms.

Brian Esser, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., is a lawyer who helps families with adoptions, a specialty he pursued after he and his husband became adoptive parents in 2011. He’s lost count of the times he’s crossed out “mother” to write in “father” on forms for his two sons. In January 2020, he received a phone call from someone conducting a survey for the Centers for Disease Control about children and the flu vaccine. The survey’s questions focused on the child’s mother and had no flexibility for families without one. Esser explained that his kids weren’t being raised by their birth mother, but ended up answering the questions as well as he could with what he knew about her.

“It felt like a deliberate attempt to exclude different types of families on the part of the federal government,” Esser said. “The more I thought about it the more upset I got, because this is bad research, this is bad science. Why are they spending money to develop data that’s basically going to be garbage?”

When Esser and his husband enrolled their older son in the local Park Slope public elementary school, they noticed the forms were not inclusive, but they didn’t say anything in an effort to not make waves. When they enrolled their younger son three years later and the forms were still not inclusive, they did complain, and even got local politicians involved, but found no resolution. Esser points out that in the end it’s not his “job as an individual parent to audit the Department of Education to be using proper forms.”

Sophia Arredondo of Queens, N.Y., is the Director of Education & Youth Programs at GLSEN, an advocacy organization for L.G.B.T.Q. K-12 students. She agrees that “the unfair burden is on us to tell educators about our family when documents don’t acknowledge that we exist,” adding that enrollment forms should have multiple options such as “caregiver” and “guardian” to encompass the many adults involved in children’s lives. Arredondo also notes that “changing paperwork is only one small step to creating fully inclusive and affirming schools.”

A resource produced by Family Equality, an advocacy organization for L.G.B.T.Q. families, suggests inclusive paperwork language as the top way a school can welcome our families, and also lists offering diverse books and imagery in classrooms. Schools should also be sensitive in preparing activities for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, and avoid sponsoring gendered events such as a father-daughter dance.

Arredondo, a queer parent whose children are now young adults, remembers that “school social functions in elementary school like Donuts With Dads, Muffins With Moms, Father–Daughter Dances and other functions, were clear messages to me that my family, and those of others in my circle, were not invited to be a thread in the larger fabric of the school community.”

There are more egregious examples of discrimination, of course, but this seemingly small one continues to grate on my wife and me. Something about it hurts more than an off-the-cuff comment, knowing that the staff I trust with my children’s development and regularly see at drop-off refer often to the paperwork and don’t take the time to change it. Every time, seeing words that only apply to certain families underlines how the world is not yet set up for us.