The word adoption is synonymous with babies and expectant parents, joy and dreams come true. For most, it’s about families becoming complete and children becoming a permanent part of a legally recognized household.
My story is more complicated.
Recently, I found myself in the atypical and unexpected position of discussing adult adoption with the woman who became my roommate two-and-a-half years ago when I desperately needed a safe place to collapse and recover from a lifetime of trauma. We were strangers who became fast family; she was the perfect big sister and, after understandable initial trepidation about opening her home to a stranger, her extended family and friends have become my family and friends.
Last year my childhood stocking hung on the fireplace and there were gifts under the tree for me—the first time I’ve had a family Christmas since my adopted mother decided I was gay and told me not to come home for the holidays in December 2011.
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It hadn’t always been that way. Growing up, my adoptive parents would tell me the bedtime story about how I was wanted, desperately, for the ten years they waited for me. They loved me before they even knew me. While I still believe the sentiment to be true, I have learned over the past 38 years that loving someone does not a healthy environment or nurturing relationship make.
It’s also become clear to me that the caregiving contract between parents and children hardly ends at age 18—especially at a time when we are watching our social safety net be dismantled piece by piece—and it flows in two directions. Unless you are in a family with wealth and security spanning generations, concern about whether the kids will be able to land a good enough job (or jobs, let’s be frank) to support themselves and whether parents and grandparents will have enough in their retirement for their elder care has only increased over the past few decades.
In families where a parent, sibling, or child is partially or completely disabled and can’t live alone or requires daily caregiving, the legal recognition of these relationships is particularly important. Caregivers often must make decisions about treatment and handle a disabled person’s affairs during hospitalizations. In situations where the caregiver’s ability to work full time is diminished, being able to claim a disabled dependent on their annual taxes can be vital—especially when, as any person utilizing disability or Medicaid assistance will tell you, the “benefits” are almost never sufficient.
Knowing all of that and not trusting that my parents would even be reachable, let alone have my best interest at heart should I need a legal decision-maker to show up for me, I began a conversation about adult adoption with my roommate.
While I don’t need legal recognition to know that she—and the other members of my family-by-choice—care for me in a true and permanent way, being adopted (again) would bestow and revoke important rights that most families take for granted. The parents I grew up with are still my legal next of kin despite the estrangement; because I never intend to get married, this would last the rest of my life. (This also affects people on disability; they often cannot get married or risk losing the social security and Medicaid support that, in many cases, keeps them alive.) As someone who has multiple mental illness diagnoses and precarious finances due to my health, the luck of life, and trauma, being able to trust my legal next of kin is extremely important.
Last year as I covered Rep. Tim Murphy’s “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act” for Rewire, I listened to advocates raise red flags about the increased power caregivers would have if the bill passes. One of my recurring post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) nightmares is my current adoptive mother finding a loophole that allows her to have me committed. Her suggestions and pressure are what led to my incorrect Bipolar II disorder diagnosis in my early 20s—one that put me on a path of multiple drug trials, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness when no treatment worked (because I wasn’t bipolar), and delayed accurate diagnoses for almost 15 years.
When those nightmares first cropped up, I talked to my roommate about giving her medical power of attorney. She agreed to take on the responsibility, but as I thought about it more, I realized those aren’t the only legal rights between parent and child. While reading How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics by Laura Briggs, which I reviewed for Rewire, I found myself identifying with the poor folx in the chapter on same-sex marriage. The LGBTQ movement was split over the push for marriage equality. A marriage certificate wouldn’t keep LGBTQ people from getting fired, losing custody of their children, or getting evicted from their homes, so was it the battle to engage in—especially when other documents like living wills could confer certain rights?
Some couples, as the New York Times reported, did seek adult adoption as a recourse when there weren’t other options available to them. Yet those living in poor, rural areas especially couldn’t afford the attorney and court fees to file all the paperwork necessary, making them their loved one’s legal next of kin, to take the place of a marriage license they could get for less than $100.
As I read Briggs’ words, I considered how many documents would be needed and what they would cost to usurp enough of my current adoptive parents’ rights for me to sleep well at night. When I found out I could be adopted as an adult with just a couple of forms, a few hundred dollars, and a month or two waiting period for processing, it suddenly seemed the most practical option—one that would protect me against all the possible circumstances and events I couldn’t imagine or predict.
I quickly realized that we qualified in the state of California (she’s more than ten years older) and that my current adoptive parents wouldn’t have to approve or even be notified—an important piece as I’m not doing this to punish them. I’m doing what is best for me and hopefully what my roommate will decide is best for us. She knows I’m not vying for inheritance rights; material things have never mattered to me, much to my current adoptive mother’s dismay. I would like to be able to help with her aging parents or even with her, should my care be helpful. I know what it’s like to be an only child worried about caring for elderly parents on my own and if I can ease some of that burden by having legal rights that allow me to stand in for her should she be unavailable, it would be my honor to do so.
Our situation is unique, because most adult adoptions are primarily about inheritance rights. People routinely adopt their new spouses’ children; foster families often have to wait until the children are of age to officially adopt them; and reunions between adoptees and birth parents sometimes result in new legal families. Whether or not my roommate—who was teary-eyed after I finished my practicality-filled rambling pitch—decides to make me an official, legal part of her family, I know that I have support here. I trust her completely.
I’m not sure I’ll ever be well in the sense that our individualistic society demands of us. I’ve come to emotional terms with that, but still have to engage in the business of being alive: paying rent, eating, and working. And tending to my health. Should there ever be a time that the best thing for me is to be hospitalized whether or not I want that, I trust her to weigh all the implications and make that call. Should there be an unthinkable accident, I trust her to talk to the other members of my family-by-choice and see that my wishes are carried out whether or not I have up-to-date paperwork on file.
In the end, for me, considering going through the adoption process as an adult is about having the right to configure my family the way that’s best for me—a right we should all have. We may not get to pick the family that raises us, but we should have a say in who we spend our time and emotional capital on as adults. I choose the people who saved my life when I most needed it, when the social safety net completely failed me.