Mark is speeding down I-196 in the rural hills of Michigan. He looks in the rearview mirror and sees something he thought he had long ago decided against. He sees a boy savoring blueberries from a roadside stand. Michigan and blueberries are a part of Mark’s past and present. This boy may be his future.
Mark* thought he had left the idea of being a dad behind a long time ago. At 54 and a graduate student at UW-Madison, he’d come off a long career in advertising, bought a bucolic farm and downshifted into days of reading and teaching and nights of movie watching and Badger hockey. He and his partner, Todd*, 53, a child psychiatrist, celebrated their 19th anniversary as a couple in October.
“As a gay couple, we had talked about adoption a long time ago, and I was like, ‘I don’t think so!’” Mark says.
But when Mark’s sister called with a story of a boy in trouble, Todd and he began to talk again. What would it mean for two men in their 50s to take in an 11-year-old? How would their gay partnership be seen by the boy and by the system? And can two men nurture a child in all the ways he needs?
But the questions persisted and then later amplified when they learned more about the boy’s situation. Mark and Todd knew they needed to act.
Their decision led to the boy with the blueberries in the big, blue Toyota Tundra. But the story is neither a fairy tale nor near its conclusion. For as many questions as Mark had at first, he now has many more. Ultimately, it’s a story about two men raising a child they never expected to have. And about a boy adapting to a loving home, something he’s never known.
The boy, Sean*, was a distant cousin of Mark’s and grew up in a troubled home, raised by a mother barely able to care for herself and an enabling grandmother. He was eventually placed in foster care after no relatives stepped forward to care for him. Mark and Todd first heard about this family trouble in Florida several years ago and briefly entertained the idea of helping.
The idea became more real in December 2012 when a game of telephone with news of continuing problems for his young relative reached their ears. Mark learned more regarding Sean’s situation and, after a day of digging, the moment Todd returned home from work, he told his partner what they needed to do.
“[He] immediately said, ‘We should do this. We should give him a home,’” Mark says. “It was that quick.”
After phoning the boy’s grandmother in January, Mark and Todd submitted an initial statement of interest in bringing the boy to Wisconsin to an agency in Florida.
In February, the Florida county began pursuing termination of Sean’s parents’ rights, an irreversible legal procedure that would leave him open for adoption. Unsure if their relationship would complicate legal proceedings, Mark and Todd never made their partnership explicit to the court at the outset. Although courts knew two men were looking to become new parents, Mark says, they were simply known at this point as “those guys from Wisconsin.”
“I think that they were reluctant to go ahead and say it’s a gay couple,” Mark says.
Mark and Todd visited Sean in March as part of a supervised meeting.
“We were introduced to [him] as just, ‘This is your cousin Mark and his friend Todd,’” Mark says, but he later raised the question.
“He did ask, ‘So what’s Todd to you?’” Mark says. Mark was not prepared to have this conversation, let alone in a car with the boy’s grandmother. But, after trying to pass the torch to his child psychiatrist partner, Mark eventually explained in as general words as he could.
“Well, first, I fumbled through it and said, ‘We’re as close as your uncle … and aunt.’”
“‘But are you friends?’” Sean asked.
“‘Yes, we’ve been friends for a long time, and we think of each other as the most important person in our life.’”
“‘So you’re really good friends.’”
“And that’s really how it was left at that point.”
While meetings between lawyers and social workers were under way in Florida, Mark and Todd opted to fund the next step in their journey to expedite the legal process.
Mark and Todd sought help from Adoptions of Wisconsin, a Madison-based adoption agency, to conduct a home study. Regardless of relation to the child, all new adoptive parents in Wisconsin must undergo a home study, says Executive Director Claire Schulz Bergman, who worked with Mark and Todd personally. A home study includes background checks, home walkthroughs, medical exams and references. Home studies look back as far as the parents-to-be’s childhoods and examines their plans for parenthood.
Adoptions of Wisconsin works primarily with pregnant birth mothers who want to place their children in the hands of parents who cannot biologically have their own children, although clientele demographics vary greatly, Bergman says.
Bergman was candid about the differences between heterosexual couples and same-sex couples when adoption plans arise. Surprisingly, Bergman says creating a family through adoption is often easier for same-sex couples than for heterosexual couples.
“[Heterosexual] families are the ones that … tend to have more discomfort raising a child that’s not biologically related to them,” Bergman says. Heterosexual couples who undergo fertility treatments tend to hold onto the idea that they had originally wanted a child that was biologically theirs, and resorting to adoption is not what they originally wanted.
“Most of our gay couples that have come in are just like, ‘We’ve always known that we want to be parents. We’ve always known adopting was going to be the way we’re going to do it,’” Bergman says.
In early April, Mark and Todd were urged by their lawyer to file for domestic partnership to make their home study stronger. The couple saw no point until then to go through what, in Mark’s opinion, is not a comparable to marriage equality.
“And, honest to God, we feel cheated,” Mark says. “We don’t want it unless we get the whole thing.”
Later that month, Mark received a call from Sean’s lawyer, asking them to come to Florida for a hearing the following week.
Three days and $2,500 in plane tickets later, Mark and Todd found themselves in a courtroom, waiting for their case to be heard.
In the end, the judge agreed to a plan for permanent guardianship, so Sean had a stable place to live. Terminating parental rights was officially off the table, meaning adoption was too. Mark says there are options in the future for adoption, but he was not concerned about any of that at the time.
“I didn’t even know what happened,” Mark says after his lawyer congratulated him on the case.
After the judge ruled in their favor, he met privately with Sean before returning to the courtroom.
“And then he came back and in a very serious sort of way looked out across this contemporary courtroom and said, ‘I have a question for the gentlemen from Wisconsin,’” Mark says. “And we’re like, uhhh, ok … And we’re in the gallery, so we stand up, and he says, ‘Has anyone explained to this child the concept of February in Wisconsin?’ We’re in Florida. And everybody laughs, even the bailiff laughs.”
Although they could not yet bring the boy home with them, Mark and Todd celebrated on their way.
“I got pretty drunk on the flight coming back,” Mark says. “I laugh because it’s probably one of the last times I’ll be able to do that, ever.”
Once the final paperwork finally went through and Florida approved their home study, Mark and Todd made plans to pick Sean up in early June, when a final court hearing would free him to go to his new home.
Normally, the hearing would not require their presence. But one final snafu raised its head a week before: The boy’s father discovered that Mark and Todd are a gay couple.
“Words he cannot bring himself to speak,” Mark says, “So he says, I don’t like ‘those people.’”
The father pushed for a revised placement order, which would not place his son with him but keep him in the foster care system.
So on June 3, Mark and Todd found themselves back in Florida with their pickup truck packed with the boy’s things. Sean had just finished his elementary school graduation ceremony and said goodbye to his mother and grandmother, but instead of getting on the road for Wisconsin, he, Mark and Todd headed to court.
The father never showed up, so the judge spoke to him over the phone instead. The only thing the father talked about, Mark says, was how he didn’t feel comfortable with Mark and Todd taking his son because they are partners.
“And he just couldn’t bring himself to say the word,” Mark says, “And the judge was just not going to suffer a fool on this.”
After speaking to Sean one more time, the judge gave them the go-ahead. As soon as the paperwork was approved, the new family bolted to the car and began the journey north.
“We tried to make [the trip] fun, but, oh, the fun was just beginning,” Mark says.
For Mark, the biggest changes since bringing his cousin to Wisconsin are predictably logistical. Now, the partners must be mindful of who can play escort when or preparing a proper dinner instead of scavenging.
“Some days we’d just come home and look at each other and say, ‘Ahh, let’s just forage. There’s stuff in the fridge; I’m not really hungry now; I don’t feel like making anything.’” Mark says, “And we were really fine with that. That’s not an option now.”
Mark and Todd made a commitment to dining together as a family unit as many times a week as possible around the boy’s schedule. Now devoted soccer dads, Mark and Todd are relieved their partnership has not had an adverse impact on Sean’s adjustment to school and extracurriculars.
“On top of everything else, the last thing we want is for him to be bullied or treated differently by an adult or a child because he’s living with us,” Mark says. “He’s got a difficult enough situation.”
Mark was initially concerned about how well a student with same-sex parents would be received in Cambridge’s small-town school system, but he was pleasantly surprised to be welcomed with open arms.
“Nobody ever said a thing,” Mark says. “We met the teachers, we met the people in the office, not a one has had an issue with us as us.”
Now that the trio has a handle on meal times and homework and youth sports sidelines, they’re tackling larger and longer-term issues, most tracing to Sean’s tumultuous decade in Florida.
“[He] comes with some baggage. A lot of baggage. A big matched set of baggage,” Mark says.
He has trouble trusting adults, and, Mark says, trusting Mark and Todd. They’re trying to develop a reciprocal trust – to enable him to believe in them and to get him to behave in ways that earn their faith in him. They’ve posted a Sean “Trust-O-Meter” in the kitchen, hoping to build honesty and thoughtfulness but some days don’t rise above a 2 on a scale of 10. They want Sean to know none of this affects their love or respect for him.
“We’re a family,” Mark says. “We try to reinforce that our family is a family in the same way that his friend Cooper’s family is a family even though they have a mom, dad, brothers and sisters. We reinforce that it’s not two individuals that are taking care of him.”
The very idea of being a family has drawn Mark and Todd closer together, so much so that he cares less about domestic partnership or whether Wisconsin “flips the switch” on gay marriage. To this boy, they already seem married – sleeping in the same room, finishing each other’s sentences.
“He’s our guy. We still haven’t settled on the right word, but he calls us his uncles. But we’re a family.”
They’re trying to look at life through a long lens, imagining Sean leaving for college from the farm in Cambridge. The visions are reassuring, parental. In the seven years between now and then, though, they know their labels of “uncles” and their idea of “family” will be challenged and changed. Mark has an easy word for what he wants Sean to be.
“Happy. I would like to think that’s the same thing most parents would hope for their kid is just that.”
*Names changed to protect family