After three failed adoption attempts, we finally brought home Tommy — a sweet-tempered 2-week-old with expressive, beautiful eyes who soon developed an easy, infectious laugh. I took an unpaid leave from my employer, a religious organization that had every doctrinal, and legal, reason not to let me but did so anyway. When I returned to work, my bosses agreed to a generous, flexible schedule for the next few months. Donna, meanwhile, had landed an extended overseas assignment and was working an exhausting schedule.
As often happens when a child arrives on the scene, our expectations of each other began to veer in opposite directions: I expected Donna to cut back her work hours; she expected me to cover most of the childcare and do the bulk of the household chores. Eventually, as things got more stressful, Donna and I got out of the habit of being kind to each other. We stopped really talking and started resenting each other.
I left Donna when Tommy was 3 years old. If I’d been married to a man, I would have had every expectation as my son’s primary caregiver to take him with me and, perhaps, receive some alimony-like compensation for my years of reduced income and earning potential. But because I am not officially Tommy’s mom, I couldn’t negotiate a binding custody settlement, much less even discuss child support.
Technically, I could even have left Tommy and Donna and never looked back. Never helped out. Never checked in. The state of Virginia — which ironically touts family values — doesn’t require anything of me. Naturally, that course of action never occurred to me. My biggest fear was that I'd be kept from Tommy somehow, which would blow my heart into a million pieces. And Donna, for that matter, has every right to refuse me access to him, but she hasn’t and never would.
Ultimately, she and I worked out a fully shared custody arrangement after tense and expensive negotiations with mediators, whom we needed to consult in lieu of attorneys, because our arrangement fell outside the legal system. In fact, we had to write our agreement carefully because of a 2004 law that extended Virginia’s existing ban on gay marriage to include "other arrangements between persons of the same sex purporting to bestow the privileges or obligations of marriage," of which child custody is one. So even when Donna and I were doing the right thing under the hardest of circumstances, Virginia was eager to remind us that our "kind" were different from other state residents.