For the first time in my life, at thirty-three, I sat in Family Court, the court where family addition dreams become official. I was there to fulfill my dream of officially being part of a family.
On my own, since my early teens, left me without family or anyone legally in charge or otherwise responsible for my whereabouts or well-being. My teenage friends were in awe of my freedom, but I was envious of their family connections and obligations. I could never assume a seat at a family holiday celebration table, or an invitation to a family party. When it came to applying for a college loan, I didn't have anyone to fall back on for financial support. I had to file a separate document, one that declared my legal independence. When I got my first real job, there was no family member to call waiting to hear the good news.
But today, that would change. In a few hours I would officially have a legal mother, one of my own choosing. In anticipation of it all going well, we planned a “baby shower” party with just a few close friends later in the day.
I looked forward to leaving the courtroom and to the celebration.
Most adoptions are between strangers, excited parents willing to love a child regardless of their birth circumstance, but I had known my mother-to-be for many years. It had been a lucky meeting for both of us.
We had grown very close.
Often, we stumbled at awkward introductions, using first names instead. She wasn’t my mother, and I wasn’t her daughter, even though it appeared otherwise.
Today that awkwardness would end, having no need to explain our connection during introductions. We could now legally declare our relationship with the simple description of mother and daughter.
We shared lots of interests. We loved the same books and TV shows. We liked shopping at the same stores. Simple things.
We laughed a lot together and cried too.
At Christmas when opening presents, we discovered we bought one another the same gift.
We both knew this was a connection meant to be.
When I gave birth to my son, she officially became his “Grandy.” A name she picked for the occasion.
They became very close as well.
Talking into the wee hours one night, we realized that she would have no legal rights or input regarding my son if anything happened to me.
She called a girlfriend lawyer who gave her the easy solution. “Adopt her,” she said. “Legally become her mother.”
We started the process.
Lots of paperwork and filing of documents were required of both of us. I needed to secure my original birth certificate, a lengthy process of phone calls and notarized paperwork. I would be issued a new birth certificate at the end of the adoption process and my original no longer easily accessed, removed from the system. It was a few months of answering our lawyer’s questions, reviewing documents, adding our signatures and trips to the notary. But the hours of preparation brought us to this day and this courtroom.
The surroundings were not like a TV courtroom, a windowless room with guards by the door.
They designed this courtroom with large windows on three sides.
And the morning sun streamed in.
A table, set with an assortment of children’s books plus crayons and paper, lay before us.
The courtroom was filled with couples of all types and ages, entertaining and coddling infants and toddlers.
It was more like a crowded daycare center than a courtroom.
There was a measurable level of joy felt in the room. I smiled, which helped to calm the butterflies doing cartwheels in my stomach.
We looked around and took the only empty seats available second row from the back.
I could see on the information screen our scheduled appearance time was in an hour and fifteen minutes. I wondered if the court and the powers would approve our adoption papers or find something that still needed further investigation.
The nameplate on the judge's desk read: Daphne Danelle, Judge of the District Family Court.
It wasn’t a bench raised up high like we see on TV, simply a long rectangle desk that would put people sitting across the judge at the same eye level, less intimidating and more personable I hoped.
My nervous energy kept me keenly aware of the time and wondering what would happen next.
At precisely 9:00 a.m., Judge Danelle walked in, took her place behind her desk, and pulled files from the papers stacked before her. She was maybe forty, with shoulder-length blonde hair, and just the right amount of makeup applied to look pretty and approachable.
On TV, everyone stands when the judge enters. No one noticed her arrival in this courtroom. There were at least two dozen adults busy with their new family members to be and keeping them happy and entertained was a full-time endeavor. There were pastel colored diaper bags on laps and floors, with all the paraphernalia spilling out everywhere. My eyes were now glued on the judge.
Even though I was excited about today’s outcome, being stuck in an unfamiliar process was unnerving.
But I was an eager learner.
It took only minutes before Judge Danelle called the first case.
I couldn’t hear exactly what the Judge was saying to the couple called, but what I noticed was the judge never cracked a smile.
She was concentrating on the papers at hand. She had questions to ask of the new parents and boxes to check off as completed. Not that she had a scowl on her face or a negative attitude, there just wasn’t time built into this process for admiring compliments.
She had a schedule to stick to, and taking time to smile and making small talk wasn’t included.
No matter how a toddler acted up during the process, Judge Danelle didn’t blink or miss a beat, never wavering in her approach to the business at hand.
She was not getting sidetracked by cuteness.
It took about fifteen minutes of verbal exchange while Judge Danelle reviewed documents and formalized all with her signature.
And that was it.
They completed the adoption process with paperwork; signed and sealed.
There were no personal questions about the how or why of the adoption. No need to reveal the emotional journey the parents had been on to this point.
It was becoming clear that this was the last checkpoint for paperwork and nothing else.
I took a long breath. I knew I could do this without breaking into nervous tears.
I was ready.
The next appointment was called.
I watched the interaction of adults trying to get babies and toddlers to behave a certain way that would suit a courthouse environment.
The sounds of rattles and squeak toys were this courtroom's soundtrack, with giggles and laughter mixed into it all.
But Judge Danelle never smiled or wavered from her professional persona, no matter how cute, loud, or out of control the child before her became.
Impressive. They called our case number.
It was finally our turn.
My turn to officially be a daughter, to be able to call someone Mom.
I wondered whether my legs would move and if I could walk the few yards to the desk where the judge was waiting.
But my mom-to-be pulled me along like a small child, and I quickly found myself at the desk looking right at Judge Danelle.
Two adults in front of Judge Danelle, me, and my mom-to-be.
The judge proceeded like normal.
Nothing different to see here. Just an adult getting adopted.
My mom-to-be and I found each other’s hands.
We held them out of sight while the judge read the same thing she read to the other new families.
“We are here today to formalize the process of the listed party written within, to proceed with being adopted….”
My brain took a bullet ride to the past after hearing her say the word “adopted.”
It went back to the first time I heard the word like a movie about my life being rewound.
I was eight years old and playing outside on a newly mowed hill with my friend Lynn.
Lynn was one of those kids who stood out and shined no matter what she did.
She was good at everything in school. She was the first to raise her hand in class, eager to answer a question and give her opinion. They always picked her first for any team sport. You were sure to win with her on your side.
Her confidence and abilities fascinated me.
During one playdate, she randomly yelled out to me from the top of the hill, “I’m adopted. Do you know what adopted means?”
I answered, “No.”
She said, “My mom went to the hospital and got to pick out the best baby there to take home, and it was me.”
Lynn ran happily off to another place in the field.
I took in this new information.
My mother beat me regularly.
It was never for any wrongdoing on my part.
It was always unexpected and confusing why I received this treatment.
Now Lynn had given me some understanding.
My mother had not been allowed to pick out the best baby in the hospital.
She had to take me home.
That explanation served me well for many of my young years, as pathetic as that sounds.
I was clear I just needed to get “better.”
To shine like Lynn.
A toddler’s shriek jolted me back into the courtroom.
My new mother and the judge finished signing papers and exchanging copies back and forth across the desk.
The judge passed to me a short stack of legal papers with my new birth certificate on top.
The line for the mother’s name was no longer blank. It now was filled in with my new mother’s name.
It was officially stamped and signed with Judge Danelle’s signature.
I kept my eyes glued on Judge Danelle, giving me a place to focus, keeping me from getting dizzy as my brain spun from the morning's experience.
She wished us the best of luck with the adoption. And then it happened.
The judge, who never once that morning broke her professional demeanor, smiled.
Not a big proud “bright white teeth showing,” smile.
Just a quick little sweet smile.
It went straight to my heart.
Like she knew.
Today I got to shine.
Ms. Lee spent thirty years in the advertising and fashion business, creating direct mail and advertising campaigns responsible for producing millions of dollars of revenue for clients, including Disney, TJ Maxx, Lillian Vernon, and The Company Store.