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  Love With the Proper Stranger  
  When a gay couple decided to adopt, they thought they’d have time to prepare. Then fate threw them a curveball named Catherine.  
     
  BY MITCHELL OWENS  
     
 

The night before the World Trade Center fell, I became a father. The social worker said, “Congratulations. Consider yourself pregnant.” The adoption applications had been filed, and now the home study was complete. In nine to eighteen months, my partner and I would be the parents of a bouncing baby something—boy or girl; black, white, or mixed. We didn’t care about the details. Matthew and I just wanted a baby.

Be careful what you wish for. Forty-two days later, on the eve of my 40th birthday, I found myself sitting in a beige hotel room in the American Southwest—numb, nervous, seriously in need of a gin and tonic. A 7-week-old, seven-pound infant slumbered nearby in a dresser drawer that I’d made into a bed with a pillow and white towels (I didn’t know that room service supplies cribs as well as croissants). African, Irish, and German, she had a thick froth of milk-chocolate curls and skin like coffee with too much milk. We decided to call her Catherine, after my maternal grandmother.

My mother wept when she heard the news. Then she got real: “What do you know about taking care of a baby?” Mom had a point. Matthew and I had enough trouble grooming the dogs. And who knew when we’d finish painting the living room? But honestly, how hard could parenting be? “I was your first baby,” I said.

“What did you know?”

Long pause. Finally, the woman who brought up two boys largely on her own—my military-officer father was often away, in spirit if not in body—admitted what I’d suspected for years.

“Okay,” she said. “I faked it.” I have to admit that fatherhood wasn’t a biological imperative. Neither of us was looking to perpetuate family lines (our fertile siblings had taken care of that). We weren’t hoping to exorcise childhood miseries, save a marriage, or anchor lives gone adrift. Having a baby just seemed the natural order of things. I’d fallen for a tall, corn-fed, midwestern blond called Matthew Zwissler, and I wanted to raise a family with him.

Briefly, we considered surrogacy, imagining a child with his wide blue eyes or my wavy brown hair. Our parents’ reaction to this news was swift and humbling. “Why would you want to make a baby, when so many children have no one to take care of them?” my mother asked. “How could you be so selfish?”

Little did I know that we’d struck a nerve. Turned out that in the seventies, when Mom brought up the subject of adoption in the hopes of having a daughter, my father had refused. It had to be his DNA or none.

So for us, adoption was the plan. Anyway, we naïvely reasoned, nine to eighteen months was plenty of time to tidy our lives and find the perfect crib. Then one day, I was standing in the middle of Newark International Airport after a business trip, and the cell phone rang. It was the director of the adoption agency. A young woman had arrived, asking that her newborn daughter go to a gay couple; we were the only one on the waiting list. And we were not ready. I was in the middle of a major deadline at work and hadn’t closed out my 401(k) yet. (FYI: Adoption ain’t cheap, and we are not rich by any stretch of the imagination.) Matthew was about to open an antiques shop upstate. So, of course, we said, “Yes, we want her.” My partner got his landlord to cancel the store’s lease and headed to Fairway for formula and diapers, and I flew off to pick up our daughter.

We didn’t go into parenthood entirely ignorant. On a bedside table was a book by Penelope Leach, the Barbara Woodhouse of child rearing, but I’d never looked at it very closely, being too distracted by Law & Order. Instinct would be our guide: Feed, burp, change, don’t drop the child, and, when all else fails, fake it. Catherine slept in a laundry basket until my boss sent over a bassinet, and for several months, we bathed her in the kitchen sink.

A year and a half later, it’s so far, so good. We are parents: pram-pushing, diaper-changing, danger-wary parents. Only different. We’re conscious of the occasional raised eyebrow and censorious pruning of lips. Three men and a baby make a funny movie, but two men and a baby are still a highly suspicious equation, especially at security checkpoints. Just try remaining calm when the plane is pre-boarding, your child is in mid-tantrum, and an FAA troubleshooter pulls your family out of line for yet another thorough frisking.

Times like those are surprisingly rare, however. Most of the time, we fit into the landscape just fine—just another pair of harried parents chasing an errant child through a crowded store. Last Christmas, we put 2,200 miles on our rusting 1985 Volvo wagon to visit our families in rural South Carolina and urban Indiana. It was Catherine’s introduction to her many cousins, and it was an unqualified success. My 10-year-old nephew elected himself our daughter’s personal champion, carrying her in his arms as she peppered his face with kisses. The extended Zwissler clan was similarly transfixed, from former stepfather to teenage nephews, as the latest addition to the family was passed around, lap to lap, house to house.

A gay or lesbian couple adopting a child is still a novelty, of course. And not all the attention such a family inspires is welcome. But what has been most surprising for Matthew and me to learn is how a child out and about with her same-sex parents—shopping, playing, singing as they walk down the street—is an invitation for perfect strangers to make a connection.

At a Gap in Charleston, a salesman confided that he and his partner wanted to adopt children, too. A straight couple in Amsterdam darted across a canal bridge to congratulate us on our good fortune (a Dutch TV star and his partner had adopted a baby boy not long before, so we were especially topical). A restaurateur in Andalusia insisted on taking Catherine off our hands during lunch, plying her with Spanish songs and Chupa Chups. And I was retrieving her stroller from the coat check at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few weeks ago when an elegant, pearl-bedecked woman of a certain age appeared at my side.

“Where did your daughter come from?” she asked. We told her, and then she grinned. “Our little girl came from Vietnam,” she said, Upper East Side gentility meeting Washington Heights bohemia in perfect solidarity.

Today, Catherine is 19 months old. She has three middle names, seven godparents from five different countries, and eight transatlantic flights under her belt. And even though she’s brunched at Bayou, lunched at La Goulue, and dined at Pastis, she’s no new-millennium Eloise. Most of her clothes come from Wal-Mart, and her hair ribbons are recycled from Christmas gifts; we found her antebellum christening gown on eBay. Her stately, Queen Elizabeth–style wave cheers the homeless, and she greets passing dogs with a loud bark. And already she knows that the fastest way around a reprimand is to blow a kiss.

In case you’re wondering, our lives haven’t changed much for Pa (me) and Daddy (Matthew). The antiques shop is on hold while he stays home with the baby, but otherwise we do exactly what we’ve always done—go to cocktail parties, museum exhibitions, movies—only now we arrive as a set of three. Change has enriched our lives, not hampered them. It has also soiled our upholstery, poked our eyes, ruined my best Thomas Pink shirt, and hugged our necks so passionately that we have been known to cry. Life is different; life is good.

 
     
 
From the Fall 2003 edition of the New York Family Guide
 
     
     
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