all in the family

Genetics and Geography Don’t Make a Family

Photo-Illustration: by the Cut; Photos courtesy of the subject.

My stepson was 4 when my husband, Eric, and I got married in May 2019. Atlas and his mom had traveled to our wedding in New York from their home in Berlin, and he charmed everyone, ordering bubbly water from the bartender, taking pictures with a Polaroid camera, and saying hi to all the guests in his German-accented English. After we said our vows, he climbed onto the shoulders of our friend who officiated and cheered when Eric stepped on a glass, in the Jewish tradition.

Nine months later, the pandemic began and international travel restrictions went into place. Our visits with Atlas turned to Skype calls. He showed us his first baby tooth loosening, and we watched the screen as he wiggled it with his tongue, a little more each week. After it fell out, he told us that the tooth fairy left a euro under his pillow.

By autumn, we realized the pandemic wouldn’t be ending anytime soon, so we booked a trip to Germany. The borders were closed to U.S. citizens, but with a negative PCR test, lots of paperwork, and some luck, Eric figured he would be able to get into the country using a family exception.

But what about me? I’m married to a man who has a son with a woman who lives in Berlin, and their entire relationship is based on a Tinder date in 2013 that resulted in a child. You try explaining that to the German border police.

For me, family has nothing to do with genetics. I was adopted, as was my brother. He has different birth parents than I do, and we grew up in a home with an open-door policy on love. Throughout my childhood, my parents fostered teenagers who had been kicked out of their homes for becoming pregnant. My mom, a first-grade teacher, was a mother figure to countless kids during her career. I was raised to believe that families come in all forms, and I didn’t have much interest in marriage or motherhood. I never felt the pressure of a biological clock. I spent my 20’s and 30’s traveling and figured if the urge to have children ever came, I would foster or adopt.

When Eric told me he had a son, just a few weeks after we started dating, I was ecstatic that he had an unconventional family. I launched myself into his arms, excited about the connection: His son was an unplanned pregnancy, just like me. He staggered backward in surprise and told me that the situation was complicated, he was still figuring out how to be a father. I mumbled something about understanding and apologized for my overzealous response. It was too early in our relationship to tell him that it seemed uncomplicated to me: Accepting a child that arrives without warning, welcoming strangers into your life and being expected to bond with them immediately? That’s family.

I met Atlas a few months later and the bond was instant. He talks to strangers easily, dances down the street to music no one can hear, and is generous with his love. I mentioned Atlas in my wedding vows and remember looking around the room to find him as I spoke. I was completely unsurprised to see him sitting on my mom’s lap, whispering in her ear.

A year after that, with the pandemic wearing on, Atlas’s mom sent my parents a video of him enjoying the birthday present they had mailed to Germany. I messaged her to thank her for sending the video — and for accepting me and my parents into her life. She said it made her happy to know that Atlas had so many people who cared about him and that she loved how my family and I treated him as our own.

Would border control feel similarly about our setup? When we arrived in Europe, Eric handed over his documents, including a paternity test and a copy of Atlas’s birth certificate. We also had a letter of support from Atlas’s mom. The officer looked through everything and stamped Eric’s passport, then asked what my story was. I explained we were married and showed him our wedding rings and shared last name. He shrugged and asked to see our marriage certificate. Luckily, I had a photo of it on my phone. As he studied the screen, his expression didn’t change. So I started babbling about how I loved my stepson and hadn’t seen him in almost a year; his childhood was passing by too quickly, and I was sick of talking to him on Skype. That’s when the officer started laughing and got out his stamp.

Germany’s list of the immediate family members who were excluded from the travel ban didn’t include stepmothers, but he let me in.

When we returned to the States, I told my parents what had happened at border control, and my dad reminded me that there was a way to ensure I would always be able to visit Atlas: I could become a German citizen. There’s a law, Article 116, that allows descendants of Germans who had their citizenship revoked for political, racial, or religious reasons to reclaim it. As the son of German Jewish refugees who fled the country in 1938, my dad and his descendants could apply. A lawyer told him the approval process could take years, but we thought it was worth a try.

My dad gathered evidence of his parents’ life in Germany and scheduled an application appointment at the German Consulate in New York. He arrived with two accordion files full of paperwork, including his parents’ passports that had been revoked by the Nazi’s Reich Ministry of the Interior. The officer on duty listened solemnly as my dad explained that if his parents hadn’t fled the country, he wouldn’t be alive today.

But if my Oma and Opa had been killed in the Holocaust, I would still be here. The documents I brought to our application appointment included two birth certificates. My current one, dated about a year after I was born, is issued to Jennifer and has my parents’ names. But the original certificate records my name as Baby Girl and shows my birth father was born in Iran and my birth mother, a Catholic woman, was born in Germany — another link to the country. Would she be happy to know my application was approved, and that the next time I travel to the country it will be as a German citizen? I have no idea. But I do think my Oma and Opa would have liked to see me reconnecting with the place that rejected them all those years ago. And they’d be even happier that part of my family, unconventional as it is, lives there once again.

Genetics and Geography Don’t Make a Family