I’ve never had a baby in a hospital, but I hear that the hospital just hands you the baby’s birth certificate when you leave. After the amount of work we went through to get Marcus’s birth certificate in our hands, it just seems absurd that someone would give you the birth certificate for nothing. Really? No time, effort, annoyance, bureaucracy? Cheaters.
First we had to assemble our paperwork:
Our midwife Kelley gave us documents #1-5 and filled out her part of the midwife’s worksheet (document #3). We filled out the parents’ worksheet (document #4), which was quite detailed, asking questions about my pregnancy, about our insurance, about our race and religion, and about our identity. Apparently, choosing to list a father on the birth certificate complicates things enormously: if you list a father, you have to either prove that you are married (that’s why we needed document #7) or swear that you are not married (the very complete instructions also explain what to do if you are both married, but not to each other). Robert thought this part of the paperwork was unnecessary, and he didn’t want to wait to get our marriage certificate to apply for the birth certificate. Ah, how wrong he was!
Kelley also wrote up a simple one-page document saying that she was present at the birth, that Marcus was born at 9:31 on August 22nd, and that Robert and I were both there. This she had notarized (document #5). In Massachusetts, the birth attendant doesn’t have to be a midwife or doctor—anyone other than the mother or father of the baby who is present at a non-hospital birth can write up this document and get it notarized. (The instructions explained, if no one other than the mother and father is present, we essentially have to write that up and then bring an unrelated person with us to the notary and all swear that this is indeed what happened.)
Next Robert and I needed to prove that we live in Boston, so we had to get our voter registration records to use as document #6, proof of address. Here was where things started to get a little complicated—I wasn’t sure what, exactly, our “voter registration records” (as specified in the instructions) entailed, so I called the helpful information number listed on the packet to try to ask. (This was way back when Marcus was four days old, when I had a fantasy that we could get him a birth certificate sooner rather than later—say, sometime even within the first month of his life!) First of all, the number on the packet and the number on the City Hall website for more information on birth certificates were different; I ended up calling each number twice and asking the same questions so I was sure I got the right information. Next, when I called and said I had questions about the proof of address needed to obtain a birth certificate, everyone I spoke to immediately thought I wanted a copy of an existing birth certificate. No, I kept explaining—I want to apply for a new birth certificate for my son (or, in the words of the form, I want to Register a Birth at Home in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts). Eventually (on each of my four calls) I was transferred to someone who could help and told to log onto the city of Boston website, enter my identifying information when it asked, and view a copy of my voter registration record online and then print it out. Really? Were they sure this wasn’t too, perhaps, unofficial. . . ? No, no, I was assured, this was indeed fine, and even if by some chance it wasn’t, then when I was at City Hall “they’ll just be able to look it up in the computer and verify it there.” Okay, document #6 was ready to go.
We moved on to document #7, the proof of marriage we needed because we peskily insisted on listing Robert as the father. Frankly, I don’t see what the state (sorry, the Commonwealth) cares about our marital status. It sort of seems that if a man steps forward and says yes, he is the father, he wants to be listed on the birth certificate, then there’s no need to do anything more—just list both the man and the woman, the father and mother, and move on! Of course, that’s not the case, so we had to provide either our original marriage certificate or else an official copy from New York State, with the raised seal—a photocopy would not suffice. Photocopies were all we had handy, since the marriage certificate had sat untouched and relatively forgotten in my parents’ safety deposit box in New York ever since we’d gotten married. Now that my parents were here in Massachusetts with us, however, this situation proved to be a little problem. No fear—I navigated through the Queens website to find out how to obtain an official copy and discovered that all it takes is a one-page form, proof of my identity (document #7b), and a twelve dollar money order or certified check to get an official stamped and sealed copy of a marriage certificate mailed to you. When Marcus was one week old, we photocopied my driver’s license, front and back, and mailed that off to the office in Queens as proof of my identity (document #7b) along with the money order and the form. When Marcus was a month old, we still had not heard anything back from New York, so I called the office in Queens. No record of my request was found, I was told. But wait! (added the helpful woman on the phone)—that didn’t necessarily mean they didn’t receive my request; they could have received it, processed it, and already mailed it back out to me. Very helpful indeed: essentially, it could have been lost at any step along the way. At that point, we gave up on obtaining a certified official copy and had my parents overnight mail us the original from the vault, now that they were back in New York. Robert kept fussing here, and arguing that we shouldn’t wait for the original but rather should just try to get the birth certificate without it. “I can’t believe they’d mind,” were his exact words, actually. Still, we waited, and now had our original marriage certificate in our hands as document #7.
I paperclipped all of the documents together, in order, with the cover sheet on top, and sealed them up in a zippered plastic bag, because I was afraid of rain or spills or some traumatic event. Thus armed, we took the documents, the diaper bag, and—oh yes!—Marcus, in the Moby wrap, to City Hall this Thursday. (For obscure reasons, the Births and Deaths Records Office is closed on Wednesdays. Don’t even think of trying to go on a Wednesday!)
City Hall marked Marcus’s first experience with a metal detector; I just walked through it with him tied to my chest, and no one commented. We descended into the cavernous basement, and as we were going down the escalator, I looked around, trying to spot the window that we would need.
“I think it’s the one with the giant line,” Robert said.
New Yorker that I am, I looked around in vain for a “giant line.” Finally I saw a line of about ten people in front of one window—so much for Robert’s “giant line”! It turned out they were actually waiting for parking permits, though, and the birth certificate window only had one person waiting at it instead. We waited behind her, and when she finished we came up to the window clearly marked “Birth Certificates” and read the smaller sign, which told us that “applicants for birth certificates must fill out a slip and wait for their name to be called.” I took a slip, ready to comply, but then I noticed that the slip was clearly marked “Application for Birth Certificate Copies.” Ah—the old copy vs. original problem again.
“Excuse me,” I called to the clerk in the office beyond the window, “this slip seems to be for applying for a copy of a birth certificate, but I’d like to apply for the original.”
“Impossible,” she said. “We only do copies.”
I held up my “Application to Register a Birth at Home” page. “No, sorry—I mean, we want to register a birth and get an original birth certificate, not a copy.”
“You can’t get the original—we only do copies,” she insisted.
“Ah, no, sorry, you don’t understand—the original doesn’t exist yet. I want to get an original. He doesn’t have a birth certificate at all yet,” I said, indicating Marcus on my chest.
Finally the woman seemed to get it. “Oh, a homebirth?” she said.
“Yes!” I exulted.
“Go around the corner and through that door, and the girl in there can help you.”
Robert and I followed her directions, me grumbling about mislabeled windows (“Why would they say ‘birth certificates’ if they mean ‘birth certificate copies’?”) while Robert shushed me. We walked through an apparently bullet-proof door into a seemingly employee-only area in the warren of offices behind the windows. A woman looked up from a copier as we entered.
“Hi, I was told you could help us,” I began, again holding up my “Application to Register a Birth at Home” page. “We need to get an original birth certificate, not a copy.”
“There are no originals,” she said. “You can only get a copy.”
“No, no,” I said. “The first birth certificate. We have to apply—to register—to get the first one. The original doesn’t exist yet. We can’t get a copy because there isn’t an original yet.”
“Oh,” the copying woman said. “A homebirth?”
“Go through this door into the other office—she’ll help you,” the woman said, nodding at another door into another office even deeper in the bowels of City Hall.
Here we were in a large room with four desks, only one of which had a person, and floor-to-ceiling bookcases with bound volumes and loose-leaf binders (presumably holding birth records) going back a hundred years. The woman at the occupied desk actually seemed like she could help us. She took the packet of documents from me and dumped them out on her desk, removing my paperclip and scattering the documents about.
“Let’s see what you’ve got here,” she said.
She immediately zeroed in on our voter registration records. “Oh, you can’t use this,” she said. “This isn’t official.”
I explained what I was told on the phone, about this being at least somewhat official because I had to log into the city website with my driver’s license number and birthdate, and about someone here being able to look up the information and verify it if necessary.
As soon as I said that, though, I realized the absurdity of anyone in this office looking something up on a computer: there were no computers in the entire room! Four desks. Zero computers. Four typewriters. I felt a chill run down my spine.
“Who told you that?” the woman asked, as though I could say, “Oh, Diane/Larry/Fred/Sue told me just five minutes ago.”
“I don’t remember,” I said. “It was over five weeks ago.”
“Well, you can’t use this. You need your official voter registration records.”
Robert was patient. “How do we get those?” he asked.
“You have to go to the Board of Elections.”
“And they are. . .?”
“Just down the hall.”
Phew! We would be able to do this today after all!
“Okay,” Robert said, “what do we ask for?”
“Just ask for address verification records for both of you.”
“Address verification?” Robert wanted to be very clear here.
“Maybe I could go get that,” Robert suggested, “and you could start entering information?”
The woman agreed, and after she assured us that Robert alone wouldn’t have any trouble coming back with both his and my address verifications, he sprinted off back through the different offices to the Board of Elections.
Meanwhile, the woman looked over the documents on her desk and picked up one at random.
“Where are the pages that come right before this?” she asked me.
I wasn’t helping her. I had had everything neatly put in order, and she moved them around. “I don’t know,” I said coldly.
She sighed heavily and started reordering the pages, setting aside the cover sheet and instruction pages on the left-hand side of her desk and shoving my paperclip (a beautiful large, pearlized green clip) into her little jar of ugly metal paperclips. I gritted my teeth. The woman turned to the typewriter. Marcus slept in the wrap.
Robert came back while she was still typing. He was out of breath from running back down the hall, and he was holding a single-page printout in his hand. Apparently they have computers over in the Board of Elections.
“Oh, you got it, no problem,” the woman said.
“Uh, I wouldn’t say that,” Robert said, giving me a strange look. “They wanted four dollars in a certified check, but I didn’t have that. I had to charm them. You would not have succeeded,” he whispered to me.
As it turns out, the Board of Elections may have computers, but they don’t take cash. They wanted $2 for each address verification in certified check or money order. Both Robert and I saw the absurdity of a government office that doesn’t take cash. Isn’t cash like the government’s own certified check? Robert told the Board of Elections woman that he was very happy to pay for the records, but that he didn’t have a certified check or money order on him, and he really didn’t want to have to go out, find a bank, get a certified check for $4, and then come back. Robert turned on his charm, which usually works, and the woman who helped him was, he said, very happy and enthusiastic about his situation: Oh, a homebirth? How exciting! What’s the little guy’s name? How much did he weigh? Do you have a picture? And so on and so forth. . . except that she wouldn’t give him the records without the certified check. Eventually someone in the office took pity on Robert and printed out a screenshot of their computer screen showing our name and address, and this printout (complete with the toolbars at the top of the window and the desktop visible on the right) was what Robert brought back. We don’t know how this worked, since his printout was visibly less official than my printout, but somehow the birth certificate woman took it and seemed unconcerned. Document #6, at last!
Robert now turned his attention to the problem of data entry in front of us. “Would you like me to read something to you so you can type it?” he asked.
The woman declined, and I think both Robert and I had horrific visions of being stuck in this cellar office while she typed in all the information from the cumulative nineteen pages of documents we had provided. Thankfully, the only information she actually ended up typing in was Marcus’s name and birthdate, our names and birthdates, today’s date, and our address. (What do they do with all the rest of the information? I have no idea. They may file it away in a binder on a shelf and never refer to it again, for all I know.)
“All right,” the woman announced, “now I’m going to take your marriage certificate.”
“No,” I said.
“Yes,” she said.
“No,” I said. I was perfectly calm. Robert was giving me “Don’t argue, don’t be difficult” looks, but I ignored them.
“Yes,” she said. “I have to take it. How else can I prove you’re married?”
“Could I see those instruction pages?” I asked pleasantly.
She handed them over. I pointed to the third paragraph from the bottom and read it aloud: “The city or town clerk will review your documents, make an attested copy, and return your originals to you.”
“Oh,” she said, not ungraciously. “All right.” She handed us the page from the typewriter and told us to review it to make sure everything was correct while she made a copy of our marriage certificate.
When she left the room, Robert congratulated me in a whisper on having read the fine print and remembering it. Getting the birth certificate was a two-person quest, apparently, which neither of us could have completed alone. We complement each other, sometimes: one of his superpowers is charm, and mine (as he’s said before) is reading.
After this, with our marriage certificate back in the zippered bag, we signed one more document and then proudly held up our new original birth certificate. Now Robert felt confident enough to risk some small talk with the woman.
“So, how often do you do these?” he asked.
“We process birth certificates all the time,” she said.
“No, no,” he said, “I mean like this, for a homebirth.”
“Oh, all the time,” she said.
“Really?” he asked. “But about how often?”
“All the time,” she said again.
Robert wanted numbers, statistics. “But how often?”
“All the time,” she said, “but not, you know that often.”
“So how often?” he asked.
Remarkably, the woman was not losing her temper or appearing frustrated at this line of questioning. “Well, not that often,” she said. Then, as though confiding a secret in us, she added: “Many women go to hospitals, you know.”
“So how often?” he asked.
“Oh, about once a month,” she said.
Robert was shocked at the answer to his question, which works out to only about 1/500 or 1/1000 homebirths in the city of Boston. I was shocked that the woman actually answered his question at last.
We thanked her, she admired Marcus, and she said she’d see us back here for our next baby. Quest completed—our little baby officially exists and has a legal name and identity! Next step: using our birth certificate to apply for a social security card! We’ll save that for next week, though. . .
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Created: 10/5/08. Last Modified: 10/5/08.