Going to court in France : Part 1

Hi friends. For those that have walked with me these last few years, you may have heard parts of this story. I’ve also shared it at various speaking engagements around St. Louis. However, it has taken a long time to write this post, but only because of how raw it can still feel sometimes. I know, though, that I can only help others with my story, if I am willing to share my story. So I am writing this today in the hopes of being able to do that. While I understand the sadness that people express when they hear parts of this story, please know that I wouldn’t be able to write this if my heart had not been healed. I also ask that if you are using this story as resource in your own journey, that you kindly refer back to my legal disclaimer here. Thank you!

In 2011, it was good to be Annie. After graduating college with my degree in French, I fulfilled a lifelong dream and accepted a job overseas, in France. If you would have asked me back then, I would have told you that my life was perfect. I was working in France, taking classes, and perhaps not so surprisingly, had even started dating someone. Someone that I had very quickly fallen in love with.

But as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end, and 2 weeks after my boyfriend left for an extended trip to Vietnam, I found out I was pregnant.

Once I got over the initial shock, I did what any normal person would do- I took 5 more pregnancy tests. But once those confirmed the original, I contacted my boyfriend so we could figure out our next steps.

In my mind, the solution was simple. He would return to France, where we would raise our child. After all, we had already talked about getting married upon his return, and had discussed our mutual desire to start a family together someday.

Little did I know there was a Door #2. Life is funny that way.

In the end, he offered to come back to France, but only if I would end the pregnancy. When I told him that option was not something I was willing to consider, his response was simple. “Have fun being a single mom.”

It’s at this point in the story that I start to get a lot of questions. “Well, how long had you two actually been together?” (as if a certain duration excuses his behavior), “What was he even doing in Vietnam?”, “How could he do such a 180?”, and “What did his family say?”- those are the most common ones I receive.

And while they are valid questions, they are questions that I have chosen to not address publicly. For several reasons.

First, I have chosen to remain silent on certain details out of respect for Ben’s father and his family. I believe everyone deserves grace, and the way I can show that, while still telling my story, is to keep those details private. The second reason I have chosen to exclude details, is because while these events were a catalyst, my story is bigger than these things, and I would feel remiss if the larger narrative was overlooked because I chose to shine the spotlight elsewhere.

In her book, “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resiliance, and Finding Joy”, Sheryl Sandberg recalls of a moment of being comforted by a friend in the midst of her husbands unexpected death. She writes, “He put his arm around me and said, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of Option B.”” And that became my new mantra- to kick the shit out of Option B. I ended my contract early, and moved back home to the United States.

One year later, life had seemingly calmed down. Ben had just celebrated his first birthday, I had recently begun my job as a corporate French translator, and although I still struggled coming to terms with my new reality as a single parent, I was thankful to be back in the States, surrounded by my support system.

Meanwhile, I had begun researching dual citizenship between France and America, and if that was even possible to obtain for my son. It was 2013, and the few resources I could find on the subject were confusing at best. Most of the information available at the time only discussed dual citizenship for children born to American parents living in France, not the other way around.

It wasn’t until I discovered an article online, written by an American lawyer based in Paris, that I began to hope that citizenship was possible. In the article, the attorney summarized what I had already suspected- that a child born to a French parent had the legal right to French citizenship. I reached out, and the lawyer agreed to take my case.

With support from my parents, I hired the attorney on retainer, and after all the contracts were signed, our case was officially opened to obtain Ben’s French citizenship.

Things took a turn though, when my attorney pointed out that I had only listed myself on Ben’s American birth certificate. He explained that my son’s right to French citizenship hinged on the blood relation to his father- a French citizen. Without his name on the birth certificate, we had no legal evidence to authenticate our claim.

Translation? If I wanted to get Ben’s dual citizenship, we would have to scrap our initial case completely and instead open a new case to legally recognize paternity in both countries. A sentence that makes me cringe to this day, just writing it- visions of Jerry Springer, dancing in my head.

Had we gone through the U.S. justice system, the process would have been relatively straightforward. A DNA test to prove paternity, and we could go about our day. But we had gone through the French courts, where it’s illegal to DNA test to establish paternity.

When I learned this information, my brain came to a screeching halt. How could I possibly prove to a foreign court that my son is half French, if I wasn’t even allowed to use scientific evidence?

According to my attorney, this could only be done by proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that Ben was in fact his fathers’ son- by any means necessary. In short, every aspect from my life in France was turned over to the courts as evidence. My passport proved that I had entered the country. Copies of train tickets proved that I had travelled from Paris to Geneva. My signed offer letter proved my legal employment and duration of my contract. But most difficult were the pictures of me and Ben’s father- handed over to a judge to be analyzed, to establish a timeline of our relationship. Text messages and private emails, given to a stranger to evaluate the depth of our relationship. To prove that there was a relationship.

If you never are in a position like this, I’d count that blessing. It is not an experience I would wish on a single person.

By this point, my attorney had become increasingly suspicious- threatening to not show up to our own hearing. Going for weeks at a time without responding to my emails, missing deadlines to hand in critical information to the courts. It felt like I was being held hostage by my own attorney, but it was too late to successfully switch representation.

In the end, while we won the proceedings, it felt inappropriate to celebrate such a bittersweet victory. It was great that we were granted child support and Ben’s parentage was recognized, but it didn’t remove the grief that is so intrinsically engrained in broken families.

Regardless, I was happy it was over. I was happy to not be in court after over a year of the process. But those feelings would be short lived. Little did I know that I would soon be back in the French courts, advocating for my son once again.

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