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Who’s the Papa? Papers, please

A pregnant Canadian heads to the old Stasi arsenal to register her baby's paternity

This article first appeared in The Ottawa Citizen in April 2008.

Germany is a legendarily bureacratic country, and after ten years here I’ve learned that for trips to government offices I need to pack all of my personal ID and a full day’s worth of intellectual and corporeal sustenance. I let my guard down when it came to registering the paternity of my unborn child, though, thinking that all I would have to do would be to drag the father to the civil registry office, point at him, and point at my belly.

In Germany, unwed parents have to register paternity before the baby is born because (for some reason) names entered in the sweaty aftermath of labour carry no legal weight. I had assumed this was standard procedure, given that every second set of parents in Berlin is unmarried or single. And so with a native German on my arm and a half-German in my belly we headed off, high on prenatal optimism and hormones. We hopped on our bikes and set out for the nearest town hall which in Berlin post-amalgamation of 2001, is not always within spitting distance. Half an hour later, we were still wending our way through suburban garden colonies and by the time we arrived in Weissensee, the town hall clock was striking 12: high noon, when Berlin bureaucrats take off for lunches from which they sometimes never return.

Strange, meaty wafts filled the halls of the brick industrial block that, until 1989, housed the weapons arsenal of the Stasi, or East German secret police. But when we knocked on door number 256, we were relieved to discover nothing more imposing than Frau Hede taking lunch out of a Tupperware container.

Sitting in the midst of hanging file folders and children’s toys, she looked pleased for the company. What could she do for us: register paternity or shared custody?

Papa, of Catholic Bavaria, requested clarification: would he as certified father not automatically be granted shared custody? Frau Hede, of godless East Berlin, didn’t mince her words: mother retains sole custody unless she applies to share it. Documents please.

We handed over our stash, mine including birth certificate, passport, work permit and Mutterpass — a booklet that documents everything from the length of my Kind’s left femur to my family’s history of cardiac illness going back two generations. Frau Hede surveyed the goods and then alerted us to the fact that everything we did would be subject to foreign law.

Papa requested clarification again and was told that the validity of processes undertaken in Germany regarding Kind could be limited by Canadian jurisdiction.

Noticing the clouds of confusion rapidly descending, Frau Hede suggested — in the name of simplicity — that we get married. That would grant Papa paternity and shared custody in one fell swoop. And this pleasure could be had one floor up in the former Stasi arsenal.

Ten minutes into our stroll in the park of German bureaucracy: I was totally lost and Papa was apparently hungry.

“Is that a café outside?” he asked, referring to the voices we could hear from under Frau Hede’s window.

Frau Hede explained it was the smoker’s corner and said that if we didn’t want to get married, we should at least get on with the paternity declaration. She entered our data into her computer, and called Frau Müller to ask if she had time to bear witness. Frau Müller’s nose was through the door before Frau Hede had hung up the phone, which confirmed our sense of local workloads.

We were asked to wait outside in the hall’s now distinctly porkish fumes while the Fraus practised their bureaucratic alchemy. And indeed, when we were invited into Frau Müller’s office next door, everything had changed. Frau Müller was no longer willing to witness because in some countries — “mainly Africa but also ones under Roman law” – acknowledging the father caused certain rights normally granted to the mother to be passed irrevocably to him. And without knowing how Canada handled such situations, she didn’t want to proceed — in my interest.

I said I thought Canadian and German law would concur but Frau Müller had done her research and knew that Qoobeck was in Kanada, and that Qoobeck had the Roman system. Under which, according to Frau Müller, declaring Papa’s paternity would threaten my status as mother. At which point, I took a lethal turn down the path of logical argumentation and tried to reason with Frau Müller that if the baby came out of my body, it was most likely mine.

Papa, apparently back from his mental lunch, said “Let’s look online.”

But Frau Müller, sitting in front of a computer the size of a small oven, didn’t have Internet. Papa suggested that we call the Canadian Embassy. Frau Müller didn’t have the number. But she couldn’t deny that she had a phone. And soon, Frau Müller was dialling, each digit appearing to cause her great discomfort.

She unloaded our entire situation on the embassy’s general receptionist, who was either very patient or in the middle of a sandwich — at any rate, found no occasion to interrupt before transferring Frau Müller to the consular section. A long conversation followed, dominated by the words “Qoobeck” and “risk.”

“I wouldn’t recommend doing it,” said Frau Müller, hanging up. “We can’t rule out the possibility.”

I was ready to entertain any possibility that would put me up against whatever legal system denied me being the mother of something that had been hanging off a cord in me for nine months. “So let’s declare me to be the legal mother,” I said, more as a provocation than a suggestion.

Frau Müller looked at her watch and said that to do that, she would require both of our birth certificates which, to her dismay, we immediately produced. “Is Toronto in Qoobeck?,” she asked, looking at mine.

Having entered our data into her oven, Frau Müller asked Papa to leave the office. She printed out a document in quadruplicate and then read it aloud to me. It began with a certification of my sanity and mastery of the German language and ended: “I am pregnant. I hereby acknowledge my maternity with respect to this child. The father is a German citizen. I am not married to him. I hereby apply to have my maternity noted as such on the child’s birth document.”

I signed, Frau Müller signed. And stamped. Four times. At 12h40 on April 1, 2008, I became the legal mother of whatever was bursting through the seams of my pants. Then Frau Müller pulled out a wad of cue cards and held a 10-minute lecture on the rights and duties of a mother, to which I’m assuming Kind was paying attention.

Papa was summoned, and at 13h, he was crowned father, though not without first observing that it was April Fool’s Day.

After a stop at Schnitzel König, we biked home. I went online, Googled paternity, Quebec, and found the following on a government website: “If the parents are married or in a civil union, either of them can declare the filiation of the child on behalf of the other spouse. In all other cases, the declaration of birth must be signed by the father or the mother or both, and the declaration will be valid only as regards the person or persons who have signed it.”

I’m not sure that clarified anything. But before doing anything else, I stuffed our mother and father certificates into the bag packed for our next potentially bureaucratic adventure: birth.

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