I fought to add my late husband’s name to our daughter’s birth certificate

This First Person column is written by Calgary mother Tanya Brown. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

Grief never really goes away. Over time, it gets easier to bear and the intensity wanes. When it returns, sometimes it creeps up over days or weeks as a dark heaviness and other times, it slaps you in the face like a cold shock.

Seeing my daughter’s birth certificate for the first time was the latter. There was her beautiful name. And mine. And a plain white, empty space where her father’s name should have been.

An empty space … as though he had never existed or as though he didn’t need to be acknowledged and remembered. Seeing that took the wind right out of me. I knew it was coming, but I couldn’t believe it.

Andrew and I met in our mid-30s and we fell in love hard and fast. We both had previous relationships that weren’t the best fit and we were searching for the right person with whom to spend our lives and start a family.

Since we were older, we knew we wanted to have kids right away. I knew by the way Andrew interacted with our niece and nephew that he was going to be an amazing father. But for us, conceiving didn’t come easy and we soon found ourselves patients at a fertility clinic. After a few unsuccessful treatments, we found out Andrew was sick.

A selfie of a smiling man and woman wearing matching red NHL jerseys.
Going to Calgary Flames games was one of the things Tanya Brown, right, and her husband Andrew loved to do as a couple. (Tanya Brown)

After an amazing summer spent camping, golfing and playing hockey, Andrew started to complain of heartburn that wouldn’t go away. That was his only symptom. When we found out it was cancer, he froze his sperm so that we could try again for children after his chemotherapy. 

However, we soon learned how aggressive his cancer was and six months later, Andrew was admitted to palliative care. It was then that we discussed his wishes. 

‘He wanted me to conceive after he was gone’

His biggest wish for me was to keep on living a full life. He had me put a deposit down on a puppy so that I wouldn’t be alone after he died. And, if it was the right thing for me to do, Andrew wanted me to try and conceive after he was gone. He was afraid that his legacy would just be his cancer and his tragic, early demise. 

He wanted me to create the family we had always dreamed of and to have his child. This child would be a part of him that would continue living. 

I knew right away that I would try and I started the process six months after he died. After dozens of appointments, hundreds of injections, countless pills and many disappointments, I finally conceived a daughter with our last embryo.

A woman holds a baby in her arms while sitting in a forest.
Tanya Brown and her daughter, Abigail, on a camping trip. (Tanya Brown)

In June, our beautiful little girl was born. She is the light of my life and it’s uncanny how much she looks like her father. 

But I found out during my last month of pregnancy that Alberta would not allow her father’s name on the birth certificate, because she was conceived posthumously. It was crushing to hear at the time, and horrible news to deliver to his family. Once my daughter was born, I knew I had to fight to change this — both for us and for future parents who might find themselves in the same situation.

There are complicated reasons for this government policy regarding family law and estate law — none of which I believe applies to us because Andrew specifically granted his consent for me to use his sperm to create embryos after his death. 

So I got some advice from friends who know the legal system and started the process to represent myself in a case to have her birth certificate changed. Being a single mom to a newborn is not easy. Lining up at the courthouse, attending online court sessions and writing affidavits is definitely not how I wanted to spend the first months of my daughter’s life. 

But every time I looked at her and saw her father’s eyes looking back at me, I knew I had to keep trying. For her and for him. 

Fighting for Andrew’s legacy

Finally, we had our hearing on Aug. 31. Family court can be heavy and difficult and we were scheduled last on the docket. By the time the judge got to our case, I was tired and Abby was fussy. Our judge said that she had left the easiest case for last and I think she wanted to end her session on a positive note. She simply said, “Mrs. Brown, your order is granted.”

A collage of two photos: On left, a smiling man stands in front of a waterfall. On right, a baby in a red dress.
Tanya Brown says the resemblance between her daughter Abigail, right, and her late husband, Andrew is uncanny. (Tanya Brown)

Those few simple words meant that Abby could have her father back. He was always going to be with us in spirit and she will always know who he was, but now, legally, he is her father. 

Once again, I was stunned into silence. But I quickly thanked the judge. 

Things are a little more real when they’re written in black and white. The order recognizes Andrew as her father and requires Vital Statistics to issue a new birth certificate with his name on it. 

My grief therapist once explained that there are generally two types of people when it comes to grief: the feelers and the doers. I’m a doer. I set out to get Andrew’s name on her birth certificate. And now that we have Abby’s new birth certificate on the way, I feel like I can finally enjoy the miracle that she is — her dad’s legacy. 

A spokesperson for Service Alberta Minister Nate Glubish was unable to respond to CBC by the publication date. In a statement to Global News three weeks prior, he said, “this is a complex issue that involves many areas of law, including family law, estate law, and vital statistics. I believe this matter merits further review and I have directed my department to look into this so that we can determine the best path forward.”

Tanya Brown is a Calgary mother who fought successfully to have her late husband’s name added to their daughter’s birth certificate. She is now advocating to change the Alberta law for other widows and widowers who find themselves in the same position.

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