March 4, 2010

'It's all about the kids,' says practical pairHedylny hery for basic 6-coly lead storyjfdffja dsfjdsf sdjfsldfjsaldfljdf ldfjasldjfs jd

SUSAN M

— Third in a three-part series

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Staff photo by David Leaming EQUAL RIGHTS: Brenda Nichols, left, and her partner Christina Nichols with children Emily and Kate, talk recently about the importance of legal marriage opportunity at their home in Winslow.

By . COVER

Kennebec Journal

WINSLOW — Brenda Nichols pushed one swing, then the other, in hopes of keeping both of her daughters happy.

On a windy and somewhat chilly fall day, the toddlers rode bikes, played on the swing set, and watched ''Scooby-Doo.''

Nichols, 38, and her partner, Christine Nichols, 39, juggle work with family and try to keep their daughters safe, healthy and happy. For them, being able to be legally married isn't about a fancy wedding -- it's not their style -- but about protecting their children.

It's about making sure the family is legally protected in case one of them dies, about getting tax benefits to help them save money for college, and about a stability that comes from growing up with married parents.

''We already feel like we're married,'' Christine said. ''We're living the life here. We've got all the same issues that our straight friends have. I've got dinner every night, the house needs to be cleaned, the garden needs to be tended, taxes need to be paid.''

The women, who have been together since 2003, met in Washington state when they worked for different companies on a bridge project.

''It was one of those things where we kept kind of making excuses to go by each other's office,'' Brenda said. ''She finally asked me out to dinner.''

After a few years, they started talking about having children. Both had good jobs, and when Brenda got transferred to California, they decided to start a family. Christine quit her job and got pregnant.

They wanted to have two children, close in age, so the next time around it was Brenda's turn.

They moved again, this time to Seattle, and Christine started asking Brenda if she'd consider moving to Maine -- her home state -- to raise the children.

''I was kind of against it,'' Brenda said. ''I had spent my whole life in the Northwest, had a great job that I loved.''

For Christine, who grew up in Palermo, it was where her family lived, it was rural, and it was where she wanted her children to grow up.

''The people are wonderful, the countryside is beautiful, fresh air, not suburban tight, it's a beautiful place to live,'' Christine said.

They now live on Brenda's salary in Winslow, and Christine stays at home to raise the kids.

''I took my brother's advice,'' Brenda said. ''Happy wife, happy life.''

Their house on a hill is surrounded by farm fields, and the upstairs playroom is full of toys. They have televisions but no cable, which helps them control how much -- and what -- their children watch.

At 2 and 3 years old, Emily and Kate attend preschool, which has given Christine and Brenda a chance to meet other parents.

''The thing about having young children is, you have so much in common with other parents of young children that being gay or straight doesn't matter,'' Brenda said. ''It's all about the kids.''

Brenda's parents, who lived on the West Coast, moved to Maine and bought a house in Waterville to be closer to their grandchildren. With both sets of grandparents in the area, that means the girls have never had a baby sitter who wasn't related to them.

For the Nicholses, a legal marriage would bring the rights and responsibilities that their siblings and parents have enjoyed for years.

As an example, Brenda, a civil engineer for a Maine-based construction company, has health insurance through work, but her employer extends that benefit only to married spouses and children. That means Christine has to buy a separate health insurance policy.

Gay-marriage advocates point to the more than 400 laws in Maine that provide protections to married couples and their children, from savings on inheritance taxes to ''rights and protections conferred automatically on a family headed by a married couple,'' according to the Protect Maine Equality Web site.

The law passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. John Baldacci in May redefines marriage as the ''legally recognized union of two people'' regardless of gender. It requires the state to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, and extends a marriage option to out-of-staters who come to Maine to get married.

The law also allows religious institutions to refuse to perform same-sex marriages, an exemption that Brenda Nichols named as an important part of protecting people of all faiths.

''We totally believe in freedom of religion,'' Brenda said. ''We're looking at this as a civil contract that we want to be part of. We totally agree that every religion should have the right to accept or deny anyone they want.''

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