the boy who is my son (or, he’s the sheriff)

On October 22, 2015, we formally adopted our son Elijah. He was five years old at the time and had been living with us for nine months. Today, he is almost nine years old and it seems as if he has always been there. I know parents are not supposed to have favorites, but if I’m being honest, some days Elijah is my favorite.

He is the most like me of our four kids which is probably why I want to strangle him on those days when he isn’t my favorite. But he makes me laugh and smile and his hugs, which he rations, make me want to live forever so that I can never not be his dad.

It wasn’t always like this, there were (still are!) some tough days. The first time I met Elijah he wouldn’t look at me. He refused to make eye contact for a full three hours because even at five years old he was that stubborn and because, as I would later learn, everything in life had to be done on his terms. When he finally did look at me (and later when he decided that he would speak to me), he made sure that I understood that this was a very big deal and that he had decided to let me in…and that moving forward I would have zero control in this relationship.

And he was right because make no mistake, it’s his world and we’re just living in it.

I like to joke that Elijah will grow up to be a criminal mastermind, the type of movie villain who never physically hurts anyone but who steals billions of dollars from large corporations simply by pushing a button on his cell phone. More of a Robin Hood than a Hans Gruber. He’s not a bad a guy, he’s just misunderstood and besides he’ll never spend of any of the stolen loot because it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.

The truth is Elijah is kind of brilliant and things like words and numbers are way too easy for him, so setting his sights on something bigger (like embezzlement) is what will get him out of bed in the morning. Well, that and Fortnite.

I am allowed one hug a day. In the morning when I wake up he meets me at the bottom of the steps, throws his arms around me, and says, “Daddy!” Some days he comes up to my room and crawls into bed beside me and then wakes me up first by hugging me and then by screaming, “WAKE UP!” in my ear. The little scamp.

At night when it’s time for bed he “sends” me a hug which means he hugs the air in front of him and then throws it in my general direction (for which I had better be grateful, damnit!)  I used to blow him kisses before bed. He would pretend sweetly to catch them and then just as I’d start to smile he’d shove the air kisses into his mouth and act like he was eating them.

When he throws a tantrum, I have to leave the room to laugh. It’s too much and I cannot keep a straight face. There are tears and melodramatic exclamations and something that sounds like growling — it’s impressive, but also so over-the-top it would make even the hammiest of actors blush. But it’s also endearing and just another reason why I love him so much. I suspect he knows it’s too much and he’s aware of just how ridiculous he’s being, but he knows that I appreciate a good show so he goes all in for me which I think is rather sweet.

Elijah tells me that he’s going to buy the neighbor’s house so that he can live next door to us and take care of us when we’re old and we need someone to change our diapers. I believe that he’ll buy the neighbor’s house, but I don’t for one second think that he’s ever going to change our diapers…he’ll be too busy stealing large sums of money from the Chinese government and mastering season 437 of Fortnite and besides that’s what Chris and A’Sean are for.



Sean Michael O’Donnell is 43 year old married gay man. He lives in Pittsburgh with his husband, three sons, and daughter. Sean enjoys Law & Order reruns, Christmas movies in October, and Facebook stalking. He likes donuts and beer. Sometimes he goes to the gym.  He is the author of the best-selling book Which One of You is the Mother?

 

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high heels and lip gloss and a nice structured pant

It may take a village to raise a child, but not every child in that village is the same. I certainly appreciate the support of my village as I (sometimes) struggle to raise four very different kids. There are days when a kind word on social media from a friend I haven’t seen in twenty-five years is the only thing to keep me going. A self-deprecating joke, an “I’ve been there” anecdote, an encouraging “You got this!” – these lifelines from my fellow villagers give me pause and remind me to breathe before I go back out to do battle.

Every child is different. My kids are adopted. At the time of their adoptions they were 5, 7, 11 and 12 years old. This means someone else – or because they were shuffled from house-to-house, more accurately, several someone elses – influenced and shaped the persons my kids are today. It also means that I’ve spent a considerable amount of the past five years undoing the questionable parenting styles and choices of other people. Because of this I’ve been called a meanie, a meanhead, a jerk, fat, stupid, a fat meanhead, a stupid jerk, a stupid mean fat jerk meanie meanhead stupidface, and if I checked my kids’ text messages after an argument probably several more colorful expletives followed by the ever serviceable asshole.

But I’m okay with that because it means I’m doing my job and I’m doing it well. I, or rather my husband and I (with considerable outside support), have made incredible progress with our three sons. For example, it’s common for kids in foster care to be a few years behind in their emotional development. Our then-seven year old was emotionally a five year old. Our then-five year old was emotionally a two year old. Our then-twelve year old guarded his emotions. But today they are smart and kind and well-spoken and light years ahead of their peers.

Seriously, my kids will one day rule the world.

I remind myself of their successes as we begin this journey once again with our most recent addition. Number Four, as we call her, has lived in foster and group homes for the better part of the past six years. She has also experienced an interrupted adoption. As a result of this instability she is an eleven year old with the emotional development of a three year old. Every moment of every day feels like a challenge. Complicating matters is that she is transgender.

An eleven year old coming to terms with her gender identity while going through the physical and chemical changes of puberty filtered through the emotional skill set of a three year old.

Oy.

I recently made a humorous post on social media about Number Four walking in heels. She loves heels. Wearing heels are part of her little girl fantasy of what it means to be a girl. She wants so much for others to see her as a girl. It’s important and because it’s important to her we are very mindful of how she presents herself to others. My husband calls it the illusion. People believe what you tell them so tell them what to believe.

A few weeks ago Number Four was looking in the mirror lamenting, as she calls them, her “boy features.” My husband bought her some tinted lip gloss. Tell them what to believe. Last week she was at the salon getting her hair done and the stylist gave her some tips on how best to maximize her more feminine attributes. Tell them what to believe. Yesterday she and I talked about why a more structured pant that keeps everything in its place is a better choice than leggings which leave nothing to the imagination. Tell them what to believe.

Some of you may be reading this thinking that we should just let her wear leggings and clomp around in high heels as if she were hiking up the side of a mountain during a snowstorm while having a seizure, because that’s what you do with your daughters and after all high heels are anti-feminist and down with the patriarchy! And you know what, if she were just some boy who liked to wear girl’s clothes or if she hadn’t expressed repeatedly how important it is to her for others to see her as girl, then I would agree with you.

But she doesn’t have the luxury of your daughters. Your daughters can murder the floor in high heels and dress down in baggy jeans and a t-shirt and cast aside the shackles of gender stereotypes because when they do no one will think, “What’s that boy doing in those high heels?” For my daughter, walking correctly in those heels and embracing those gender stereotypes you knock (but also embrace, by the way) are her ticket in…it’s how she’ll pass and no matter how much that might offend the privileged white cis-gender humanoid in you it matters to her.

Oh sure, I hope one day she doesn’t feel the need to conform and I will certainly encourage her to write her own rules, but right now in this moment she has enough on her plate. She already has to fight to be black and fight to be trans, so maybe the fight to not conform to society’s standards of being a girl will just have to wait for another day.

So glide in those heels and tell them what to believe—your tinted lip gloss awaits!

 

one day at a time

Every adoption is different. Every child is different. There have been moments during every one of our adoptions where I thought, “I can’t do this. It’s too hard.” With our first child I was scared. I had never been a parent before so it was less I can’t do this. It’s too hard. and more I’m afraid to do this. What if I fail? After three weeks at home with kid number two, during a period where we were trying to get him enrolled into school, I nearly threw in the towel after being forced to watch Frozen for the 693rd time. And I never thought I’d break through to my third son until the day I finally did.

It turned out I was half right: being a parent was hard, but I could do it.

A week ago my husband and I welcomed our fourth child into the family. It’s been a tough week. I tell myself: Every adoption is different. Every child is different. But Number Four (as I call her) is different on steroids. A few days in and already I find myself retreating to I can’t do this. It’s too hard.

If kids came with instructions (ha!) then the how-to manual for my first child would have read: just add water. The guide for my second kid would have told us to add water and sunlight. The instructions for kid number three would have included the bit about water and sunlight, and then advised us to “be really patient for about eight months.”

But Number Four is like having picked out the most complicated piece of furniture at IKEA only to discover the directions have been accidentally shredded and then randomly taped back together and also half the parts are missing.

Before I go any further I want to be clear—I am not complaining. I am lucky. I am luckier than any one person has the right to be. I have four wonderful, unique, beautiful, perfect children. This is not about them. This is about me.

I’m afraid to do this. What if I fail?

When you adopt a child you don’t just adopt the child, you also adopt their history and some histories are more complicated than others. No kid ever ended up in the foster system because life with their birth parents was a Norman Rockwell painting. Some kids experience unimaginable traumas. I’ve read some dark case files that make me question my faith in humanity more than any Trump presidency ever could.

I marvel at my three sons, at their resilience, at their ability to not be defined by their past. They found strength in their stories. I tell myself that the day will come when Number Four climbs out from her past and proves herself stronger than any one of us. She will tower above us all, having finally learned to take power from pain.

Of course I know, like my other three children, she cannot do this alone. She will need help and support and love. She will need someone who can unscramble the directions and find the missing parts. But more than anything she will need a parent who isn’t afraid to fail, possibly a lot and probably quite often.


Sean Michael O’Donnell is 43 year old married gay man. He lives in Pittsburgh with his husband, three sons, and daughter. Sean enjoys Law & Order reruns, Christmas movies in October, and Facebook stalking. He likes donuts and beer. Sometimes he goes to the gym.  He is the author of the best-selling book Which One of You is the Mother?

those people

I am so tired of racists, and I’m white, so I can only imagine how tired and angry and just totally fucking over it every non-white person in this country is of being forced to share space and make nice with their friendly neighborhood racist. I tell myself that we are in a new age of racism, but the truth is we are simply seeing a modernizing of old school racism. As my much-smarter-than-me husband recently put it, “The new style of lynching is no longer one of public participation but one of public complicity.”

Twenty-five years ago my racist uncle would have had the decency to keep his racist mouth shut in public….oh sure, he was still a racist, but he never would have had the stones to go on social media to show all the world just how much he was a worthless horrible disgusting human being.

But today – thanks in no small part to our race-baiting, Nazi-sympathizing, white nationalist-apologizing President – the gloves are off and every last garbage person in this country has emerged from his hate-cocoon with a tiki torch in one hand and twitter account in the other.

And the rest of us…well, we just throw up our hands and politely debate the civility of calling out racism because heaven forbid Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi think less of us. Heaven forbid we don’t all just link hands and sing a chorus of Kumbaya. Heaven forbid we be perceived as “going low” and possibly (heaven forbid!) offend a racist therefore tarnishing our precious liberal halos.

Excuse me while I vomit.

A few days ago a 17 year old black boy was murdered by the police in Pittsburgh. As the parent of an African American boy it is not hard to imagine a scenario where it is my son in the cross-hairs of some trigger-happy racist cop. I think of that boy and then I think of my son and it stops my breath.

And the people who justify this murder? Or say it’s wrong, but then equivocate. Or post some bullshit meme about blue lives matter (which is just another example of white people appropriation, by the way). I am so done with you and I am so tired of being forced to share space with you and make nice with you because YOU ARE A RACIST.

Earlier this morning a woman came into the church where I work. She asked if she could use the telephone. She wanted to call her son to let him know that protesters who were marching to call attention to the death of an innocent 17 year old black child who had been murdered by the police were blocking a major roadway in the city. Normally, I don’t allow people to use the phone, but she seemed nice and genuine and I felt bad for her so I let her use my personal cell phone. As she dialed her son’s number, she launched into a tirade about “those people” and how they had no right to block the street and how she couldn’t understand why “those people” were mad at “us”.

I’ll admit, at first, I froze. I didn’t know what to do or what to say or how to react. I kept hearing her say “those people.” Her call went to voicemail and just as she was about to leave her son a message I snatched my phone out of her hands and said, “Those people are my son and you can leave now.”

I don’t care if I offended her. I don’t care if you refuse to invite me to your next Kumbaya circle jerk. I don’t care how low I go and I most definitely do not care if you take away my liberal halo because as far as I’m concerned Pelosi and Schumer and the rest of the can’t-we-all-just-agree-to-disagree squad can choke on it.

I want to scream.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

Get mad. Do something. Stop being so fucking polite. Stop making excuses for bad people. Stop. Just stop.


Sean Michael O’Donnell is 43 year old married gay man. He lives in Pittsburgh with his husband and three sons. Sean enjoys Law & Order reruns, Christmas movies in October, and Facebook stalking. He likes donuts and beer. Sometimes he goes to the gym.  He is the author of the best-selling book Which One of You is the Mother?

my kids are the best, but so are their kids

I love my children. I would do anything for them. Read off the Things I Would do for My Children list and I would do it all: give them a kidney, walk through fire, take a bullet. Check, check, and check. I would even give them my last donut. I don’t think this makes me special. It just makes me a parent. As every parent reading this well knows, when you become a parent something inside of you changes. A switch is flipped and the world stops being about you.

I have three sons, and very soon I will have a daughter. My kids are the best. They are strong and funny and compassionate and brave. My kids are the best. But so are your kids. And so are kids from China and Russia and Afghanistan and Ethiopia and El Salvador and Brazil and North Korea and Sudan and Pakistan and Israel and Canada and Mexico. My kids are the best, but so are their kids.

I’d walk through fire for my kids. I’d take a bullet for my kids. It’s such a trite sentiment, but it’s also true. So is it really that hard to believe that some parents would walk hundreds of miles across the desert in 100 degree heat to cross the border even at the risk of being arrested just to give their kids a better and safer life?

I mean, if you would do anything for your kids, is it really that hard to believe that other parents would do the same? If (some days it seems like when) this country were to destabilize and collapse is it truly that difficult to imagine a scenario where you pack up your family and walk hundreds of miles through dangerous conditions to get to a safe place, even if that safe place meant you had to illegally cross the border into another country? Of course you would do it and, if you’re like me, you would take no prisoners along the way because that is what a parent does – we do anything for our kids.

Watching images of children in cages this week was difficult, but listening to the audio of crying children being taken from their parents was unbearable. There were a few times I had to turn the TV off, overcome with emotion and shame I would need a moment to collect myself. I cried too, but in those moments I found myself thinking of my kids, and not the kids in cages. I thought about my kids being taken from their birth parents and what that must have felt like for them at the ages of 2 and 4 and 5, and how it still must feel for them at the ages of 8 and 12 and 14. I imagined the terror and confusion in their little faces and even now, typing this sentence, I choke up.

This is empathy and as many of us discovered this week, not everyone has been blessed with it. No parent, no human being with empathy, could see photos of children in cages and not think, this is wrong. Full stop, no equivocating, this is wrong. And yet, for many it was right — just even — and for some it was wrong, but still they equivocated so it wasn’t really so much wrong as they just weren’t willing to fully commit to their awfulness.

People in this country like to complain about welfare and public assistance, but the reality for most of us is that we are never more than one paycheck away from needing that assistance. As our friends and family justify and support the placing of children in cages, perhaps it’s time for them to wake up and acknowledge that we are one Executive Order away from it being our children in those cages.

My kids are the best, but so are their kids.


Sean Michael O’Donnell is 43 year old married gay man. He lives in Pittsburgh with his husband and three sons. Sean enjoys Law & Order reruns, Christmas movies in October, and Facebook stalking. He likes donuts and beer. Sometimes he goes to the gym.  He is the author of the best-selling book Which One of You is the Mother?

will someone think of the children (probably not)

The United States government is placing children in cages. It’s shocking, but really it’s just another day in Donald Trump’s America. The right will defend it, the left will condemn it. The Attorney General will cite the Bible as precedent and then some well-meaning moron you went to high school with will post a meme suggesting that in the matter of the United Sates caging children we should all just agree to disagree. Our immigrant First Lady, a recipient of an Einstein Visa because who the fuck knows why, will weigh in condemning her husband’s policies and the media will anoint her Saint Melania of the Caged Children.

And the media, by gosh golly they are useless. I guarantee you if some D-list celebrity offs himself tomorrow it will be wall-to-wall grief coverage and the American people will emotionally masturbate to it until we’re all saying, “Children in cages? What children in cages? I don’t remember any children in cages.” But long after this country’s last great stateswoman Kim Kardashian overdoses on Ho-Hos in the Lincoln Bedroom, those kids will still be in cages.

The United States government is placing children in cages and you’re either defending it or you’re already in the process of forgetting about it.

Look, I’m no better than you. I like a good Kim Kardashian Ho-Ho overdose story as much as the next American, but as the (adoptive) parent of three children who were taken from their (birth) parents I can tell you if there is one thing that will mess with a kid’s head it is being taken away from their parents. Today my children are in a stable home where they are loved and feel safe, and still, the pain of being ripped away from their (birth) parents haunts them.

My kids were placed in a foster home, not a converted Wal-Mart. My kids were given a bedroom with walls, not a cell with bars. My kids received therapy from licensed professionals, not supervision from poorly-vetted government cogs. My kids had all these benefits and still the trauma of being separated from their parents remains to this day.

Imagine what the trauma will be like for these immigrant children who have been treated no better than caged animals…the ensuing years of depression, alcoholism, homelessness, drug dependency, suicide, inability to form lasting attachments…because those are all the things that children from the foster system, kids like my kids, experience throughout their lives, despite the benefits of having had loving parents and a real home and years of therapy.

Put simply, these immigrant kids are fucked.

I watch people on social media wringing their hands in despair, unable to grasp why their conservative friends and family defend this shameful policy. The left asks, “What if it was your children?” and of course the answer is, “But they aren’t my children. My children are white.”

Because beyond the morality and the legality, there is one truth: there is a law for white people and there are cages for brown people. Now before you stroke out, please hit the pause button on your outrage and consider how we would be handling this situation if this were Canadians crossing our precious border pouring into the wilds of Montana and upstate New York. I can guarantee you we would not be ripping apart families and warehousing kids inside a Wal-Mart prison.

Of course this is Donald Trump’s America, so who knows? Perhaps caging Canadian kids could be useful as we negotiate those pesky milk tariffs. But really, why stop at putting children in cages? This is America and in America we go big or go home! Let’s take it one (or ten) steps further. Those brown children may have information vital to our national security. What do you know about MS-13? How many caravans of illegals are preparing to cross the border? Why are telenovelas so damn popular? I’m confident that any reasonable three-year-old would break after a few hours of intense waterboarding.

People talk about how we’re crossing a line. We crossed a line with Sandy Hook. We crossed a line when we grabbed them by the pussy. We crossed a line in Charlottesville. But we’re no longer crossing lines. We’re caging children. We’ve gone over the line and we are falling into the void.


Sean Michael O’Donnell is 43 year old married gay man. He lives in Pittsburgh with his husband and three sons. Sean enjoys Law & Order reruns, Christmas movies in October, and Facebook stalking. He likes donuts and beer. Sometimes he goes to the gym.  He is the author of the best-selling book Which One of You is the Mother?

brothers & sisters

There was a time when my children were not my children. They belonged to someone else. They had another family – mothers and fathers and grandmothers and brothers and sisters. They had a story that did not include me. As an adoptive parent you are tasked with safeguarding these stories and honoring these past connections. It is both a privilege and a burden, an emotionally draining minefield of responsibility that is never about you even when it feels like it is always about you.

We decided very early in the adoption process that we would only consider adopting a child where the parental rights had been terminated, meaning the parents were out of the picture. We were not going to subject ourselves to years of court proceedings, a constant back-and-forth battle between us and the birth parents and a well-meaning judge where we had no real legal rights and the child could be taken from us at any time.

Our adoptions would be clean. It would be new beginning for us and a fresh start for our children.

Of course that isn’t how adoption works. Adoption never ends. When you adopt you are making a lifelong commitment to every part of your child, even the parts that came before you. You don’t just adopt that child – you adopt that child’s very complicated history.

A few months ago my 12 year old re-established contact with his grandmother. He had not spoken to her since he was placed with us, and even prior to that his contact with her had been spotty. She had raised him for a period of about two years before he was removed from her care and placed in foster care. They now talk on the phone and text, and as a result of their renewed contact he has expressed a desire to reconnect with his birth siblings.

This past weekend my 14 year old had a visit with two of his five birth siblings. It was the first time he had seen his brother in almost three years and about a year since he last saw his sister. Their history is complicated, but still the visit went well and plans were made for a follow-up visit next month.

And so it begins.

Reconnecting with their past will inevitably open up old wounds for them. Visits and phone calls will foster a desire to have contact with other family members, many of whom are not suitable resources and so I will have to assume the role of the bad guy.

I want to honor their stories, but I also need to protect them. It’s a balancing act and most days I find myself falling off the tightrope.

Of course, if I’m being honest, sometimes I’m jealous of these people who know my kids in a way I never will. They were there first. They were the originals. They gave them their first treasured stuffed animal. They remember mom. They didn’t just yell at them fifteen minutes ago for not cleaning their room.

I’m happy my 12 year old has his grandma and that my 14 year old has his birth siblings. I’m thankful for the connections they provide to the past. I know they fill a void that I cannot but still their presence overwhelms me. Their reappearance stops my breath.

It’s not a competition but then I watch my 14 year old hug his brother and sister in a way he would never hug me and I feel like if it were a competition then I would lose.

I start to think, “Am I jealous?” and just like that I realize, “No, I’m afraid.”

Afraid that the present will never measure up to the past. Afraid that I’m the consolation prize. Afraid that if they had to choose, they would choose not me.

And I’m not supposed to say that. I’m not supposed to feel that way. I’m supposed to safeguard and honor.

But some days it’s really hard and so I’m stuck feeling the feelings I’m not supposed to feel, reminding myself that it isn’t about me. It isn’t a competition. I’m not a consolation prize. One day I will get the hug.

one life to live (or, as my world turns)

Tomorrow I turn 43 years old, which means I have had forty-three occasions to legitimately eat cake. My best birthday was my 21st birthday. I was living in England at the time, attending a college about two hours north of London. My friends had put together a scavenger hunt that took me all across campus with each clue leading to a destination leading to a drink. There were a lot of clues and subsequently a lot of drinks. We eventually ended up at the campus pub (for more drinks!) before heading to the campus disco for a night of dancing. After dancing the night away to Blur and Pulp, I ended up back in my room or someone else’s room or several someone else’s rooms and with names I’ve forgotten did a lot of X-rated things that my now-43 year old body could only dream of repeating.

Sigh. It was a good night.

Since that night (and I suppose before that night, too) I have had many great birthdays. There have been wild birthdays surrounded by friends and there have been quiet birthdays surrounded by family. As I have grown older the shots from my twenties have been traded in for the beer of my thirties which have now been upgraded to the milk of my childhood.

Birthdays have become a sober affair, for which my liver is eternally grateful.

Tomorrow morning I will wake up in the home I love next to the man I love. Downstairs above the door to the dining room he will have already hung the “Happy Birthday” banner we use for all the birthdays. There will be cake and homemade ice cream for later in the day. Eventually my kids will come down and Chris will hug me and A’Sean will smile that big smile and Elijah will tell me I’m fat and in that moment I will be the luckiest man alive.

On my 21st birthday twenty-two years ago, I never could have imagined the life I am living now…and not just because I was really drunk. It was inconceivable to 1996 Sean that there would ever be a day where he (er, I) could be married to another man. It was even more unimaginable that there could ever be a day where I would be a parent. And yet here I am.

It’s incredibly easy to take my many blessings for granted – husband, home, job, three perfectly imperfect kids – and yet I do it every day. The truth is I will never have an attitude for gratitude or any other meaningless platitude, but on those rare occasions when the wisdom of this age grants me perspective, I remember that I am the luckiest man alive and that every day is like my 21st birthday…well, minus the X-rated stuff.

the most wonderful time of the year (or not)

I love Christmas. What a stupid thing to say. Everyone loves Christmas. Even people who claim to hate Christmas really love Christmas. Christmas is in our DNA. After eleven soul-crushing months, we come back to life with each chorus of Deck The Halls. We may bitch about Christmas store displays in October, but we are born again at the first sight of a brightly lit Target Christmas tree and, like the Grinch, our hearts will grow three sizes at the first whiff of a peppermint latte.

Christmas is magic. It is the best part of humanity. Christmas has the power to slay dragons and silence Scrooges and, one hopes, banish Trumps to the Upside Down.

Still, as much as I love Christmas, it challenges me. I am consumed (obsessed?) with Christmas perfection. Every moment needs to be A MOMENT and every experience needs to be a special treasured memory that will bring my children to tears long after I am gone. Putting up the decorations the day after Thanksgiving, cutting down our Christmas tree, decorating the tree, making cookies and buckeyes and fudge, seeing the lights, ice skating, wrapping presents – it all needs to be so goddamn special I have no choice but to wear a Santa hat 24/7 and pound a case of Sam Adams White Christmas.

Sometimes I feel in order to make every Christmas moment truly special to my kids I should, in the middle of the activity, slap them across the face and scream, “Remember this when I’m dead!”

And then thirty years from now when they’re icing snowman cookies with their kids they’ll remember that time their Dad slapped them across the face and they’ll feel all warm and fuzzy and remember that I was a Christmas rock star.

As I said, Christmas challenges me. I want every day in the month of December to be A Very Special Holiday Christmas Extravaganza with Candace Cameron Bure and Lacey Chabert, but instead it ends up being A Very Merry Joan Crawford Christmas from Hell.

And my undiagnosed holiday mental health issues are not at all helped by “the triggers”. I don’t mean to pass the buck, but my kids. It’s a well-documented opinion that holidays are a trigger for adopted children. It brings up a lot of junk and when you’re seven years old it can be hard to process that junk so instead you just become awful and all that repressed anger and sadness is channeled into your undiagnosed Oppositional Defiant Disorder until one day you explode and try to start a Fight Club on your school bus.

But “the triggers” aren’t just about School Bus Fight Club….”the triggers” also send you spiraling back into the past. You may have gone 330 days without even thinking about the life you had before the life you have, but the first sight of a candy cane and it’s suddenly teary-eyed monologues about West Virginia and grandma.

And just like that making Christmas cookies becomes sad. And putting up a tree makes you feel lost and guilty and alone and you’re only eleven and you don’t know what to do with those feelings so you shut down or talk back or you just make damn sure everyone is as unhappy as you.

Christmas challenges us all.

I don’t mean to imply that the holidays are awful. Remember, I love Christmas and my kids love (getting) Christmas (presents). We have scrapbooks full of very special Christmas holiday moments, but we also have our share of Christmas from hell moments and, while I am usually Joan Crawford, the truth is any of my three kids could whip out a wire hanger at a moment’s notice.

We are well matched.

(Poor Todd.)

One day I will let go of the perfection. I will stop trying to force the moments. I will embrace “the triggers”. One day after I’m gone my kids will remember it all—even without the slap—and maybe if I’m lucky they’ll remember my Santa hat and good intentions, and not my crooked wig and half-empty glass of gin.


Sean Michael O’Donnell is 42 year old married gay man. He lives in Pittsburgh with his husband and three sons. Sean enjoys Law & Order reruns, Christmas movies in October, and Facebook stalking. He likes donuts and beer. Sometimes he goes to the gym.  He is the author of the best-selling book Which One of You is the Mother?

choose adoption

November is National Adoption Month. To learn more about adoption, you can visit www.adoptuskids.org


 

Five years ago – after weeks of parenting classes, mountains of paperwork, and multiple background checks – my husband and I became certified adoptive parents. This meant that we could now adopt a child through the foster care system; it did not, however, mean that the state would immediately hand us a child. It would be eight long months before that happened.

It seems like a lifetime ago…

Today, we have three children – all adopted through foster care, ranging in age from 7 to 13. Our children are all boys: our oldest son (adopted in 2017) is African-American, our middle child (adopted in 2013) is Native American, and our youngest boy (adopted in 2015) is plain-old vanilla Caucasian.

They could not be more different. The 13 year old likes baseball and basketball while the 11 year old prefers to dress up in wigs and make YouTube videos. Meanwhile, the too-smart-for-his-own-good seven year old spends all his time playing Minecraft and prepping for life as a criminal mastermind. And yet despite their obvious differences, my children are perfectly matched. They speak the same language, a kind of shorthand understood only by those who have gone through the system.

No one will ever understand them the way they understand each other. They share a story. It is a story of loss…the loss of parents, the loss of birth family, the loss of connection, the loss of toys and clothes and shoes and other seemingly trivial things, the loss of security and safety, the loss of hope.

At any given moment in this country there are approximately 400,000 children in foster care. Of that number, more than 100,000 children are actively waiting to be adopted into a permanent home with an astounding 23,000 of those kids aging out of the foster system every year, orphaned with no resources.

Those numbers are overwhelming and constant, but they are not hopeless. Yes, we need to do better for the 23,000 children who find themselves abandoned by the system every year, but we also need to take a moment and celebrate the story of every kid who made it out and found their forever family. We need to embrace each happy ending if only to remind ourselves that there is hope.

My sons found their hope. This does not mean their losses have gone away. They still miss their birth parents. They still strive to maintain a connection to their old lives. They still have moments where they feel unsafe.

Children of the foster system may never escape their loss, but in adoption there can be a new beginning. Adoption is all about second and third and, sometimes even, fourth chances.

Adoption changes lives. It changed the lives of my children and my husband and me. Adoption made us a family.


Sean Michael O’Donnell is 42 year old married gay man. He lives in Pittsburgh with his husband and three sons. Sean enjoys Law & Order reruns, Christmas movies in October, and Facebook stalking. He likes donuts and beer. Sometimes he goes to the gym.  He is the author of the best-selling book Which One of You is the Mother?