i am the parent

The moment I met my children for the first time I was their Dad. On July 8, 2013, when Chris first greeted me at the door of his foster home I was his Dad. The day Elijah first ignored me seconds after being introduced to me I was his Dad. The afternoon A’Sean first arrived at our house with nothing more than a knapsack and I told him, “You’re safe now,” I was his Dad. I have never not been their parent.

Emotionally. Physically. Legally. I am their parent. The state of Pennsylvania and the government of the United States of America recognizes that I am their Dad. My husband and I are listed on their birth certificates. We are their parents. Legally. Just us. No one else. Nothing and no one can change that simple fact.

And yet despite an overwhelming amount of legal and emotional and spiritual proof to the contrary for one brief second yesterday I was made to feel that maybe, possibly, in the eyes of some, because my children were adopted, I was not really their ACTUAL parent.

It was a horrible feeling. It made me sick and sad and, later in the evening when I admitted these feelings to my husband, it made me cry.

I felt weak and ashamed and illegitimate and angry.

Angry. Angry. ANGRY.

It was our third trip in six weeks to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. We had met with a geneticist on our first visit. Our PCP had some concerns and wanted our eleven year old to be tested for Marfan Syndrome. The geneticist found several visual markers for the disease which led us to visit the cardiologist a few weeks later. The echocardiogram from this second visit had raised a red flag and now we found ourselves back for a third visit to discuss the cardiologist’s findings and to go over our options. The visit went well…in fact, all things considered, all three visits had gone very well. The doctors and nurses had provided us with excellent care and treated us with respect.

 Until…

 It was the end of the third visit and we were in the process of checking out. (It’s an important point, so to be clear, we were checking out. The visit was over. The care had been provided.) The nurse asked for my son’s insurance card and then she asked for my information. She asked my relationship to the child and I said, “Father.” She then asked for an additional contact and I gave her my husband’s information. She asked for his relationship to the child and I said, “Father.”

 Memory is a funny thing, but I swear I could hear the air being sucked out of the room the moment I said “Father” in reference to my husband.

 The nurse looked at us and informed us that we would need to provide the hospital’s legal department with an adoption certificate to prove that we were our son’s parents. She said that the hospital needed to confirm that the persons making medical decisions for our son were legally allowed to make those decisions.

 The nurse then said something about ACTUAL PARENTS. Those were her words, actual parents. She said this in reference to my son’s birth parents as if to draw a distinction between my husband and I—the two faggots standing before her—and my son’s birth parents—the two people not standing before her who have not been a part of my son’s life since he was two years old.

 Also, she said all of this in front of my son.

I questioned why we would need to provide an adoption certificate or any documentation for that matter considering we were my son’s ACTUAL PARENTS and also none of the straight couples in the waiting room were being asked to provide documentation and also this was our third visit to Children’s Hospital so if our parental legitimacy were an issue shouldn’t it have been addressed on that first visit six weeks ago?

I’m not a dictionary but it sure sounded like discrimination.

In telling this story to other people I have found myself growing more and more angry as if repeating the events of the day are making this ridiculously surreal moment in time painfully real. My husband and I have never encountered a situation like this…I knew one day eventually our family dynamic would meet with resistance, but I always assumed it would happen in someplace like the small town I grew up in or in one of those ferociously red states I see on CNN. I never thought it would happen at a major medical institution in a fairly liberal urban setting.

Many people have offered their support and shared in our horror. We have been advised to seek legal counsel and to contact GLAAD. A few people have said that we should approach the hospital and let this be a teachable moment. Except, my family and I are not someone’s teachable moment. We do not exist so that you can learn to not be an asshole.

Actual parent.

I am not going to demonize my children’s birth parents. I do not know the truth of their struggles, but I do know I would not have my children without them and so I am thankful for these strangers who made me a parent.

They gave my children life, but the reality is they are no longer in the picture. I am. I give them love. I bandage their scraped knees. I celebrate their good test scores. I make their birthday cakes and donut towers and chocolate zucchini bread. I cheer loudest at baseball games and I clap hardest at every curtain call. I yell and punish and I make the tough choices.

Every moment of every day I am the actual parent.

Usually I apologize when there is some sort of benign slight aimed at my non-traditional family. At the start of each new school year I am faced with a mountain of official papers to sign and each paper has a place for mother’s signature and father’s signature and each year I cross out mother and write in father and I say, “It’s not a big deal.” I make excuses and I convince myself that I’m being overly sensitive because it’s just a piece of paper.

But every time I pardon those benign slights I contribute to a culture of privilege that makes it okay for some nurse to ask me to prove that I am my son’s actual parent. I’m done. Change the fucking form. See the world beyond your little patch of grass. Learn to speak in a language that is inclusive and kind and stop being the world’s biggest dick.

As for that nurse and the policies of the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, to be clear, until every parent who has ever walked through the doors in the very long history of that hospital is asked to show their papers, then no, I will not show mine.

I am the actual parent.


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?

Advertisements

parenting 101

I am a failure.

As a parent.

As a parent I make the wrong choices. I say the wrong words. I yell too much. I don’t yell enough. I am lacking in my overcompensating and overcompensating in my lacking. I am a mess. I suspect I am not alone in these feelings. I suspect every parent has overwhelming moments of self-defeating doubt, even when they seem to be doing everything right. I think if we have one thing in common as parents it is that we all, at some point, feel like big fat colossal failures.

And maybe we are. Probably. Sometimes.

I beat myself up over every little misstep. I replay conversations and dissect word choice and then I rewrite it and archive it so the next time I will be better. I worry that every overreaction to simple situations and every underreaction to major milestones will send my kids straight to the psychiatrist’s couch when the truth is the only person who is crazy is me.

Last night Chris spilled a full glass of milk all over the kitchen floor. It had been a long weekend and I was tired and no one was listening and I was just done and as I was kneeling on the floor cleaning it up I found myself literally crying over spilt milk…because I’m a crazy mess.

Some parents treat their kids like an afterthought, abdicating all responsibility to the other parent in the home or a nanny or a teacher or just letting the kid figure it all out on the streets. I am the opposite. I am involved. (Too involved!) So involved I take every slight against one of my kids as a slight against me. If someone is mean to my child I make a mental list of all the ways I’m going to destroy them…it doesn’t matter if that someone is seven years old or that I’m 42 because that someone hurt my kid and they gotta pay ’cause I’m a crazy mess.

In the past week I have had to talk to my kids about racism, sexuality and why it’s not okay to wet your pants so you don’t have to stop playing Minecraft. In my attempt to keep it real, I worry that I sounded like a racist, self-hating homosexual who just doesn’t appreciate the finer points of gaming.

I love being a parent, but it is fucking hard work. I feel guilty that sometimes (all the time!) I think I deserve a reward. Like if my kids don’t say thank you or I love you or kiss my cheek before bed then they don’t appreciate all the things I’ve done for them which is unacceptable because, as they well know, I’m a crazy mess.

I’m starting to learn, or finally realize, that each of my kids are very different and that while one of them lives for my all-consuming brand of (s)mothering, the other two just need for me to back the fuck off sometimes. I’m learning to accept that they are the reward, not the kisses or the obligatory thank yous.  I’m beginning to understand that it’s okay to be a failure because we’re all failures, and as long as we know that simple truth then maybe one day we won’t be even if we never stop being a crazy hot mess in the process.

But more than anything what I have learned or realized or come to understand is that while it may never be okay to wet your pants so you can keep playing Minecraft, it is totally acceptable to fantasize about destroying a seven year old who made your kid cry.

where do i sign up for the newsletter

A few weeks ago my eleven year old son told me he was gay. He didn’t announce it or deliver the news in a very special episode of Blossom kind of way; he just told me. It was all rather … Continue reading

on being a father on father’s day and every day

I first became a father on July 8, 2013, the day I met my then-seven year old son for the first time. Four years later and my husband and I are on the verge of (legally) becoming fathers for a third time as we begin to finalize the adoption of our (biologically) oldest (chronologically) youngest son.

We came to fatherhood a bit late; I was 38 and my husband was 41. I sometimes think we both wished we had started having children a bit sooner, years ago back when we still had the energy to keep up with a seven year old before we started buying pants with elastic waistlines.

But because I know that our kids were always meant to be our kids I also know that starting earlier would not have been an option. The timing would have been off—a day sooner or a day later and suddenly we’re in an alternate timeline where Todd has a full head of hair and I hate doughnuts and instead of three kids we have 27 dogs and everything is just wrong.

The five of us were a series of lines, always meant to cross, but at very specific points.

When I was younger I knew I wanted a family, a big family with six kids, but when I was younger I also knew I was gay and because of that I understood that my big family with six kids would never happen. At 11 years old, at 18 years old, at 27 years old, I could never conceive of a time when a gay man could have children.

And yet, here I am.

I get to play ball with A’Sean and help Chris memorize a monologue and laugh when Elijah says really inappropriate words.

I get to celebrate their successes and encourage them past their defeats.

I get to see them grow up.

I get to watch them be brothers.

I get to imagine who they will be when I’m gone and not be sad because I know they have each other.

Being a father is the greatest joy of my life and raising my boys is my greatest accomplishment. My kids make me laugh and they make me scream. They challenge me and they exhaust me. They bring out my best and they bring out my worst. They give me purpose.

Every day is not the best day, but every day is a better day because I get to be their dad. So even when I’m screaming at them (which I do) or sneaking off to the bathroom to cry (which I do even more) or beating myself up for getting everything wrong (which I do every day), I would not trade a moment of this great privilege.

Happy Father’s Day – today and every day.

this is us

We received the call shortly after 4 p.m. It was a Wednesday. I had just picked up the boys from school. Chris was in the dining room doing his homework. Elijah was in the attic playing Minecraft. Todd was still at work. The phone rang. It was our adoption agency. They needed an emergency foster placement for a 12 year old boy. There weren’t many details, there never are, but they said there was a good chance the placement could become permanent. Would we be interested?

Over the years we’d received this phone call many times, but we had always said no. Todd and I had long ago weighed the risks and decided that short term foster placements were not something we could handle. It would be too hard on the boys. It would be too hard on us. We needed guarantees. We couldn’t do goodbyes.

But that day was different. I don’t know why. Looking back, it just was…

And so two hours later there was a 12 year old boy standing in our living room. The story of how this twelve year old boy came to be standing in our living room is not my story to tell…he was there now and in that moment as we introduced ourselves and made small talk and later adjourned to the street to play ball, in those moments, is where his story became our story.

He was scared, or maybe just in shock. I know we were, scared and definitely in shock. But we all put on our best faces and we made it work. Chris let him ride his bike. Elijah played catch with him. Todd and I assured him he was safe.

He was home.

Over the next few weeks we spent a lot of time in family court. Family court is the seventh circle of hell and no child should ever be forced to go there. The halls are lined with crying children and screaming adults. There is security and policemen and judges who have seen too much to be sympathetic. The holding room is painted a depressing brown and the walls are gouged and scratched and the carpets are stained with coffee and every chair in the room is broken.

The room was a metaphor for every person who had ever walked through its doors.

It was heartbreaking. I am 42 years old and I barely survived our first day in family court…at one point I disappeared into the restroom to cry. The whole system was sad and it made me feel hopeless and small and out of control.

By the time we were called in front of the judge, this scared twelve year old boy had been with us for less than sixteen hours. He was a stranger and yet without hesitation, with instinct, Todd and I became his fiercest advocates. Everything and everyone in that building had been designed to tear him down, but not on our watch. And not on his watch because he was strong, stronger than I realized, and besides we were in this together. We were a family.

As we walked out of the courtroom I put my hand on his shoulder and I said, “You’re staying with us. This is your home. You’re safe.”

That was eight months ago. That was the day we answered the phone. That was the day we said yes because that day was different.

I don’t know why.

Looking back, it just was…meant to be.

 

(un)planned parenthood

In 2011 life was complicated and I found myself in need of someone to talk to…someone on a professional level. As I was uninsured at this time in my complicated life my professional talking options proved to be limited. I did some research and eventually I found myself on the phone with Planned Parenthood. To my surprise, Planned Parenthood offered counseling services.

There was a Planned Parenthood a block from my office. I made an appointment and for twenty dollars a week I was able to talk with a rather good therapist. I went to see this rather good therapist off and on for the next eight months until life felt less complicated. Looking back it was the best money I ever spent and, at the risk of being melodramatic, it saved my life or at the very least helped to give me the life I have now and for that I am thankful.

The point is I am a big fan of Planned Parenthood.

Now every few years congress threatens to defund this very good organization because, as they would have you believe, behind every Planned Parenthood are alleys littered with the aborted fetuses of immoral, irresponsible loose women who have nothing better to do with their time than go to Planned Parenthood for their annual abortion. Every few years congress reminds us that the baby killers at Planned Parenthood are on the front lines of the pre-born Holocaust.

Or something along the lines of that nonsensical dystopian rubbish.

Of course it doesn’t matter that Planned Parenthood offers dozens of other services, ranging from general health maintenance to HIV testing to birth control to cancer screenings to counseling…nor does it matter that just three percent of their provided services are abortion related…nor does it matter that zero dollars of federal money is used on those three percent of abortion related services…nor does it matter that abortion is legal. None of that matters because they are facts and we no longer traffic in facts in President Trump’s America.

So I’m not going to argue pro-this or pro-that because that would be as pointless as expecting Americans to not be so stupid as to elect a misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, anti-LGBT, anti-Muslim, wall-building, tax-dodging, crotch-grabbing demagogue.

What I am going to ask is if your commitment to the pre-born is so great that it would have you deny millions of Americans access to affordable, safe and legal health services then what about after the child is born? Does your passion for the fetus translate to life outside the womb? What have you done to assist a child born into poverty or drug addiction or domestic violence or to a child who is simply just not wanted?

In the same breath that you denounce Planned Parenthood do you also condemn social services like welfare and programs like WIC and SNAP – services and programs that often keep alive the very children you claim to want to save, children who through no fault of their own were born into poverty or drug addiction or domestic violence?  Do you then vote for politicians and parties whose platforms promise to cut these programs that are the very lifeline of every unwanted child?

You hate abortion. You’re “conservative” or “religious” or it just goes against the core of who you are. Okay. Fine. I get it. As a parent of three adopted children who came from not the best circumstances it’s very easy to imagine a “what if” scenario that includes a world without my kids, but we aren’t talking about me. I have no trouble walking the walk.

But you.

Do you foster? Do you adopt? Have you ever even considered becoming a parent to a child who looks nothing like you? If social media and the internet are any indication then the answer is no. You are content with telling other people what they should and should not be doing. You fight for the pre-born but you have no interest in the forgotten seven year old or the abandoned five year old or the black kid because, after all, you’re white and you already have 2.2 kids who look just like you.

If you really care for that child you will stop being ignorant and a hypocrite. If you really care for that child you will give him a home even when he doesn’t look like you. And if you really care for that child you will vote for and support politicians who will guarantee him access to affordable, safe and legal health services.

I feel for Planned Parenthood whose biggest crime is trying to provide affordable, safe and legal health services in a country full of ignorant hypocrites. When you cut off access to health care people die and those people were once children and those children were once fetuses and those fetuses did not cease to matter simply because you did your part to make sure they got born.

who we are

I walked to work today. I usually take the subway, but today I walked. I needed time to think – or, not think – to clear my head, to process the events of the past 24 hours. But instead of thinking (or not thinking) I found myself watching faces. I live in the city so, unlike people living in the majority of the country, the faces I see every day are different than my own face. The faces I see are the faces of African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Muslim Americans, Jewish Americans, Gay Americans, Transgender Americans.

These are the faces that make America great every single day.

I celebrate them. I cherish them. I count myself lucky to be among them.

So as I walked the mile from the parking garage to my office on this, the morning after our country elected a misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, anti-LGBT, anti-Muslim, wall-building, tax-dodging, crotch-grabbing demagogue, I studied the faces of my fellow Americans and, for perhaps the first time, every face looked the same. By the stadium, across the bridge, waiting in line at Starbucks, on the steps of the church – everywhere – I saw written across these faces the same thing: shock, sadness, embarrassment.

I had spent the previous evening watching the election results and, with each state that turned red, I turned to my husband and asked, “Who are we?”

Now, confronted by the faces of my fellow Americans, I saw exactly who we were.

In their faces I saw the faces of all the women I knew and how it must have felt to wake up to learn that the glass ceiling had not been shattered, but reinforced.

I saw the faces of my female friends who had exercised the deeply personal right to choose and what it must be like for them to now have that right in doubt.

I saw the faces of my friends and their Hispanic children and I tried to imagine the sense of fear and uncertainty those kids would face in this new America with its walls and borders and hatred of brown people.

I saw the faces of the many incredible gay men and women who fought so hard for equality and who were now faced with losing that equality at the hands of family and friends who had turned their backs on them in the name of change or protest.

I saw the faces of my transgender friends who still have to fight to use a public restroom.

I saw the faces of the brave parents who fight every day for their special needs children and how much harder that fought just became for them.

I saw the face of my African American foster son and what it must be like for him in a world where all lives matter and blue lives matter, but only sometimes do black lives matter.

I saw the faces of my adopted children and I understood that in a world run by Mike Pence they would not be my children.

I saw the face of my husband, a man I have loved for almost twenty years of my life, and I thought how easily everything we had could be taken away.

And then at last I saw my own face and I felt my anger, my disappointment, my sadness.

#imwithher

Sometimes pictures are better than words.  I’m with her because…

I am a gay man married to my partner of almost twenty years. We have two adopted children. Our oldest son is Native American. We are currently foster parents to a 12 year old African-American boy. There is no place for us in Donald Trump’s America.

I’M WITH HER BECAUSE SHE IS WITH US.

fostering

Foster parents are a mixed bag. Many foster parents are some of the finest people you will ever meet, called to serve like a minister to God. Others are of a more basic variety, called to collect a monthly check from the state. My oldest son was blessed with the gold standard of foster parents. They gave him food and shelter and love and the hope that he would one day have a tomorrow better than today. My youngest son had a foster parent more tin than gold. Despite her many shortcomings, I admired her for doing the work that so many others would not.

I have great respect for foster parents. They do the heavy lifting. Foster parents rescue our children at a time when they are in desperate need of saving. They attach without becoming attached. They give love often without ever receiving it in return. They get the worst but rarely see the best. They hold a place and then they say goodbye.

I could never do that.

Or so I thought.

Eight days ago my husband and I became foster parents. Our agency called us with a child in need of an emergency placement. There were few details available. We discussed it. We considered all the many reasons why we should say “no” and then two hours later we found ourselves standing at the door welcoming a scared twelve year old into our home.

The specifics about this child and the story of our journey together will be a story for another time. We are not permitted to name the child or tell the child’s story or post the child’s photo. For now we have been tasked with doing the heavy lifting, with aiding in the rescue, with giving love.

For now we are holding a place.

And I’m okay with that…or so I tell myself even though it’s not true. What is true is that it took me all of fifteen minutes to attach. I won’t tell you how long it took me to love the kid, lest I embarrass myself, but suffice it to say if there is a goodbye it won’t be easy.

So we wait and we hold a place and we become attached and we fall in love and we see where all this takes us. We hope for the best and we prepare for the worst and we remind ourselves that no matter what we may be feeling this isn’t about us. This is about a kid who needed a home.


*This photo of Hillary Clinton has nothing to do with the story, but since I cannot show photos of the child I thought I’d use this opportunity to remind everyone to vote for Hillary Clinton on November 8 because #imwithher.

the lady of the house is a dude

Mrs. O’Donnell is my mother. Mrs. O’Donnell was my grandmother. I am not Mrs. O’Donnell.

It was an innocent mistake. A harmless assumption. An oversight. Earlier in the day I had emailed the principal at my son’s school. I had some concerns about the structure (or, lack thereof) of his classroom. I wrote a lengthy message detailing my concerns and in the body of the email I referenced my husband. I closed by signing my full name and then I hit send. A few hours later I received a response back from the principal, it began: “Dear MRS. O’Donnell…”

Oh no she didn’t, I thought.

At first I was angry and then I was amused and then I stopped laughing and I was angry again. I knew this gaffe had not been intentional and, based on the many spelling errors in the message, I knew her response had been written in haste.

So I assessed the situation. I recognized that we were a new kind of family. I understood that most of the families at my son’s school were probably of the “traditional” mom-and-dad variety and even though we had maintained an active presence at the school for the past two years I could accept that the reference to “my husband” might lead to certain assumptions and besides, wasn’t Sean also sometimes a girl’s name?

Stop.

I was rationalizing. I was making excuses. I was apologizing for myself and my family.

I have no doubt that the principal had made an honest mistake and while I wasn’t willing to give her a complete pass, did I really feel the need to justify myself to myself?

It’s true that my family does not conform to the mold of a traditional family, but then what is a traditional family? Three years into this parenting gig and it’s a question I keep coming back to: what is a traditional family? It’s an idea that no longer exists. It’s an antiquated photo that hangs over the mantle in a house belonging to people who pretend to like each other. It’s a throwback. A term which I suspect brings comfort to many of the people who want to “make America white straight Christian great again”.

But here’s the thing: there is no traditional family. There is just family. And no matter how you choose to define that dynamic we really are just a group of people thrown together – many through biology, some by circumstance, others by fate.

As my ten year old so eloquently wrote, “Family means people who love you and take care of you.”

So call me Mrs. O’Donnell. Put me in a house dress and pearls. Make me the Life magazine housewife of your 1950’s wet dream. I can be the person you need me to be.

But the next time we meet, remember that I am not Mrs. O’Donnell. I am just some guy married to some other guy raising two kids in a changing world…and it’s time for you to catch up.