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!

 

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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?

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?

escaping the dog whistle

I grew up in a small town. We had one stoplight, one tiny grocery store, one very small public library. There was a church on every corner. We never locked our doors at night. In more prosperous times this small little town would have been described as picturesque, but looking back its decline had begun long before my childhood memories. Today it is like every small town in America, desperately hanging on as it tries to reinvent itself for a future it cannot escape yet unwilling to let go of a past that will never come back.

I sometimes feel like I have spent the better part of my life trying to escape that town and everything it stood for (or maybe, against). Even on those days when I found myself seduced by its many charms—the mighty river that cut its way through the town, the endless train tracks and their promise of adventure, the great park with its ball fields and swimming pool and storybook playground—even on those days when I was besotted with every street and house, I was plotting my escape to somewhere not there.

The day I left for college I never looked back. There was the occasional visit home, a few months in my first apartment after I left college followed by the subsequent moves to towns nearby where the only thing really different was the name. The real break-up didn’t happen until 2004 when I moved to a new city in a different state. Hundreds of miles from home and it felt as if my real life could finally begin.

I have since returned to my home state and although I now live just 25 miles from my childhood hometown, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve visited in the past ten years.

I suppose what keeps me away now is the very thing that sent me away then. I needed more. I knew there was a world full of people who were nothing like me. They ate foods I had never heard of and celebrated holidays I could not pronounce. They practiced mysterious religions or no religion at all. They were men who loved other men and women who used to be men. They were black and brown and they came from a world I did not understand because until that moment I left for college everyone and everything had been white.

In my former life, everyone ate steak and celebrated Christmas and worshipped white blonde Jesus and even when they felt otherwise inclined they sacrificed love for acceptance.

It’s what they knew and it’s who they were and there was nothing wrong with that I just knew I was different. I was other.

Today when I pass through these towns of yesterday many of the faces are the same. My teachers and classmates and friends still call this place home. They don’t need me to say it, but they are good people and I believe the majority of them do not embrace the narrow-minded values that sent me fleeing almost 25 years ago. The truth is people I have not seen in two decades regularly reach out to celebrate my non-traditional family. They embrace me and my husband and my gay son and my black son and my possibly-future-criminal mastermind son.

They may still live in a world where (most) everyone and everything is white, but they recognize that there exists a world where two gay men can have a black son.

Of course not everyone has progressed. In some parts of my childhood it will forever be 1857. In some parts of my childhood I am a disgusting pervert and my boy better know his place in the master’s house. Unfortunately this 19th century mentality has found new strength in a 21st century world. Our president has dog whistled a host of phobias and racism onto the main stage of 2017. He delights in sowing unrest and playing to our basest fear—the fear of other.

To paraphrase a great president from back when presidents were still great, “There is nothing to fear, but everyone who isn’t a straight white Christian.”

Muslims are terrorists. Mexicans are rapists. Women are objects. African Americans being murdered by law enforcement are just as culpable as tiki torch-carrying white supremacists in khakis, who by the way are “very fine people”.

For decades our president has been waging a war against black Americans, starting with housing discrimination in the 1970s to his ferocious condemnation of the (innocent) Central Park Five in the 1980s to his being one of the architects of the birther movement during the Obama years to his handling of Charlottesville this past August to his calculated conflation that African American athletes peaceably protesting racial injustice is an affront to our flag and veterans.

And as our racist president single-handedly destroys our democracy, as he continues to wipe his ass with the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution, people in small towns across the country, like the town I grew up in, wrap themselves in the flag and follow him blindly into the abyss. These people are not stupid or hateful, but they are afraid, and Trump is selling fear like a snake oil salesman at a medicine show.

Whatever ails you, it’s not your fault, and he has the cure. Ban the Muslims. Deport the Mexicans. Make sure the black man stays at the back of the bus. Make America great again.

We have to be better. We have to not be afraid. We have to leave our small towns and step outside of our whiteness and understand that sometimes what is happening is bigger than us.

We have to rise up and resist and do the hard work. We have to take a knee so that a young black man like my son isn’t gunned down by the police.

I am not a red, white and blue bleeding, flag fetishizing kind of patriot. Don’t get me wrong, I love this country and I’m grateful for every opportunity it has given me—including the opportunity to write these words—but I’m more of a low-key America Rocks! kind of guy so no one was more surprised when this past Sunday while watching a clip of football players kneeling during the National Anthem I began to cry. As I watched these athletes stand up (by kneeling down) for our most basic freedoms I was proud to be an American.

This was patriotism.

It wasn’t about a flag or a song. It was about coming together to do the right thing.


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?