through the looking glass

The following is an excerpt from my book Which One Of You is the Mother? As we celebrate the fifth anniversary of Chris’s adoption I remember back to the day we first met him…

He was waiting for us at the door. I imagine he had been there for days, from the moment his foster parents told him we were coming. With his perfectly parted hair and his blue shirt buttoned to the very top button, he had a smile so big it threatened to swallow the whole of the earth. I suspected his bags were already packed, tucked discreetly behind the door, in anticipation of our arrival. He would have come home with us in that moment had we let him. He would have gone anywhere with us in that moment. Us, the parents he had been waiting a lifetime to meet.

It had been six weeks since the decision. Some faceless committee on the other side of the country deciding our future and creating our family. From the start all we had been given was a basic narrative and a photo. It’s the photo that gets you. It’s the photo that dares you to imagine a lifetime of birthdays and Christmases and bedtime hugs. It’s the photo that teases you with a tomorrow that may never happen.

That photo. It invades your dreams. It speaks to you. It sometimes calls you Dad.

I had that photo, his photo, on my computer, but I tried not to look at it, afraid that I would go even further down the rabbit hole. Without the photo he was just a collection of words; a story with a beginning, middle and a distant end. Without the photo, I could close the book, put it back on the shelf. Without the photo he was not real.

Except he was real and I had already imagined all of the birthdays and the Christmases and the lifetime of hugs. I heard his voice call me Dad. I pictured a future with him, my son — this boy I’d never met. And that was dangerous. Because the faceless committee on the other side of the country deciding our future might have hated us. They could have chosen another family, a better match.

Of course, that wasn’t the case. They chose us.

We traveled backward through four time zones, arriving in Oregon shortly after we had left Pittsburgh. It was a few miles from the hotel to his foster home and as we drove I remember looking over at my husband and thinking, This is the last time it will be just the two of us. In a few minutes, for the rest of our lives, it would now be the three of us (at least).

I closed the car door and rounded the corner to the house. Everything changed.

In the movies and in books when writers employ that laziest of clichés love at first sight (see chapter three), I always roll my eyes and silently chastise the author for condescending to his audience with weak plot devices. “Show, don’t tell!” I want to scream as I throw the book across the room. “This isn’t real life!” I say as I shake my fists in protest at the movie screen.

People do not fall in love at first sight. Except for parents. Parents fall in love at first sight. From the moment they see their child they are in love. And it does not matter if they are seeing a newborn or a seven year old, that love is immediate and unconditional and eternal.

The moment I saw my son standing at that door — with his perfectly parted hair and his blue shirt buttoned to the very top button and his smile so big it threatened to swallow the whole of the earth — I was in love. We may have lived in two different worlds for the first seven years of his life, but he was my son as sure as if I had made him. Looking at him I realized that every moment in my life before this moment had been nothing more than an audition.

Curtain up.

He opened the door, offering his hand to me in greeting. It had been a rehearsed bit meant to show respect, but also a subtle wink from his foster parents to let me know that they had done their job, that he had manners. He shook with his left hand. I shook with my right hand. It was very awkward, less of a hand shake and more of a hand embrace. Just another reason to love him.

He had decided that I would be called Dad and Todd would be Papa. “I’m Christopher,” he said.

My son, Christopher. And me, his Dad. Was I really someone’s Dad?

We made our way to the living room and sat on the couch, my husband on the left and me on the right with our son between us as if he had always been there. A camera appeared, immortalizing our first moments as a family. The picture captures two smiling grown men, wide-eyed and deliriously happy, and a young boy, home at last. The photo sits in my son’s room. Sometimes I find myself staring at that photo and suddenly I am inside the picture, living a memory as if today were yesterday and yesterday were now.

I hear my son reading to us. I can’t remember the name of the book, just the sound of his voice. The voice I first imagined before there was a voice, when all I had was a photo and a collection of words. Christopher, Chris, sits across from me, his face buried in his book as he reads with tentative confidence. I close my eyes and his voice takes me out of the room, out of the house, past the hotel, past tomorrow, fast forwarding me through a life that has yet to happen. We are on the plane, back in Pittsburgh, at our home. He is eight, nine, eighteen, twenty-seven years old. There are birthdays and Christmases and a lifetime of hugs. No longer a child, now a man. From the beginning of our story to the end of mine. He reads and I see it all.

In July of 2013, my husband and I traveled to Oregon to meet our son for the first time. It was the beginning of a life-changing adventure. Five days later when we boarded a plane back to Pittsburgh with our soon-to-be-adopted then-seven year old son in tow, we were a family. Sometimes everything just falls into place. Sometimes love at first sight transcends cliché. Sometimes only a stale platitude will do: it was meant to be.


Sean Michael O’Donnell is 44 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?

one day at a time

 

“I want to go back to Washington and live with my mom.”

It’s been a rough couple of weeks. We made it through the holidays, happily celebrating our first Christmas as a family of six. Gifts were opened, cookies were eaten, 2018 was auld lang syned. We were coming up on the five month anniversary of our daughter’s placement with us and had begun to look toward an adoption date. And then…

BOOM.

My daughter has a caseworker in Washington, a caseworker in Pennsylvania, a CASA advocate, two attorneys, and a host of service providers that have been tasked with making sure she is safe and healthy and that her voice is heard…which sounds great on the surface, but really it just means there’s too many cooks in the kitchen and that she and I and my husband have to repeat the same story to ten different people in a given week because no one ever talks to each other.

Still, they advocate tirelessly for my daughter and they believe my husband and I are the absolute best choice to be her parents…with one exception.

In April 2018, my daughter traveled to Pennsylvania to meet us for the first time. It was a very good visit and at the end of the week my daughter stated unequivocally that she wanted us to adopt her. She then returned to Washington and it all fell apart. Her attorney, having gotten wind of this potential placement, took our daughter on an unauthorized and unsupervised visit with her birth mother. The fact that any visit with birth mom had to be authorized and supervised by the court tells you everything you need to know. The attorney told our daughter she could live with her birth mother (she could not) and so our daughter announced that she would no longer be coming to Pennsylvania because her birth mother wanted her back (she did not).

Fortunately, with her caseworkers and service providers, we were able to work through this hiccup and our daughter came to realize that returning to her birth mother was not an option and that she was best served living with us…and so in August 2018 she traveled across the country and moved into our home.

I won’t lie, it’s been a struggle. Our daughter has a lot of challenges and she is prone to self-sabotage, meaning if she’s happy she will do whatever is necessary to punish herself because in her eyes she doesn’t deserve to be happy. It’s exhausting. But as a family we worked through the challenges and with help from her service providers we’ve helped our daughter come to a place where she allows herself the occasional happy day.

It’s been a long few months and everyone involved has gone above and beyond, and yet still, for one person it was not enough. Shortly after the New Year my daughter’s attorney visited our home. She spent less than four hours, over the course of two days, with our daughter and while she made nice to our faces, behind the scenes she was working to disrupt our daughter’s placement.

As we discovered a few days later, the attorney had (incorrectly) told our daughter that she could petition the court to have her birth mother’s rights reinstated and then she could live with her. You need to understand that for a child in the foster system the idea of being reunited with your birth parents is like winning the dream lottery…and it doesn’t matter why you were removed from their care or what harm they may have inflicted upon you, because if you can go back to your birth parents it will be different this time and better and you will finally be just like all the other kids.

Never mind that no judge would ever reinstate the birth parent’s rights. Never mind that birth mother had made no attempt to meet the initial, most basic requirements to have her rights reinstated. Never mind that the advice given by the attorney was incorrect and incomplete. Never mind that dangling this carrot in front of our daughter was emotionally abusive.

Almost immediately all of the progress we had made in the previous five months vanished overnight. Our daughter began to regress. She became distant and combative and mean. She isolated herself. She gave into her worst instincts.

“I want to go back to Washington and live with my mom. I don’t want you to adopt me.”

Over the next ten days we had meetings with caseworkers and advocates. They all told our daughter the same thing: You cannot live with your birth mother. She is not a safe option. You need to stay where you are. But our daughter was determined to claim her dream lottery prize.

I tried to reason with her. We all tried to reason with her. We explained that if she left she would end up back in the system. We pulled no punches, “You are a 12 year old black transgender girl. There are no other options. There are no other families. You will be placed in a group home until you age out of the system and then you will live on the streets. You will be trafficked.” We told her how black transgender girls are being murdered at an alarming rate. We tried to scare her with reality, but nothing got through to her.

I got angry. I threw in the towel. Fuck it, I thought. I took a tough love approach. You want to leave, leave. I started packing suitcases. I took down photos. I talked to the kids and prepared them for what was to come. I protected them and I protected myself. I told her, “We want you to stay, but we will not force you to stay.”

We had one final meeting with a team of caseworkers in late January. During that meeting our daughter announced that she wanted to stay with us. She had processed everything that had been said to her. She realized her lottery prize was a dream.

A week later the attorney emailed our daughter telling her that her maternal grandmother was ready to adopt her. Our daughter tore up the email. She fired the attorney. She said to us, “I want to stay with you. You’re my family.”

We can only guess as to what motivated the attorney to attempt to thwart this adoption not once, not twice, but three times. I suspect it was a mixture of racism and homophobia and our willingness to support our daughter’s gender identity. It is sad that the attorney’s narrow-minded, racially motivated, transphobic agenda were more important to her than her client’s well-being.

Meanwhile, we are left to pick up the pieces. We are tasked with putting back together our family. We wake up every morning and continue to remind our daughter that she has worth, that she deserves happiness, that she is loved.

Sometimes I worry that we will never not struggle. Sometimes I worry that we will always be just a placeholder. Sometimes I worry that the day my daughter turns 18 she will buy a one-way plane ticket back to Washington and we will never see her again. But sometimes is not now…so for now you hold on to the good days and you make it through the bad days and you trust/hope/pray that it will all work out in the end.


Sean Michael O’Donnell is 44 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?

transcendent transitions

I have been a parent for almost six years and if I have learned anything it is that being a parent is never easy. Every day is a challenge and the older our children get, the greater those challenges become. I can remember thinking there would never be anything more difficult than convincing my five year old to eat vegetables…how wrong I was.

My husband and I have the added challenge of parenting adopted children who spent the majority of their early years in the care of someone else, so not only are we tasked with the everyday challenges of being a parent, we must also undo some questionable (and often harmful) parenting choices made by those caregivers who came before us.

Our eleven year old daughter is transgender. She is a pretty remarkable kid and even when we lock horns, which is frequently, I find her courage and strength inspiring. It’s one thing to be true to yourself at age 35, it’s another thing to be true to yourself at age 11. The courage to live her truth means that she has not had an easy road. For example, when she shared with her birth family that she was transgender, they told her she was possessed by the devil.

Yes, the devil.

Prior to coming to us, she lived in a series of short-term foster homes and, despite identifying as a girl, she was placed in a group facility for boys where she lived for more than a year. Even now in phone calls with her caseworker and lawyer, they still refer to her as “he”…and though these adults tasked with representing her best interests quickly correct themselves, the damage is done.

One of the first questions my daughter asked when I met her was, if she came to live with us would we allow her to live as a girl. When she asked me this question she was living as a boy: boy clothes, boy haircut, boy group home. Today, she wears the clothes she wants and has the long hair and braids she dreamed of and even though she still lives in a house full of boys, she is the princess.

But there are struggles and challenges so much bigger than vegetables. She has been taught to hate her body and to feel unpretty. We’ve invested considerable amounts of time talking about the need to love the body you have, even if it isn’t the body you want. Recently I’ve assigned her an exercise: she is to look in the mirror every morning and say, “I am pretty.” It sounds silly, but she does it and it makes her smile.

I know these platitudes and body-positive pep talks won’t fix the negative voices in her head, but it’s a start.

Parenting a trans girl means we’ve had our share of awkward talks, such as, explaining the need for body maintenance and cautioning her to sit, not stand, when using the girl’s bathroom. Last week we talked about crushes and how liking a boy is totally normal for a kid her age, but that sometimes those crushes can be complicated because how we identify can be difficult to process and understand for those who identify differently; and so we need to respect those boundaries and know that we will eventually find someone who appreciates us for everything we are, including our gender identity.

Some days I think I have a handle on it all and that, in terms of parenting, I am firing on all cylinders. But then my daughter comes home from school and tells me that one of her classmates has started to call her thing and all those awkward talks and platitudes and body positive pep sessions go out the window and we are right back where we started.

And even though my daughter needs me, in that moment my first instinct is to find this classmate and her family and destroy them. In my mind I entertain grand scenes of public humiliation where I take them all down, starting with the transphobic parents and ending with the little bitch who made my daughter cry…and I know that I cannot actually take anyone down and that calling an 11 year old girl a “little bitch” is insane, but for a moment it makes me feel better and it takes me out of my sadness and it gives me the strength to hug my kid because what she really needs more than anything in the world is that hug.

Later, we’ll talk about the incident and the word. Eventually we’ll try to understand that the girl who called my daughter thing is coming from a place of hurt too. In the end, I’ll remind her that in a world full of bullies and cowards she has the courage and the strength to be true to herself, and that no small-minded person can ever take that away from her


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 (but not really).  He is the author of the best-selling book Which One of You is the Mother?

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?

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.

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?

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, 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.


UPDATE: I spoke with a representative from the Patient Relations Department at Children’s Hospital. She apologized on behalf of the hospital and said that this was NOT the policy of Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. We spoke at length and never once did she attempt to excuse the nurse’s behavior or make excuses for it. She was sincerely mortified by the incident, personally and on behalf of the hospital, going so far as to offer to apologize to my son. My understanding is that the nurse whom we dealt with will be spoken to and that moving forward the hospital will make every attempt to ensure that this never happens again.


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?