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?

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?

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

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

Sigh. It was a good night.

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

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

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

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

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

the most wonderful time of the year (or not)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas challenges us all.

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

We are well matched.

(Poor Todd.)

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


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

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.

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.

the problem with people

 

This past weekend my 10-year-old son Chris made his stage debut in a production at a local theater. During the intermission, I was swapping parenting war stories with a fellow nontraditional parent whose child was also in the production. We talked about being a nontraditional family and what that meant: our experiences dealing with the schools, funny anecdotes about encounters with strangers at restaurants, tips on how best to navigate the holidays with unsupportive families. After a particularly grueling story he remarked, something to the effect of, “It’s 2016.  What’s wrong with people?”

Now that I have children in this world it’s a question I find myself asking again and again.

What is wrong with people?

Despite my son’s sometimes larger-than-life, always outgoing personality, he has struggled to make friends at school and in the neighborhood. He gets along famously with adults, working the room like a seasoned politician, but with kids his own age he flounders, often regarding his peers as if they were aliens visiting from another planet.

So when the new school year began a few weeks ago I was thrilled to hear all about a friend he had made. The boy was a new student, and he and Chris took an instant liking to one another, bonding over Minecraft and other matters of importance to the average ten year old. They sat together at lunch, took selfies together on the bus, worked together on class projects.

At last, a friend, I thought.

Everything seemed to be going well until my son asked the boy if he wanted to come over to our house to play. The boy told him that he did want to come over, very much so, but his mother would not allow it. It seems she did not want him to be friends with my son. In fact, she forbid him to be friends with my son.

She said that being gay was wrong and because Chris had two dads our home was unacceptable. She went on to tell her son that because Chris had two dads this also meant that he, my son, had to be gay. She concluded by threatening to send her son to a different school if he continued being friends with Chris.

I am rarely without words, but on the car ride home from school that day, I was speechless.

What is wrong with people?

I eventually found my words and after internally revising my expletive-laden monologue, I reassured my son of the thing he already knew: there was nothing wrong with his family. I reminded him that he had two parents who loved him which was two more than a lot of other kids had.

I told him that although his friend’s mother was a mean-spirited and hateful woman (and yes, she was, and yes, my son needed to understand that there are people like that in the world) – this boy who my son called a friend was not to be judged or condemned for the actions of his mother.

My son was to say nothing to the boy on the subject because to do so would put this boy in the position of having to defend his family, the very same position this boy’s mother had put my son in, and no one should ever have to defend or explain away their family…even if that family is headed up by an angry, narrow-minded, spiteful bigot.

I informed the school of the situation and they were appalled. They assured me that all types of families were welcome and celebrated within their hallways. The principal said that while they cannot control what happens after a child leaves the school (nor would I expect them to), once the kids walked through the front doors everyone was to be respected regardless of where they came from or who their parents were, and any parent who had an issue with that was free to take their child elsewhere.

Chris is determined to remain friends with the boy and the boy is determined to remain friends with Chris. Perhaps easier said than done given the boy’s mother, but still, I applaud both boys for being better ambassadors than the generations of people who came before them.

It may in fact be 2016, but incidents like this remind us that for as much as progress as we like to think we’ve made we are not that far removed from a time when parents would tell their kids, “You cannot be friends with that boy because he’s black.”  It reminds us that we are living right now in a time when parents tell their kids, “You cannot be friends with that boy because he has two dads.”

What is wrong with people?


Sean Michael O’Donnell is 41 year old married gay man. He lives in Pittsburgh with his husband and two 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 blog seansbiggayblog where he attempt to chronicle his experiences as a parent.  The contents of his blog (and life) are 75% truth, 18% satire, 6% hyperbole and 1% drama. He is also the author of Which One of You is the Mother?

(remembering) the day i met my son

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, 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.

1stphoto

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 41 year old married gay man. He lives in Pittsburgh with his husband and two 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 blog seansbiggayblog where he attempt to chronicle his experiences as a parent.  The contents of his blog (and life) are 75% truth, 18% satire, 6% hyperbole and 1% drama. He is also the author of Which One of You is the Mother?