color, blind?

“I’m sure the last thing you expected was to be living with two gay white guys, but here we are.”

My son had been living with my husband and me for less than a year when I said those words to him. My son is African-American. My husband and I are white…and gay. The conversation began after my then-13 year old was caught doing something he should not have been doing; it was a minor infraction, but it led us to this elephant in the room.

Having tiptoed around so many things for so many months, as is often the case in the early days of foster placement and adoption, our conversation turned to perceptions. The world looked at my husband and me, two gay men, and they made assumptions and conclusions. The world looked at my son, a young black man, and they made assumptions and conclusions. And I’m sure, the world sometimes looked at our family and thought, “WTF?”

But here we are.

I struggle with my whiteness and I struggle with my son’s blackness and I struggle with where the two intersect. We do not live in a post-racial society. We do not live in a colorblind world. Racism surrounds us and it is in every one of us, and until we acknowledge these facts we will never be free from it.

Transracial adoption refers to the adoption of a child that is of a different race than that of the adoptive parents. When you adopt a child of a different race it is impressed upon you that you have a responsibility to keep your child connected to his/her culture…and I can tell you after watching several Tyler Perry movies that this is easier said than done.

Now, that Tyler Perry line may seem like a joke, but it’s also kind of true. We’ve been advised in the past by “those in the know” to watch African-American movies and television shows with our black children, to listen to rap music together, to go to the barbershop—as if performing any of these superficial activities would bridge the racial divide or keep my kids connected to their blackness.

I just can’t help but think that being black in America is about more than watching BET or listening to Kanye or going to the barbershop. Actually, the barbershop is really important and, as someone who once allowed a white lady at a BoRics to cut their black son’s hair, I am telling you that you should always take your kid to the barbershop.

The truth is when someone tells me I need to keep my black son connected to his culture, it scares me because do they mean the culture that survived slavery and died for Civil Rights and gave us Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks and Colin Kaepernick and Katherine Johnson and Barack Obama…or do they mean a culture that worships a gangster lifestyle and calls women bitches and starts each morning getting high like the dozens of black teenagers I see every day in the city before school starts? Because I celebrate the former while the latter scares the hell out of me.

Of course if I’m being honest about my issues with black culture then I have to ask myself, why do we demonize black gangster culture but celebrate white gun culture? Why are the black men on my bus who refer to women as bitches any more offensive than our white President who brags about grabbing women by the pussy? And are the black teens getting high outside my office before school any different than the white kids in the suburbs taking oxy before school?

The truth is there is much that unites us in our respective cultures, and if we are going to move forward we need to raise up our collective successes and acknowledge our shared failures.

I want my son to be a strong, proud black man and I understand that means keeping him connected to his roots. Taking him to the barbershop. Tuning the car radio to the urban station. Encouraging him to surround himself with people who look like him who can give him the things I cannot. Lifting up leaders like Barack Obama and Colin Kaepernick. And yes, even watching another goddamn Tyler Perry movie.

But also understanding there exists in modern day black culture, as much as there is in modern day white culture, a pervasive ugliness that threatens to swallow up our children. I believe my son will raise the bar but I also understand that when he fails to, when he finds himself swimming in that ugliness, it is not the end of the world.

My son is a leader, but he has yet to realize the awesome power of his presence and influence. He will make mistakes, and I will make mistakes, but all his father and I can do is give him the tools to make better choices. And that desire that every parent of every color has for their child to succeed, to do better, to be the best part of them—that desire transcends community and culture and race.

It may be the one thing that truly unites us all.


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?

 

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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?

our first last family vacation

Vacations are always bound to disappointment. We spend days and weeks imagining each and every moment, creating impossible standards which can never measure up to our ridiculous expectations let alone the cold light of day. Oh sure, there are moments so perfect you almost forget about the $100 you dropped on greasy hamburgers and stale French fries, but then one of your kids starts crying and reality sets in and suddenly you’re back in that overpriced hamburger joint shooting daggers at the waitress who forgot to bring you the diet coke you ordered ten minutes ago.

Full disclosure: I had a terrible time in New York. I was miserable. The only moment of joy I experienced was during a production of Once on This Island, and even though it was one of the most beautiful shows I have ever seen, I was mostly happy because no one around me was allowed to talk for 95 glorious minutes.

Gimme, gimme, gimme. More, more, more. Fortnite. xBox. Tablet. By the way, I want these additional 78 things for Christmas…

Okay, I’m exaggerating. It was more like one gimme and two mores and it wasn’t 78 things, it was 43. But I stand by the Fortnite stuff.

It’s probably not fair to lay blame at the feet of my kids, who are, after all, just kids. They were tired from the six hour car ride and the endless walking. They were excited because New York comes at you from every direction. It assaults all of your senses and when you’re eight or eleven or twelve or fourteen years old that can be a lot to handle. And I suppose when you cram a Broadway show, a trip to the circus, a visit to Macy’s to see Santa, an afternoon of ice skating at Bryant Park, a trip to the tree at Rockefeller Center, and thirty blocks of Christmas windows on Fifth Avenue all into a 48 hour window it’s understandable when no one has the energy to get that worked up by the Statue of Liberty.

But still, you planned this trip for weeks. You bought everything in advance. You rented a really awesome apartment on Airbnb. You even reserved a parking spot. No stone was left unturned…except for lunch on day two, but by this point you’re just tired of planning and making decisions so you turn it over to your husband to decide where to eat and that’s how you end up paying $100 for greasy hamburgers and stale French fries and that’s it, something snaps, and you just break and you imagine yourself jumping into a taxi alone and telling the driver to take you to the nearest airport so you can hop a flight to a country that doesn’t allow children or spouses or greasy hamburgers.

Of course it’s not about the greasy hamburgers or the beer you didn’t get to drink or the black-n-white cookie you never got or even the special ornament they didn’t have at the Christmas shop…it’s about your ridiculous expectations, which you have every right to, but also don’t have every right to, because expectations ruin everything and in this case the expectations were yours and yours alone.

I have to remind myself that my kids were just being kids and in twenty-two years my husband has never successfully chosen a restaurant. The truth is no amount of planning will ever make my kids not ask for more or suddenly give my husband the ability to choose. The chance of those things magically happening are about as likely as me not losing my shit and turning into a world-class bitch on a family vacation.

After finally getting home late last night I told (screamed?) the kids to go to bed and I said to my husband, “Vacations are for other families.” And maybe that’s true, or maybe that was the voice of my disappointed expectations speaking. I don’t know. I do know that in my wide-eyed, manic zeal to create the perfect holiday family vacation I doomed us.

Perhaps, instead of a trip to New York City, I should have just used the money to buy my kids the PS4 and the Nintendo Switch they won’t shut up about…because that’s what they really want and there’s nothing wrong with that because if we’re being honest I think most kids would rather play Fortnite on a new PS4 than see the Christmas windows at Bergdorf’s.

And so if this does turn out to be our first last family vacation, at least for the foreseeable future, it will be because of me and not because of my kids or my husband. Maybe instead of trying to plan the perfect vacation what I really need is a vacation from vacations. It could be just the cure for my expectations.


Sean Michael O’Donnell is 43 year old married gay man. He lives in Pittsburgh with his husband and four children. Sean enjoys Law & Order reruns, Christmas movies in October, and Facebook stalking. He likes donuts and beer. Sometimes he goes to the gym (okay, not really).  He is the author of the best-selling book Which One of You is the Mother?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

 

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?

brothers & sisters

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so it begins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sigh. It was a good night.

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

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

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

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

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

the most wonderful time of the year (or not)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas challenges us all.

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

We are well matched.

(Poor Todd.)

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


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