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.
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.
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?