two faggots gave you a home

The Supreme Court is about to decide if I can be fired from my job for being gay. Well, not me specifically, but people like me. A lot of people like me. Call me a cynic, but I don’t have high hopes for this one. I may be able to get married and have children, but there are still quite a few people in the land of the free/home of the brave who think I should just be happy with what I have and stop demanding special privileges.

Ah yes, the special privilege of being gay.

The special privilege of being gay means that I could not get legally married until 2015. The special privilege of being gay means that I live in a country where the current Vice President of the United States once advocated for the legal discrimination of LGBT persons calling their lifestyle a “choice”, and as the then-governor of Indiana he sought to give public money to institutions that would help gay people change their sexual behavior. And if that seems too 1996 for you then I have five words for you: Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

So. Much. Privilege.

And while all of the above does affect me, it is still somewhat removed from my everyday life. The final decision made by the Supreme Court will cement certain ideas for millions of Americans. If the highest court in the land decrees that LGBT persons are in fact second-class citizens then maybe a whole lot of people can stop pretending.

No wedding cakes. No wedding. No job. No marriage. No kids. And yet even those potential realities are so big picture because for me, right now, it comes down to this word: FAGGOT.

Faggot.

It is the go-to word of every schoolyard bully and closeted muscle jock in America. It is the gay N-word. We all know what it means and we all know what is being implied when someone says it, and if you’re unsure I can tell you what it does NOT mean…it does not mean “person who has the courage to be true to themselves despite the risk of being fired from their job or ostracized by society or murdered, all for the crime of loving who they love.”

Yeah, faggot does not mean that.

I was called faggot from the time I was 8 until…well, I’m still being called faggot. #NeverChangeAmerica Let me share a hilarious story with you…recently I confiscated my oldest son’s cell phone (see Nancy Drew) and one of the many disturbing things I discovered amidst the racism and the sexism was the casual manner in which his friends shared anti-gay memes and tossed around the word “faggot”.

Now, I want to be clear that my son was not using this word nor was he sharing these memes, but he was in receipt of them and he did play along with his friends, responding several times with an LOL followed by the I’m-laughing-so-hard-I’m-crying face emoji. Again, he was not using the word, but in his response he had given his approval of the word.

As you can imagine, I did not react well. But in my defense I suspect he would not have reacted well if he had discovered that his Papa and I were exchanging racist memes and calling people the N-word. I tried to explain why this word was a big deal, but there seemed to be an attitude of “it’s just a word and that’s not what they meant”.

Except, it’s not just a word.

“Two faggots gave you a home,” I said in voice that had I been on stage I would have won every major acting award that season. Of course what I wanted to say was, “I’ll put as many dicks in my mouth as I want and you don’t get to say a damn word about it as long as I’m paying for the shoes on your feet.” But that felt more like something I’d say in the film version of this story and in that moment I was imagining myself acting in a play.

I know my son loves me and I know my son loves his Papa and I know he would never want to hurt us. He’s a great kid, seriously, he is just the best and I love him more than I can adequately express, but the reality is to him and to his friends and to millions of Americans it’s just a word. No big deal.

Faggot. Faggot. Faggot.

If/When the Supreme Court decides that I and millions of Americans like me can be legally fired from our jobs for being gay or trans or whatever the court decides is not the “norm”, then those nine justices will be sending a very loud message to every schoolyard bully and Snapchat asshat out there that we are less than. That we are something to be laughed at. That we are nothing more than faggots.


Sean Michael O’Donnell is a 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 (not really).  He is the author of the best-selling book Which One of You is the Mother?

Advertisements

have you lost weight?

A few days ago I wrote a lengthy blog post about my son’s cell phone, specifically the many disturbing things I found on my son’s cell phone. I continued to detail the endlessly developing story on social media, humorously recounting my confrontations with teenage drug dealers, young women with very low self-esteem, and my son’s misogynistic (and very stupid) friends. Over the next several days I received a flurry of texts and messages congratulating me on my bravado…other parents commended me for my no-holds barred parenting style, calling me “brave” and “strong” and while I really did appreciate their kind words I was a bit pissed off that not one person called me “thin”.

No one said, “I loved the way you confronted that pot dealer. Have you lost weight?”

Whatever. I see you. I see what really matters to you and I want you to know I am offended and also, no, I have not lost weight. In fact, I have gained like 400 pounds since I became a parent, thank you for noticing. My youngest son’s favorite pastime is to put his hand on the top of my belly as if it were a shelf and then laugh. Well the joke’s on him because I just grounded his ass for calling a classmate a “chicken nugget”.

A few weeks ago my oldest son made a crack about my weight and again, joke’s on him because I took down his pot dealer and confiscated his cell phone. My other son seems to have caught on because he’s been suspiciously quiet and the other day my daughter told me I looked “handsome”…granted this was after she got caught trying to access a blocked website on a school computer, but whatever, I’m just glad that at least one of my kids has learned that when it comes to Dad, flattery will get you everywhere.

It’s been a stressful few weeks. Aside from the cell phone business, we’ve been trying to sell our house, which means all I do is obsessively scrub the toilet and not sleep at night. My house may be clean, but I am a mess. The icing on the “my-son-might-be-a-pot-smoking-misogynist” cake is that I ran out of blood pressure medication. If I make it through the next few days without having a stroke I plan on celebrating with a donut and beer sundae.

All joking aside it really has been a very difficult couple of weeks, but it’s also been a very much-needed couple of weeks. My son’s phone, my kids getting into trouble at school, the stress of selling a house while raising four kids – these events have given me perspective. Or rather, other parents have given me perspective because what I’m starting to realize is that I am not alone in this.

It turns out other people’s children are also smoking pot and receiving inappropriate text messages from young women with very low self-esteem and calling other kids names and looking at blocked websites on school computers and basically just fucking up like every kid in the world does at least five times a day.

The truth is most of us really are doing the best we can, and if we are failing, at least we’re failing at trying. It’s a comforting thought. It means we’re not alone. So relax. Crack open a cold one and pour it on top of your donut sundae. We’ve earned it.


Sean Michael O’Donnell is a 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 (not really).  He is the author of the best-selling book Which One of You is the Mother?

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?

 

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?

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!

 

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?

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.

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?

parenting 101

I am a failure.

As a parent.

As a parent I make the wrong choices. I say the wrong words. I yell too much. I don’t yell enough. I am lacking in my overcompensating and overcompensating in my lacking. I am a mess. I suspect I am not alone in these feelings. I suspect every parent has overwhelming moments of self-defeating doubt, even when they seem to be doing everything right. I think if we have one thing in common as parents it is that we all, at some point, feel like big fat colossal failures.

And maybe we are. Probably. Sometimes.

I beat myself up over every little misstep. I replay conversations and dissect word choice and then I rewrite it and archive it so the next time I will be better. I worry that every overreaction to simple situations and every underreaction to major milestones will send my kids straight to the psychiatrist’s couch when the truth is the only person who is crazy is me.

Last night Chris spilled a full glass of milk all over the kitchen floor. It had been a long weekend and I was tired and no one was listening and I was just done and as I was kneeling on the floor cleaning it up I found myself literally crying over spilt milk…because I’m a crazy mess.

Some parents treat their kids like an afterthought, abdicating all responsibility to the other parent in the home or a nanny or a teacher or just letting the kid figure it all out on the streets. I am the opposite. I am involved. (Too involved!) So involved I take every slight against one of my kids as a slight against me. If someone is mean to my child I make a mental list of all the ways I’m going to destroy them…it doesn’t matter if that someone is seven years old or that I’m 42 because that someone hurt my kid and they gotta pay ’cause I’m a crazy mess.

In the past week I have had to talk to my kids about racism, sexuality and why it’s not okay to wet your pants so you don’t have to stop playing Minecraft. In my attempt to keep it real, I worry that I sounded like a racist, self-hating homosexual who just doesn’t appreciate the finer points of gaming.

I love being a parent, but it is fucking hard work. I feel guilty that sometimes (all the time!) I think I deserve a reward. Like if my kids don’t say thank you or I love you or kiss my cheek before bed then they don’t appreciate all the things I’ve done for them which is unacceptable because, as they well know, I’m a crazy mess.

I’m starting to learn, or finally realize, that each of my kids are very different and that while one of them lives for my all-consuming brand of (s)mothering, the other two just need for me to back the fuck off sometimes. I’m learning to accept that they are the reward, not the kisses or the obligatory thank yous.  I’m beginning to understand that it’s okay to be a failure because we’re all failures, and as long as we know that simple truth then maybe one day we won’t be even if we never stop being a crazy hot mess in the process.

But more than anything what I have learned or realized or come to understand is that while it may never be okay to wet your pants so you can keep playing Minecraft, it is totally acceptable to fantasize about destroying a seven year old who made your kid cry.