high heels and lip gloss and a nice structured pant

It may take a village to raise a child, but not every child in that village is the same. I certainly appreciate the support of my village as I (sometimes) struggle to raise four very different kids. There are days when a kind word on social media from a friend I haven’t seen in twenty-five years is the only thing to keep me going. A self-deprecating joke, an “I’ve been there” anecdote, an encouraging “You got this!” – these lifelines from my fellow villagers give me pause and remind me to breathe before I go back out to do battle.

Every child is different. My kids are adopted. At the time of their adoptions they were 5, 7, 11 and 12 years old. This means someone else – or because they were shuffled from house-to-house, more accurately, several someone elses – influenced and shaped the persons my kids are today. It also means that I’ve spent a considerable amount of the past five years undoing the questionable parenting styles and choices of other people. Because of this I’ve been called a meanie, a meanhead, a jerk, fat, stupid, a fat meanhead, a stupid jerk, a stupid mean fat jerk meanie meanhead stupidface, and if I checked my kids’ text messages after an argument probably several more colorful expletives followed by the ever serviceable asshole.

But I’m okay with that because it means I’m doing my job and I’m doing it well. I, or rather my husband and I (with considerable outside support), have made incredible progress with our three sons. For example, it’s common for kids in foster care to be a few years behind in their emotional development. Our then-seven year old was emotionally a five year old. Our then-five year old was emotionally a two year old. Our then-twelve year old guarded his emotions. But today they are smart and kind and well-spoken and light years ahead of their peers.

Seriously, my kids will one day rule the world.

I remind myself of their successes as we begin this journey once again with our most recent addition. Number Four, as we call her, has lived in foster and group homes for the better part of the past six years. She has also experienced an interrupted adoption. As a result of this instability she is an eleven year old with the emotional development of a three year old. Every moment of every day feels like a challenge. Complicating matters is that she is transgender.

An eleven year old coming to terms with her gender identity while going through the physical and chemical changes of puberty filtered through the emotional skill set of a three year old.

Oy.

I recently made a humorous post on social media about Number Four walking in heels. She loves heels. Wearing heels are part of her little girl fantasy of what it means to be a girl. She wants so much for others to see her as a girl. It’s important and because it’s important to her we are very mindful of how she presents herself to others. My husband calls it the illusion. People believe what you tell them so tell them what to believe.

A few weeks ago Number Four was looking in the mirror lamenting, as she calls them, her “boy features.” My husband bought her some tinted lip gloss. Tell them what to believe. Last week she was at the salon getting her hair done and the stylist gave her some tips on how best to maximize her more feminine attributes. Tell them what to believe. Yesterday she and I talked about why a more structured pant that keeps everything in its place is a better choice than leggings which leave nothing to the imagination. Tell them what to believe.

Some of you may be reading this thinking that we should just let her wear leggings and clomp around in high heels as if she were hiking up the side of a mountain during a snowstorm while having a seizure, because that’s what you do with your daughters and after all high heels are anti-feminist and down with the patriarchy! And you know what, if she were just some boy who liked to wear girl’s clothes or if she hadn’t expressed repeatedly how important it is to her for others to see her as girl, then I would agree with you.

But she doesn’t have the luxury of your daughters. Your daughters can murder the floor in high heels and dress down in baggy jeans and a t-shirt and cast aside the shackles of gender stereotypes because when they do no one will think, “What’s that boy doing in those high heels?” For my daughter, walking correctly in those heels and embracing those gender stereotypes you knock (but also embrace, by the way) are her ticket in…it’s how she’ll pass and no matter how much that might offend the privileged white cis-gender humanoid in you it matters to her.

Oh sure, I hope one day she doesn’t feel the need to conform and I will certainly encourage her to write her own rules, but right now in this moment she has enough on her plate. She already has to fight to be black and fight to be trans, so maybe the fight to not conform to society’s standards of being a girl will just have to wait for another day.

So glide in those heels and tell them what to believe—your tinted lip gloss awaits!

 

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one day at a time

Every adoption is different. Every child is different. There have been moments during every one of our adoptions where I thought, “I can’t do this. It’s too hard.” With our first child I was scared. I had never been a parent before so it was less I can’t do this. It’s too hard. and more I’m afraid to do this. What if I fail? After three weeks at home with kid number two, during a period where we were trying to get him enrolled into school, I nearly threw in the towel after being forced to watch Frozen for the 693rd time. And I never thought I’d break through to my third son until the day I finally did.

It turned out I was half right: being a parent was hard, but I could do it.

A week ago my husband and I welcomed our fourth child into the family. It’s been a tough week. I tell myself: Every adoption is different. Every child is different. But Number Four (as I call her) is different on steroids. A few days in and already I find myself retreating to I can’t do this. It’s too hard.

If kids came with instructions (ha!) then the how-to manual for my first child would have read: just add water. The guide for my second kid would have told us to add water and sunlight. The instructions for kid number three would have included the bit about water and sunlight, and then advised us to “be really patient for about eight months.”

But Number Four is like having picked out the most complicated piece of furniture at IKEA only to discover the directions have been accidentally shredded and then randomly taped back together and also half the parts are missing.

Before I go any further I want to be clear—I am not complaining. I am lucky. I am luckier than any one person has the right to be. I have four wonderful, unique, beautiful, perfect children. This is not about them. This is about me.

I’m afraid to do this. What if I fail?

When you adopt a child you don’t just adopt the child, you also adopt their history and some histories are more complicated than others. No kid ever ended up in the foster system because life with their birth parents was a Norman Rockwell painting. Some kids experience unimaginable traumas. I’ve read some dark case files that make me question my faith in humanity more than any Trump presidency ever could.

I marvel at my three sons, at their resilience, at their ability to not be defined by their past. They found strength in their stories. I tell myself that the day will come when Number Four climbs out from her past and proves herself stronger than any one of us. She will tower above us all, having finally learned to take power from pain.

Of course I know, like my other three children, she cannot do this alone. She will need help and support and love. She will need someone who can unscramble the directions and find the missing parts. But more than anything she will need a parent who isn’t afraid to fail, possibly a lot and probably quite often.


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

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?

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.

where do i sign up for the newsletter

A few weeks ago my eleven year old son told me he was gay. He didn’t announce it or deliver the news in a very special episode of Blossom kind of way; he just told me. It was all rather … Continue reading

on being a father on father’s day and every day

I first became a father on July 8, 2013, the day I met my then-seven year old son for the first time. Four years later and my husband and I are on the verge of (legally) becoming fathers for a third time as we begin to finalize the adoption of our (biologically) oldest (chronologically) youngest son.

We came to fatherhood a bit late; I was 38 and my husband was 41. I sometimes think we both wished we had started having children a bit sooner, years ago back when we still had the energy to keep up with a seven year old before we started buying pants with elastic waistlines.

But because I know that our kids were always meant to be our kids I also know that starting earlier would not have been an option. The timing would have been off—a day sooner or a day later and suddenly we’re in an alternate timeline where Todd has a full head of hair and I hate doughnuts and instead of three kids we have 27 dogs and everything is just wrong.

The five of us were a series of lines, always meant to cross, but at very specific points.

When I was younger I knew I wanted a family, a big family with six kids, but when I was younger I also knew I was gay and because of that I understood that my big family with six kids would never happen. At 11 years old, at 18 years old, at 27 years old, I could never conceive of a time when a gay man could have children.

And yet, here I am.

I get to play ball with A’Sean and help Chris memorize a monologue and laugh when Elijah says really inappropriate words.

I get to celebrate their successes and encourage them past their defeats.

I get to see them grow up.

I get to watch them be brothers.

I get to imagine who they will be when I’m gone and not be sad because I know they have each other.

Being a father is the greatest joy of my life and raising my boys is my greatest accomplishment. My kids make me laugh and they make me scream. They challenge me and they exhaust me. They bring out my best and they bring out my worst. They give me purpose.

Every day is not the best day, but every day is a better day because I get to be their dad. So even when I’m screaming at them (which I do) or sneaking off to the bathroom to cry (which I do even more) or beating myself up for getting everything wrong (which I do every day), I would not trade a moment of this great privilege.

Happy Father’s Day – today and every day.

this is us

We received the call shortly after 4 p.m. It was a Wednesday. I had just picked up the boys from school. Chris was in the dining room doing his homework. Elijah was in the attic playing Minecraft. Todd was still at work. The phone rang. It was our adoption agency. They needed an emergency foster placement for a 12 year old boy. There weren’t many details, there never are, but they said there was a good chance the placement could become permanent. Would we be interested?

Over the years we’d received this phone call many times, but we had always said no. Todd and I had long ago weighed the risks and decided that short term foster placements were not something we could handle. It would be too hard on the boys. It would be too hard on us. We needed guarantees. We couldn’t do goodbyes.

But that day was different. I don’t know why. Looking back, it just was…

And so two hours later there was a 12 year old boy standing in our living room. The story of how this twelve year old boy came to be standing in our living room is not my story to tell…he was there now and in that moment as we introduced ourselves and made small talk and later adjourned to the street to play ball, in those moments, is where his story became our story.

He was scared, or maybe just in shock. I know we were, scared and definitely in shock. But we all put on our best faces and we made it work. Chris let him ride his bike. Elijah played catch with him. Todd and I assured him he was safe.

He was home.

Over the next few weeks we spent a lot of time in family court. Family court is the seventh circle of hell and no child should ever be forced to go there. The halls are lined with crying children and screaming adults. There is security and policemen and judges who have seen too much to be sympathetic. The holding room is painted a depressing brown and the walls are gouged and scratched and the carpets are stained with coffee and every chair in the room is broken.

The room was a metaphor for every person who had ever walked through its doors.

It was heartbreaking. I am 42 years old and I barely survived our first day in family court…at one point I disappeared into the restroom to cry. The whole system was sad and it made me feel hopeless and small and out of control.

By the time we were called in front of the judge, this scared twelve year old boy had been with us for less than sixteen hours. He was a stranger and yet without hesitation, with instinct, Todd and I became his fiercest advocates. Everything and everyone in that building had been designed to tear him down, but not on our watch. And not on his watch because he was strong, stronger than I realized, and besides we were in this together. We were a family.

As we walked out of the courtroom I put my hand on his shoulder and I said, “You’re staying with us. This is your home. You’re safe.”

That was eight months ago. That was the day we answered the phone. That was the day we said yes because that day was different.

I don’t know why.

Looking back, it just was…meant to be.