choose adoption

November is National Adoption Month. To learn more about adoption, you can visit www.adoptuskids.org


 

Five years ago – after weeks of parenting classes, mountains of paperwork, and multiple background checks – my husband and I became certified adoptive parents. This meant that we could now adopt a child through the foster care system; it did not, however, mean that the state would immediately hand us a child. It would be eight long months before that happened.

It seems like a lifetime ago…

Today, we have three children – all adopted through foster care, ranging in age from 7 to 13. Our children are all boys: our oldest son (adopted in 2017) is African-American, our middle child (adopted in 2013) is Native American, and our youngest boy (adopted in 2015) is plain-old vanilla Caucasian.

They could not be more different. The 13 year old likes baseball and basketball while the 11 year old prefers to dress up in wigs and make YouTube videos. Meanwhile, the too-smart-for-his-own-good seven year old spends all his time playing Minecraft and prepping for life as a criminal mastermind. And yet despite their obvious differences, my children are perfectly matched. They speak the same language, a kind of shorthand understood only by those who have gone through the system.

No one will ever understand them the way they understand each other. They share a story. It is a story of loss…the loss of parents, the loss of birth family, the loss of connection, the loss of toys and clothes and shoes and other seemingly trivial things, the loss of security and safety, the loss of hope.

At any given moment in this country there are approximately 400,000 children in foster care. Of that number, more than 100,000 children are actively waiting to be adopted into a permanent home with an astounding 23,000 of those kids aging out of the foster system every year, orphaned with no resources.

Those numbers are overwhelming and constant, but they are not hopeless. Yes, we need to do better for the 23,000 children who find themselves abandoned by the system every year, but we also need to take a moment and celebrate the story of every kid who made it out and found their forever family. We need to embrace each happy ending if only to remind ourselves that there is hope.

My sons found their hope. This does not mean their losses have gone away. They still miss their birth parents. They still strive to maintain a connection to their old lives. They still have moments where they feel unsafe.

Children of the foster system may never escape their loss, but in adoption there can be a new beginning. Adoption is all about second and third and, sometimes even, fourth chances.

Adoption changes lives. It changed the lives of my children and my husband and me. Adoption made us a family.


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?

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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?

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.

 

who we are

I walked to work today. I usually take the subway, but today I walked. I needed time to think – or, not think – to clear my head, to process the events of the past 24 hours. But instead of thinking (or not thinking) I found myself watching faces. I live in the city so, unlike people living in the majority of the country, the faces I see every day are different than my own face. The faces I see are the faces of African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Muslim Americans, Jewish Americans, Gay Americans, Transgender Americans.

These are the faces that make America great every single day.

I celebrate them. I cherish them. I count myself lucky to be among them.

So as I walked the mile from the parking garage to my office on this, the morning after our country elected a misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, anti-LGBT, anti-Muslim, wall-building, tax-dodging, crotch-grabbing demagogue, I studied the faces of my fellow Americans and, for perhaps the first time, every face looked the same. By the stadium, across the bridge, waiting in line at Starbucks, on the steps of the church – everywhere – I saw written across these faces the same thing: shock, sadness, embarrassment.

I had spent the previous evening watching the election results and, with each state that turned red, I turned to my husband and asked, “Who are we?”

Now, confronted by the faces of my fellow Americans, I saw exactly who we were.

In their faces I saw the faces of all the women I knew and how it must have felt to wake up to learn that the glass ceiling had not been shattered, but reinforced.

I saw the faces of my female friends who had exercised the deeply personal right to choose and what it must be like for them to now have that right in doubt.

I saw the faces of my friends and their Hispanic children and I tried to imagine the sense of fear and uncertainty those kids would face in this new America with its walls and borders and hatred of brown people.

I saw the faces of the many incredible gay men and women who fought so hard for equality and who were now faced with losing that equality at the hands of family and friends who had turned their backs on them in the name of change or protest.

I saw the faces of my transgender friends who still have to fight to use a public restroom.

I saw the faces of the brave parents who fight every day for their special needs children and how much harder that fought just became for them.

I saw the face of my African American foster son and what it must be like for him in a world where all lives matter and blue lives matter, but only sometimes do black lives matter.

I saw the faces of my adopted children and I understood that in a world run by Mike Pence they would not be my children.

I saw the face of my husband, a man I have loved for almost twenty years of my life, and I thought how easily everything we had could be taken away.

And then at last I saw my own face and I felt my anger, my disappointment, my sadness.

#imwithher

Sometimes pictures are better than words.  I’m with her because…

I am a gay man married to my partner of almost twenty years. We have two adopted children. Our oldest son is Native American. We are currently foster parents to a 12 year old African-American boy. There is no place for us in Donald Trump’s America.

I’M WITH HER BECAUSE SHE IS WITH US.

fostering

Foster parents are a mixed bag. Many foster parents are some of the finest people you will ever meet, called to serve like a minister to God. Others are of a more basic variety, called to collect a monthly check from the state. My oldest son was blessed with the gold standard of foster parents. They gave him food and shelter and love and the hope that he would one day have a tomorrow better than today. My youngest son had a foster parent more tin than gold. Despite her many shortcomings, I admired her for doing the work that so many others would not.

I have great respect for foster parents. They do the heavy lifting. Foster parents rescue our children at a time when they are in desperate need of saving. They attach without becoming attached. They give love often without ever receiving it in return. They get the worst but rarely see the best. They hold a place and then they say goodbye.

I could never do that.

Or so I thought.

Eight days ago my husband and I became foster parents. Our agency called us with a child in need of an emergency placement. There were few details available. We discussed it. We considered all the many reasons why we should say “no” and then two hours later we found ourselves standing at the door welcoming a scared twelve year old into our home.

The specifics about this child and the story of our journey together will be a story for another time. We are not permitted to name the child or tell the child’s story or post the child’s photo. For now we have been tasked with doing the heavy lifting, with aiding in the rescue, with giving love.

For now we are holding a place.

And I’m okay with that…or so I tell myself even though it’s not true. What is true is that it took me all of fifteen minutes to attach. I won’t tell you how long it took me to love the kid, lest I embarrass myself, but suffice it to say if there is a goodbye it won’t be easy.

So we wait and we hold a place and we become attached and we fall in love and we see where all this takes us. We hope for the best and we prepare for the worst and we remind ourselves that no matter what we may be feeling this isn’t about us. This is about a kid who needed a home.


*This photo of Hillary Clinton has nothing to do with the story, but since I cannot show photos of the child I thought I’d use this opportunity to remind everyone to vote for Hillary Clinton on November 8 because #imwithher.

the lady of the house is a dude

Mrs. O’Donnell is my mother. Mrs. O’Donnell was my grandmother. I am not Mrs. O’Donnell.

It was an innocent mistake. A harmless assumption. An oversight. Earlier in the day I had emailed the principal at my son’s school. I had some concerns about the structure (or, lack thereof) of his classroom. I wrote a lengthy message detailing my concerns and in the body of the email I referenced my husband. I closed by signing my full name and then I hit send. A few hours later I received a response back from the principal, it began: “Dear MRS. O’Donnell…”

Oh no she didn’t, I thought.

At first I was angry and then I was amused and then I stopped laughing and I was angry again. I knew this gaffe had not been intentional and, based on the many spelling errors in the message, I knew her response had been written in haste.

So I assessed the situation. I recognized that we were a new kind of family. I understood that most of the families at my son’s school were probably of the “traditional” mom-and-dad variety and even though we had maintained an active presence at the school for the past two years I could accept that the reference to “my husband” might lead to certain assumptions and besides, wasn’t Sean also sometimes a girl’s name?

Stop.

I was rationalizing. I was making excuses. I was apologizing for myself and my family.

I have no doubt that the principal had made an honest mistake and while I wasn’t willing to give her a complete pass, did I really feel the need to justify myself to myself?

It’s true that my family does not conform to the mold of a traditional family, but then what is a traditional family? Three years into this parenting gig and it’s a question I keep coming back to: what is a traditional family? It’s an idea that no longer exists. It’s an antiquated photo that hangs over the mantle in a house belonging to people who pretend to like each other. It’s a throwback. A term which I suspect brings comfort to many of the people who want to “make America white straight Christian great again”.

But here’s the thing: there is no traditional family. There is just family. And no matter how you choose to define that dynamic we really are just a group of people thrown together – many through biology, some by circumstance, others by fate.

As my ten year old so eloquently wrote, “Family means people who love you and take care of you.”

So call me Mrs. O’Donnell. Put me in a house dress and pearls. Make me the Life magazine housewife of your 1950’s wet dream. I can be the person you need me to be.

But the next time we meet, remember that I am not Mrs. O’Donnell. I am just some guy married to some other guy raising two kids in a changing world…and it’s time for you to catch up.

the problem with people

 

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

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

What is wrong with people?

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

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

At last, a friend, I thought.

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

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

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

What is wrong with people?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is wrong with people?


Sean Michael O’Donnell is 41 year old married gay man. He lives in Pittsburgh with his husband and two sons. Sean enjoys Law & Order reruns, Christmas movies in October, and Facebook stalking. He likes donuts and beer. Sometimes he goes to the gym.  He is the author of the blog seansbiggayblog where he attempt to chronicle his experiences as a parent.  The contents of his blog (and life) are 75% truth, 18% satire, 6% hyperbole and 1% drama. He is also the author of Which One of You is the Mother?