nancy drew and the case of the syphilitic cell phone

Check your child’s cell phone. Right now. Seriously, right now…and if you can’t right now because your kid is at school then the minute they walk through your front door you need to confiscate their phone and you need to start sleuthing.

(Side note: I don’t want to hear about privacy. I have not had privacy since the day I became a parent on July 7, 2013, and if I can’t have privacy then my children can’t have privacy.)

You, person reading this, need to get that phone and you need to put on your best Jessica Fletcher wig and you need to go full-scale CSI: Cyber Town on whatever overpriced Apple Samsung Nokia soul-stealing device you foolishly gave to your child, which you would do well to remember is your property because you paid for it and also because they are a child and they have no rights.

Once you have the phone you need to comb through every app, every photo, every hidden file. Yes, they hide files. You will need a drink for this, or several drinks. If you have some pills, I suggest taking a few of those too.

Pick your poison because you are going to need it.

I started my investigation with the carefree piano taps of the Murder She Wrote theme playing in my head…and then after a few minutes it switched to the more ominous Law & Order theme…and then about 45 minutes later I started to understand why people turn to alcohol and hardcore drugs in times of stress.

Take a drink. You are about to go down a very dark rabbit hole and it is called Snapchat. Snapchat is gross. Snapchat is where filthy language and offensive sexist and racist memes go to have it off. Snapchat is a safe space for toxic masculinity and girls with very, very low self-esteem.

I spent two hours combing through “snaps,” as they are called, and when I was through I needed to cry, scream, get drunk, and take a shower. And while my child was a willing and complicit participant in this cyber shithole, what really stuck with me were the words of other children. Young women objectifying themselves of their own accord. Young men saying things like, “a pussy is a pussy”. Kids referring to each other as “bitch” and “nigger”. Drugs.

Excuse me, I need to grab my beer and go cry-scream in the shower again.

I am not naïve or a prude. I’ve done so many crazy things that playing I Never just means I’m going to throw up a liter of tequila the next morning. But still, my acts of rebellion and my poor choices were things I did as an adult…not as a child. I went to college and I drank and I experimented with drugs and sex, and in theory I had the maturity to handle those choices because if nothing else I was not 14 years old…or younger.

The thing is it may not be your daughter offering herself up or your son referring to his “bitch”, but it is very likely to be the kids your kid is choosing to be around, and that cancer spreads and then eventually it will be your kid.

It is tough. This is tough. And I can tell you it is different for every kid. This isn’t just about filthy language or drugs or sex…it’s about culture and race and gender. It is about every parent reading this right now who is failing their child, myself included. We need to do better. We need to hold our kids accountable. We need to make sure this toxicity does not destroy the goodness in our children.

We need to check their phones.


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?

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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?

 

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?

those people

I am so tired of racists, and I’m white, so I can only imagine how tired and angry and just totally fucking over it every non-white person in this country is of being forced to share space and make nice with their friendly neighborhood racist. I tell myself that we are in a new age of racism, but the truth is we are simply seeing a modernizing of old school racism. As my much-smarter-than-me husband recently put it, “The new style of lynching is no longer one of public participation but one of public complicity.”

Twenty-five years ago my racist uncle would have had the decency to keep his racist mouth shut in public….oh sure, he was still a racist, but he never would have had the stones to go on social media to show all the world just how much he was a worthless horrible disgusting human being.

But today – thanks in no small part to our race-baiting, Nazi-sympathizing, white nationalist-apologizing President – the gloves are off and every last garbage person in this country has emerged from his hate-cocoon with a tiki torch in one hand and twitter account in the other.

And the rest of us…well, we just throw up our hands and politely debate the civility of calling out racism because heaven forbid Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi think less of us. Heaven forbid we don’t all just link hands and sing a chorus of Kumbaya. Heaven forbid we be perceived as “going low” and possibly (heaven forbid!) offend a racist therefore tarnishing our precious liberal halos.

Excuse me while I vomit.

A few days ago a 17 year old black boy was murdered by the police in Pittsburgh. As the parent of an African American boy it is not hard to imagine a scenario where it is my son in the cross-hairs of some trigger-happy racist cop. I think of that boy and then I think of my son and it stops my breath.

And the people who justify this murder? Or say it’s wrong, but then equivocate. Or post some bullshit meme about blue lives matter (which is just another example of white people appropriation, by the way). I am so done with you and I am so tired of being forced to share space with you and make nice with you because YOU ARE A RACIST.

Earlier this morning a woman came into the church where I work. She asked if she could use the telephone. She wanted to call her son to let him know that protesters who were marching to call attention to the death of an innocent 17 year old black child who had been murdered by the police were blocking a major roadway in the city. Normally, I don’t allow people to use the phone, but she seemed nice and genuine and I felt bad for her so I let her use my personal cell phone. As she dialed her son’s number, she launched into a tirade about “those people” and how they had no right to block the street and how she couldn’t understand why “those people” were mad at “us”.

I’ll admit, at first, I froze. I didn’t know what to do or what to say or how to react. I kept hearing her say “those people.” Her call went to voicemail and just as she was about to leave her son a message I snatched my phone out of her hands and said, “Those people are my son and you can leave now.”

I don’t care if I offended her. I don’t care if you refuse to invite me to your next Kumbaya circle jerk. I don’t care how low I go and I most definitely do not care if you take away my liberal halo because as far as I’m concerned Pelosi and Schumer and the rest of the can’t-we-all-just-agree-to-disagree squad can choke on it.

I want to scream.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

Get mad. Do something. Stop being so fucking polite. Stop making excuses for bad people. Stop. Just stop.


Sean Michael O’Donnell is 43 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?

my kids are the best, but so are their kids

I love my children. I would do anything for them. Read off the Things I Would do for My Children list and I would do it all: give them a kidney, walk through fire, take a bullet. Check, check, and check. I would even give them my last donut. I don’t think this makes me special. It just makes me a parent. As every parent reading this well knows, when you become a parent something inside of you changes. A switch is flipped and the world stops being about you.

I have three sons, and very soon I will have a daughter. My kids are the best. They are strong and funny and compassionate and brave. My kids are the best. But so are your kids. And so are kids from China and Russia and Afghanistan and Ethiopia and El Salvador and Brazil and North Korea and Sudan and Pakistan and Israel and Canada and Mexico. My kids are the best, but so are their kids.

I’d walk through fire for my kids. I’d take a bullet for my kids. It’s such a trite sentiment, but it’s also true. So is it really that hard to believe that some parents would walk hundreds of miles across the desert in 100 degree heat to cross the border even at the risk of being arrested just to give their kids a better and safer life?

I mean, if you would do anything for your kids, is it really that hard to believe that other parents would do the same? If (some days it seems like when) this country were to destabilize and collapse is it truly that difficult to imagine a scenario where you pack up your family and walk hundreds of miles through dangerous conditions to get to a safe place, even if that safe place meant you had to illegally cross the border into another country? Of course you would do it and, if you’re like me, you would take no prisoners along the way because that is what a parent does – we do anything for our kids.

Watching images of children in cages this week was difficult, but listening to the audio of crying children being taken from their parents was unbearable. There were a few times I had to turn the TV off, overcome with emotion and shame I would need a moment to collect myself. I cried too, but in those moments I found myself thinking of my kids, and not the kids in cages. I thought about my kids being taken from their birth parents and what that must have felt like for them at the ages of 2 and 4 and 5, and how it still must feel for them at the ages of 8 and 12 and 14. I imagined the terror and confusion in their little faces and even now, typing this sentence, I choke up.

This is empathy and as many of us discovered this week, not everyone has been blessed with it. No parent, no human being with empathy, could see photos of children in cages and not think, this is wrong. Full stop, no equivocating, this is wrong. And yet, for many it was right — just even — and for some it was wrong, but still they equivocated so it wasn’t really so much wrong as they just weren’t willing to fully commit to their awfulness.

People in this country like to complain about welfare and public assistance, but the reality for most of us is that we are never more than one paycheck away from needing that assistance. As our friends and family justify and support the placing of children in cages, perhaps it’s time for them to wake up and acknowledge that we are one Executive Order away from it being our children in those cages.

My kids are the best, but so are their kids.


Sean Michael O’Donnell is 43 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?

escaping the dog whistle

I grew up in a small town. We had one stoplight, one tiny grocery store, one very small public library. There was a church on every corner. We never locked our doors at night. In more prosperous times this small little town would have been described as picturesque, but looking back its decline had begun long before my childhood memories. Today it is like every small town in America, desperately hanging on as it tries to reinvent itself for a future it cannot escape yet unwilling to let go of a past that will never come back.

I sometimes feel like I have spent the better part of my life trying to escape that town and everything it stood for (or maybe, against). Even on those days when I found myself seduced by its many charms—the mighty river that cut its way through the town, the endless train tracks and their promise of adventure, the great park with its ball fields and swimming pool and storybook playground—even on those days when I was besotted with every street and house, I was plotting my escape to somewhere not there.

The day I left for college I never looked back. There was the occasional visit home, a few months in my first apartment after I left college followed by the subsequent moves to towns nearby where the only thing really different was the name. The real break-up didn’t happen until 2004 when I moved to a new city in a different state. Hundreds of miles from home and it felt as if my real life could finally begin.

I have since returned to my home state and although I now live just 25 miles from my childhood hometown, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve visited in the past ten years.

I suppose what keeps me away now is the very thing that sent me away then. I needed more. I knew there was a world full of people who were nothing like me. They ate foods I had never heard of and celebrated holidays I could not pronounce. They practiced mysterious religions or no religion at all. They were men who loved other men and women who used to be men. They were black and brown and they came from a world I did not understand because until that moment I left for college everyone and everything had been white.

In my former life, everyone ate steak and celebrated Christmas and worshipped white blonde Jesus and even when they felt otherwise inclined they sacrificed love for acceptance.

It’s what they knew and it’s who they were and there was nothing wrong with that I just knew I was different. I was other.

Today when I pass through these towns of yesterday many of the faces are the same. My teachers and classmates and friends still call this place home. They don’t need me to say it, but they are good people and I believe the majority of them do not embrace the narrow-minded values that sent me fleeing almost 25 years ago. The truth is people I have not seen in two decades regularly reach out to celebrate my non-traditional family. They embrace me and my husband and my gay son and my black son and my possibly-future-criminal mastermind son.

They may still live in a world where (most) everyone and everything is white, but they recognize that there exists a world where two gay men can have a black son.

Of course not everyone has progressed. In some parts of my childhood it will forever be 1857. In some parts of my childhood I am a disgusting pervert and my boy better know his place in the master’s house. Unfortunately this 19th century mentality has found new strength in a 21st century world. Our president has dog whistled a host of phobias and racism onto the main stage of 2017. He delights in sowing unrest and playing to our basest fear—the fear of other.

To paraphrase a great president from back when presidents were still great, “There is nothing to fear, but everyone who isn’t a straight white Christian.”

Muslims are terrorists. Mexicans are rapists. Women are objects. African Americans being murdered by law enforcement are just as culpable as tiki torch-carrying white supremacists in khakis, who by the way are “very fine people”.

For decades our president has been waging a war against black Americans, starting with housing discrimination in the 1970s to his ferocious condemnation of the (innocent) Central Park Five in the 1980s to his being one of the architects of the birther movement during the Obama years to his handling of Charlottesville this past August to his calculated conflation that African American athletes peaceably protesting racial injustice is an affront to our flag and veterans.

And as our racist president single-handedly destroys our democracy, as he continues to wipe his ass with the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution, people in small towns across the country, like the town I grew up in, wrap themselves in the flag and follow him blindly into the abyss. These people are not stupid or hateful, but they are afraid, and Trump is selling fear like a snake oil salesman at a medicine show.

Whatever ails you, it’s not your fault, and he has the cure. Ban the Muslims. Deport the Mexicans. Make sure the black man stays at the back of the bus. Make America great again.

We have to be better. We have to not be afraid. We have to leave our small towns and step outside of our whiteness and understand that sometimes what is happening is bigger than us.

We have to rise up and resist and do the hard work. We have to take a knee so that a young black man like my son isn’t gunned down by the police.

I am not a red, white and blue bleeding, flag fetishizing kind of patriot. Don’t get me wrong, I love this country and I’m grateful for every opportunity it has given me—including the opportunity to write these words—but I’m more of a low-key America Rocks! kind of guy so no one was more surprised when this past Sunday while watching a clip of football players kneeling during the National Anthem I began to cry. As I watched these athletes stand up (by kneeling down) for our most basic freedoms I was proud to be an American.

This was patriotism.

It wasn’t about a flag or a song. It was about coming together to do the right thing.


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?