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?

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.

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?

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.

 

#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.