our first last family vacation

Vacations are always bound to disappointment. We spend days and weeks imagining each and every moment, creating impossible standards which can never measure up to our ridiculous expectations let alone the cold light of day. Oh sure, there are moments so perfect you almost forget about the $100 you dropped on greasy hamburgers and stale French fries, but then one of your kids starts crying and reality sets in and suddenly you’re back in that overpriced hamburger joint shooting daggers at the waitress who forgot to bring you the diet coke you ordered ten minutes ago.

Full disclosure: I had a terrible time in New York. I was miserable. The only moment of joy I experienced was during a production of Once on This Island, and even though it was one of the most beautiful shows I have ever seen, I was mostly happy because no one around me was allowed to talk for 95 glorious minutes.

Gimme, gimme, gimme. More, more, more. Fortnite. xBox. Tablet. By the way, I want these additional 78 things for Christmas…

Okay, I’m exaggerating. It was more like one gimme and two mores and it wasn’t 78 things, it was 43. But I stand by the Fortnite stuff.

It’s probably not fair to lay blame at the feet of my kids, who are, after all, just kids. They were tired from the six hour car ride and the endless walking. They were excited because New York comes at you from every direction. It assaults all of your senses and when you’re eight or eleven or twelve or fourteen years old that can be a lot to handle. And I suppose when you cram a Broadway show, a trip to the circus, a visit to Macy’s to see Santa, an afternoon of ice skating at Bryant Park, a trip to the tree at Rockefeller Center, and thirty blocks of Christmas windows on Fifth Avenue all into a 48 hour window it’s understandable when no one has the energy to get that worked up by the Statue of Liberty.

But still, you planned this trip for weeks. You bought everything in advance. You rented a really awesome apartment on Airbnb. You even reserved a parking spot. No stone was left unturned…except for lunch on day two, but by this point you’re just tired of planning and making decisions so you turn it over to your husband to decide where to eat and that’s how you end up paying $100 for greasy hamburgers and stale French fries and that’s it, something snaps, and you just break and you imagine yourself jumping into a taxi alone and telling the driver to take you to the nearest airport so you can hop a flight to a country that doesn’t allow children or spouses or greasy hamburgers.

Of course it’s not about the greasy hamburgers or the beer you didn’t get to drink or the black-n-white cookie you never got or even the special ornament they didn’t have at the Christmas shop…it’s about your ridiculous expectations, which you have every right to, but also don’t have every right to, because expectations ruin everything and in this case the expectations were yours and yours alone.

I have to remind myself that my kids were just being kids and in twenty-two years my husband has never successfully chosen a restaurant. The truth is no amount of planning will ever make my kids not ask for more or suddenly give my husband the ability to choose. The chance of those things magically happening are about as likely as me not losing my shit and turning into a world-class bitch on a family vacation.

After finally getting home late last night I told (screamed?) the kids to go to bed and I said to my husband, “Vacations are for other families.” And maybe that’s true, or maybe that was the voice of my disappointed expectations speaking. I don’t know. I do know that in my wide-eyed, manic zeal to create the perfect holiday family vacation I doomed us.

Perhaps, instead of a trip to New York City, I should have just used the money to buy my kids the PS4 and the Nintendo Switch they won’t shut up about…because that’s what they really want and there’s nothing wrong with that because if we’re being honest I think most kids would rather play Fortnite on a new PS4 than see the Christmas windows at Bergdorf’s.

And so if this does turn out to be our first last family vacation, at least for the foreseeable future, it will be because of me and not because of my kids or my husband. Maybe instead of trying to plan the perfect vacation what I really need is a vacation from vacations. It could be just the cure for my expectations.


Sean Michael O’Donnell is 43 year old married gay man. He lives in Pittsburgh with his husband and four children. Sean enjoys Law & Order reruns, Christmas movies in October, and Facebook stalking. He likes donuts and beer. Sometimes he goes to the gym (okay, not really).  He is the author of the best-selling book Which One of You is the Mother?

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the boy who is my son (or, he’s the sheriff)

On October 22, 2015, we formally adopted our son Elijah. He was five years old at the time and had been living with us for nine months. Today, he is almost nine years old and it seems as if he has always been there. I know parents are not supposed to have favorites, but if I’m being honest, some days Elijah is my favorite.

He is the most like me of our four kids which is probably why I want to strangle him on those days when he isn’t my favorite. But he makes me laugh and smile and his hugs, which he rations, make me want to live forever so that I can never not be his dad.

It wasn’t always like this, there were (still are!) some tough days. The first time I met Elijah he wouldn’t look at me. He refused to make eye contact for a full three hours because even at five years old he was that stubborn and because, as I would later learn, everything in life had to be done on his terms. When he finally did look at me (and later when he decided that he would speak to me), he made sure that I understood that this was a very big deal and that he had decided to let me in…and that moving forward I would have zero control in this relationship.

And he was right because make no mistake, it’s his world and we’re just living in it.

I like to joke that Elijah will grow up to be a criminal mastermind, the type of movie villain who never physically hurts anyone but who steals billions of dollars from large corporations simply by pushing a button on his cell phone. More of a Robin Hood than a Hans Gruber. He’s not a bad a guy, he’s just misunderstood and besides he’ll never spend of any of the stolen loot because it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.

The truth is Elijah is kind of brilliant and things like words and numbers are way too easy for him, so setting his sights on something bigger (like embezzlement) is what will get him out of bed in the morning. Well, that and Fortnite.

I am allowed one hug a day. In the morning when I wake up he meets me at the bottom of the steps, throws his arms around me, and says, “Daddy!” Some days he comes up to my room and crawls into bed beside me and then wakes me up first by hugging me and then by screaming, “WAKE UP!” in my ear. The little scamp.

At night when it’s time for bed he “sends” me a hug which means he hugs the air in front of him and then throws it in my general direction (for which I had better be grateful, damnit!)  I used to blow him kisses before bed. He would pretend sweetly to catch them and then just as I’d start to smile he’d shove the air kisses into his mouth and act like he was eating them.

When he throws a tantrum, I have to leave the room to laugh. It’s too much and I cannot keep a straight face. There are tears and melodramatic exclamations and something that sounds like growling — it’s impressive, but also so over-the-top it would make even the hammiest of actors blush. But it’s also endearing and just another reason why I love him so much. I suspect he knows it’s too much and he’s aware of just how ridiculous he’s being, but he knows that I appreciate a good show so he goes all in for me which I think is rather sweet.

Elijah tells me that he’s going to buy the neighbor’s house so that he can live next door to us and take care of us when we’re old and we need someone to change our diapers. I believe that he’ll buy the neighbor’s house, but I don’t for one second think that he’s ever going to change our diapers…he’ll be too busy stealing large sums of money from the Chinese government and mastering season 437 of Fortnite and besides that’s what Chris and A’Sean are for.



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?

 

high heels and lip gloss and a nice structured pant

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

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

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

Seriously, my kids will one day rule the world.

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

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

Oy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

one day at a time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

will someone think of the children (probably not)

The United States government is placing children in cages. It’s shocking, but really it’s just another day in Donald Trump’s America. The right will defend it, the left will condemn it. The Attorney General will cite the Bible as precedent and then some well-meaning moron you went to high school with will post a meme suggesting that in the matter of the United Sates caging children we should all just agree to disagree. Our immigrant First Lady, a recipient of an Einstein Visa because who the fuck knows why, will weigh in condemning her husband’s policies and the media will anoint her Saint Melania of the Caged Children.

And the media, by gosh golly they are useless. I guarantee you if some D-list celebrity offs himself tomorrow it will be wall-to-wall grief coverage and the American people will emotionally masturbate to it until we’re all saying, “Children in cages? What children in cages? I don’t remember any children in cages.” But long after this country’s last great stateswoman Kim Kardashian overdoses on Ho-Hos in the Lincoln Bedroom, those kids will still be in cages.

The United States government is placing children in cages and you’re either defending it or you’re already in the process of forgetting about it.

Look, I’m no better than you. I like a good Kim Kardashian Ho-Ho overdose story as much as the next American, but as the (adoptive) parent of three children who were taken from their (birth) parents I can tell you if there is one thing that will mess with a kid’s head it is being taken away from their parents. Today my children are in a stable home where they are loved and feel safe, and still, the pain of being ripped away from their (birth) parents haunts them.

My kids were placed in a foster home, not a converted Wal-Mart. My kids were given a bedroom with walls, not a cell with bars. My kids received therapy from licensed professionals, not supervision from poorly-vetted government cogs. My kids had all these benefits and still the trauma of being separated from their parents remains to this day.

Imagine what the trauma will be like for these immigrant children who have been treated no better than caged animals…the ensuing years of depression, alcoholism, homelessness, drug dependency, suicide, inability to form lasting attachments…because those are all the things that children from the foster system, kids like my kids, experience throughout their lives, despite the benefits of having had loving parents and a real home and years of therapy.

Put simply, these immigrant kids are fucked.

I watch people on social media wringing their hands in despair, unable to grasp why their conservative friends and family defend this shameful policy. The left asks, “What if it was your children?” and of course the answer is, “But they aren’t my children. My children are white.”

Because beyond the morality and the legality, there is one truth: there is a law for white people and there are cages for brown people. Now before you stroke out, please hit the pause button on your outrage and consider how we would be handling this situation if this were Canadians crossing our precious border pouring into the wilds of Montana and upstate New York. I can guarantee you we would not be ripping apart families and warehousing kids inside a Wal-Mart prison.

Of course this is Donald Trump’s America, so who knows? Perhaps caging Canadian kids could be useful as we negotiate those pesky milk tariffs. But really, why stop at putting children in cages? This is America and in America we go big or go home! Let’s take it one (or ten) steps further. Those brown children may have information vital to our national security. What do you know about MS-13? How many caravans of illegals are preparing to cross the border? Why are telenovelas so damn popular? I’m confident that any reasonable three-year-old would break after a few hours of intense waterboarding.

People talk about how we’re crossing a line. We crossed a line with Sandy Hook. We crossed a line when we grabbed them by the pussy. We crossed a line in Charlottesville. But we’re no longer crossing lines. We’re caging children. We’ve gone over the line and we are falling into the void.


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?

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?

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?

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?