please don’t eat the daisies

When someone has a baby it is customary for their friends and family to throw them a baby shower. These baby showers are extravagant affairs complete with whimsical decorations, silly games, overpriced gifts and cake. Lots of cake. No one has ever thrown us a baby shower.

That’s not the point of this blog post. I’m just putting that out there because I have two kids and also I like cake.

The point of this blog post is that we have decided to adopt again. It turns out two is not enough. My guess is a year from now we will be saying that three is not enough. I should probably rephrase that because Chris and Elijah are absolutely enough. They are more than we could have hoped for or dreamed of; they are as perfect for us as we are for them and if we never had another child we would still be complete.

So when I say that two is not enough what I mean to say is why should we stop at two or three or even five for that matter, especially when there are tens of thousands of children in need of a forever home. And while not every one of those kids may be a suitable match to our family dynamic, I have no doubt at least one or two or twenty-seven of those tens of thousands are a match and they are out there right now waiting for us to find them.

Todd calls it a calling. You know, like when someone is called to serve God or called to work in the Peace Corps or called to eat obscene amounts of donuts twice a week. It is odd to compare serving God to adopting children, but as soon as he said it I understood exactly what he meant.

Maybe it’s because I just turned forty and the closer I get to death the more philosophical I become, but I believe all roads have led me to Chris and Elijah. Everything that came before now, even the really shitty stuff, had to happen so I could be their Dad. They were my calling.

I am exactly where I am meant to be.

We were talking with our caseworker last week and I said how lucky we were to have been matched with two well-adjusted and happy boys. She said that while it’s true we did have two fairly smooth adoptions we should not underestimate our contribution and that a big reason why the boys were so happy and well-adjusted was because of what we brought to the table.

I’m normally embarrassed by such praise, immediately defaulting to false modesty, but not this time because I knew what she was saying to be true. We are really good at this.

I know we cannot adopt every kid out there, nor should we, but if we have room in our hearts and the ability to change even one more life, then we should do it. We have to do it.

After all, it’s our calling.

Sean Michael O’Donnell is the author of Which One Of you is the Mother? It is available on Amazon here. Why haven’t you bought it yet?! Seriously.

eyes wide shut

Chris could not find his belt. I knew where it was. I also knew that if he would just open his eyes and look he would see that his belt was exactly where he had left it twelve hours earlier, slung over the back of his desk chair underneath the very clothes he had just put on five minutes prior to asking, “Where’s my belt?” Still I indulged his Helen Keller routine and said, “It’s exactly where you left it.”

“What do you mean?” he called from the stairs.

“It’s exactly where you left it,” I repeated, putting a period after each emphasized word.

Okay, I know, yes, I could have just said, “It’s on the desk chair,” and that would have been the end of it. Lights down. And yes, if I had simply wanted to make a point I could have satisfied the passive-aggressive middle-aged woman inside me and added “underneath the clothes you just put on five minutes prior to asking me, “Where’s my belt?”

Of course I didn’t do that. For some reason I had decided to draw a line in the sand and, even though I knew where this was headed, “It’s exactly where you left it” was all he was going to get from me.

Chris came down the stairs a few minutes later. Without the belt. He announced that he would not be wearing the belt because he could not find it.

I snapped. I took him (gently, but firmly) by the arm, marched him up the stairs, pointed to the chair where the belt was hanging and said, my voice dripping with periods and italics, “In. Plain. Sight. The belt is in plain sight. It’s exactly where you – not me, YOU – left it twelve hours ago. I mean, c’mon, you’re too old for this crap.”

It was perhaps not my finest hour, but then I’ve had worse.

Chris put on the belt and then, looking me directly in the eyes, he said, “I know you’re new at being a parent, but it’s just a belt.”

Some people might hear this and think my son was talking back to me or being disrespectful, but he was not doing either of those things. He was being honest and if I was being honest I would admit that he had a point…to a point.

It was just a belt, but – as I later tried to explain to him – it was also more than a belt.

Do you ever look at your kids and wonder how it is they will ever be prepared to survive in the world without you? I do. And it’s in those moments that a belt becomes more than a belt because if I can’t teach my kid to open his eyes and see the belt that is right in front of him then how will he ever be ready to drive a car or have a job or manage a bank account or raise his own children?

Sometimes Chris will ask me what a parent does and in reply I recite to him a long list of responsibilities. The list changes, but the one constant is always a parent gets their child ready to be an adult. Because after making my kids feel safe and loved and happy all I really want is for them to be ready for the day when I’m no longer around to find the belt.

It’s not the most pleasant of thoughts, but then much of parenting is about being unpleasant.

So for now I will concede my son’s point that it was just a belt and if I did overreact it was only because one day it will be more than just a belt and when that day comes he needs to be ready for it.

Having said that, the next time he asks where his belt is I may just tell him, “It’s on the desk chair.”

Sean Michael O’Donnell is the author of Which One Of you is the Mother? It is available on Amazon.

making babies the new old fashioned way

Most people become parents the old fashioned way. They either say, “Let’s have a baby,” and then engage in meaningful heterosexual intercoursing, or they say, “Let’s have a drink,” and then three hours later forget to use a condom. And while both roads may lead to a baby, the second option makes for a better romantic comedy. We tried going the traditional intercourse route for years but it turns out you can’t make omelets without eggs. You also can’t make a baby with two penises because contrary to what your seventh grade health teacher told you in sex ed, you cannot get pregnant in the fanny.

Since boy + boy ≠ baby we turned to adoption. We had our reservations. Our first thought was, “Are gay people even allowed to adopt?” To our surprise not only were the gays permitted to adopt, they were encouraged to do so. There are nearly a half million children in the foster system and with most straights choosing to have babies through intercoursing, supply exceeds demand. Initially our caseworker seemed to only pass along profiles for the harder to place children. “He’s only started a few fires. I’d hardly call that a pattern.” We assured her that while we might be open-minded we didn’t think our dogs would enjoy living with someone who tortured animals even if “it was just that one time.” We persevered and eventually we hit the jackpot. Twice.

Adoption is a funny thing. You wait and you wait and you wait and then suddenly you have two kids and you’re driving a minivan. All you know is now and your memories are something that happened in a dream. I could not even begin to list all the ways being a father has changed my life because the person I am after my children is in no way related to the person I was before them.

Yesterday we met with our attorney to discuss the final steps in Elijah’s adoption. Today she will file the last round of paperwork and in a few short weeks we will go to court. When that day finally comes some judge will bang his gavel and poof! we will be a family. Except of course we already are a family. We may not have biologically created our boys, but they were born to be our sons just as we were born to be their fathers. And while the bang of that gavel will mean many things, it won’t change the most important thing.

we aren’t friends

Social media is a funny thing. We use it to share cat videos and photos of our families. We use it to show the world how clever we can be in 144 characters or less. We use it so everyone knows exactly what we are thinking on every subject all the time.

We use it without thinking.

But then again social media isn’t real. We don’t have a thousand friends. Or five thousand friends. Or, if we’re being honest, even a hundred friends. The majority of these imagined friendships exist in a distant world of interconnected routers and servers. They are code. They are not tangible. These friendships are cute and a great way to waste time, but 95% of our dealings on social media are conducted with people we barely know or people we knew a long, long time ago or people we never knew in the first place. And while it’s great that we’re all connected and we live in an age where we can share information, we are not required to be friends simply because the opportunity has presented itself.

I see people complaining that their news feed is clogged with friends who are racists, misogynists, homophobes, and I wonder: Outside of this distant world of interconnected routers and servers would you actually be friends with any of these people?  Honestly. In the real world where people look each other in the eyes and speak with words would you as a black man be friends with a person who thinks that black people deserve to be shot by the police? Would you as a woman have drinks with a man who thinks women should not work and if they do, they should make less money because they’re inferior? Would you as gay person invite into your home the neighbor who believes you should not have the right to visit your dying spouse in the hospital?

Personally, I refuse to maintain some virtual friendship with a virtual stranger who thinks my life as a gay man is wrong. Because someone who thinks your life is wrong is not your friend. At least not in the real world that exists beyond the tap-tap-tap of your smartphone.

You cannot fundamentally disagree with who I am as a person and honestly think that I’ll be okay with that because really you’re a good person you just have different views. No. Voting for Jeb Bush instead of Hillary Clinton is a different view. Preferring Target to Walmart is a different view. The view from your backyard compared to the view from my backyard is a different view. Believing that you are superior to me and sitting in judgment of my life is NOT a different view.

Also, you’re not a good person. I know that’s harsh, but you should hear it. All of your “love the sinner, hate the sin” bullshit is just what you tell yourself so you don’t have to admit to being what you really are: a hateful bigot.

Look, I get it. Your beliefs are important to you. My husband and children are important to me. I understand that the words your god said over two thousand years ago – or at least your interpretation of those words and I’m speaking of those words you choose to acknowledge, not those words you ignore because they’re inconvenient for you – I get that those words matter to you. My rights and freedoms IN THE PRESENT DAY matter to me. And I hear you loud and clear when you say that, while you’re happy for me, you believe marriage is between a man and a woman and that only a man and a woman should have children. Of course if that’s true then why do you keep liking my photos on Facebook, you know, all the photos of me and my husband on our honeymoon and the other photos of me and my husband parenting our children?

I guess it’s because you’re such a good person.

the last days of the first months

Each day for the past four months my morning routine has been the same: drop off my oldest son at his bus stop, drop off my husband at his office, and then before going into work take my youngest son to the coffee shop around the corner and pass the time until his pre-school opened its doors. Going to the coffee shop, it was our ritual from almost the first day he had been placed with us. Having come from a very small town in rural West Virginia, going to a coffee shop seemed a great adventure to our newest addition and he loved it. Every morning he would stroll about the coffeehouse as if he owned it, putting on a show for the regulars who only encouraged him with their laughs and smiles. The barista was a big fan too, overlooking the contraband snacks we had brought from home to eat with our coffee and water.

After choosing a seat (always by the window!) we would settle in with our drinks and snacks, pausing from our respective distractions to make small talk and share smiles. I worked my way through the pages of the Call the Midwife trilogy while he polished off two seasons of SpongeBob on my phone.  The minutes ticked by slowly during those first few weeks as we both struggled to settle into this new normal, but in those final days it seemed as if no sooner had we sat down then it was time to part ways.

Today was our last morning at the coffeehouse. Summer vacation starts on Monday. As we walked from the car we played our last game of Booby-Trap Sidewalk. Inside he performed his last show for the coffeehouse patrons. We enjoyed our snacks and drinks as if it were any other morning. I read my book and he watched his show, both of us acting as if Monday would be no different. He looked at me and smiled. I froze the moment.

I’m not nostalgic, except now I am.

My son is just five years old and already he is growing up.

I try to freeze every moment before the present fades into the past.

I think back to those early days with my oldest son and I struggle to remember that first summer with him. Fresh off the plane from Oregon and we were strangers. We spent every moment of those three months together — we had our own routines, our own rituals — every day was a great adventure. We made small talk and shared smiles. I froze moments, but two years later, it seems not enough.

When you adopt they make you read books and take classes on being a parent, but for all their information what the books and classes fail to tell you is that children grow up and moments slip away. One day the seven year old turns nine and the next day the five year old is graduating high school. Life goes on.

children will listen

I learned the hard way that children hear everything…or rather, children hear everything you don’t want them to hear.  Look a child directly in the eyes and give them a specific set of directions and they will act like you’re an alien having just dropped in from another planet speaking a distant language of clicks and beeps, but have a private conversation with your significant other behind closed doors two states away and they not only hear every word, they commit it to memory.

Recently Todd and I were discussing a reading program that had been instituted at Chris’s school, some trademarked No Child Left Behind ridiculousness leftover from George W. Bush’s reign of terror.   It involves children reading from a specific book list for one hour every day, including weekends, under the supervision of parents with no distractions, meaning all televisions, phones, and computers in the house are to be turned off during the 60 minute reading period.   It’s a noble idea, truly, but to any parent who has other children in the home or is trying to juggle extra-curricular activities in addition to the every day school schedule, it’s a bit unreasonable.  And for parents like myself who have children who don’t arrive home from school until after 5 pm and then routinely have 60-90 minutes of homework a night, it’s downright laughable.

But that’s not the point.

The point is we made our negative feelings about this program known within earshot of Chris. The next day at school he told his teacher everything we had said, and while some of our points were valid, others were nothing more than the observations of a couple of bitchy sarcastic homosexual know-it-alls.  We admonished Chris (and ourselves) and then arranged a phone call with the teacher where we apologized and she graciously addressed our legitimate concerns.  Lesson learned.

As annoyed as we were by the incident, it was unfair to be mad at Chris.  He was, after all, just parroting us.  And isn’t that what most children do?  Aren’t we all just the products of our environment? Doesn’t it stand to reason that if you grow up in a house that traditionally votes Democrat, you will grow up to vote Democrat?  If you are raised Catholic, does it not usually follow that you will raise your children Catholic?  We may want our children to form their own opinions fostered by their unique experiences,  but if we were being honest, don’t we also want our children to parrot us?

As much as I may want my sons to be their own persons, to have their own ideas, to speak in a voice that is not mine — I hope the person I am helps to form the person they will become.  In a perfect world my children will follow the path of their parents and embrace the social evolution of progressive liberalism and not the status quo paradigms of regressive conservatism.  They will want families like their own and people of all races to be viewed as equal.  Would I love them any less if they grew up to be socially conservative Republicans?  Of course not, but I would reserve the right to occasionally cry in private.

Recently Chris has been asking a lot of questions about God and religion in general.  Where is heaven?  What happens if you go to hell?  Does God see everything?  I, in turn, have responded with, “In the clouds.  You sweat a lot.  Don’t masturbate.”  I’m kidding.

Right now Chris is curious and I’m not going to pretend to have the answers.  I believe in God. Todd does not.  Who is to say which of us is right?  So when Chris asks these questions we are sure to present many answers, a buffet of options.  We’ve stressed that not all people believe in the same God.  We’ve pointed out that some people, like Todd, do not believe in any God.  We’ve encouraged him to keep reading, to keep experiencing, to keep learning.  And even in this example, where we are telling him to make up his own mind, we are hoping he will parrot us — follow our example and be like one of us.

The truth is children will listen.  They need to listen.   They want to listen.  They are looking to us for guidance and we have no choice but to provide that guidance.  After all, it’s what we signed up for when we agreed to be parents.

hazy shades of winter

The year I turned 40 Todd and I celebrated our eighteenth anniversary. We have two children, ages 5 and 9.  The year my parents turned 40 they celebrated their twentieth wedding anniversary.  They had three children, ages 18, 13, and 9.

On the surface it may seem like we shared a similar path, my parents and I. But I was 38 the year my then-7 year old son arrived and not-quite-40 the the day we met our 5 year old. Contrast that with my parents who welcomed their first child before they could legally drink. At an age when I was staying out at bars until 2 am, my Mom and Dad were raising a hormonal teenager, a defiant seven year old, and a free-spirited toddler.

I don’t know how they did it.

Growing up, we struggled.  With Reaganomics failing to trickle down and steel mills closing up all across the rust belt, my Dad was often out-of-work.  My Mom found full-time employment as a clerk at a local department store, a position she held for years even after my Dad had achieved long-term job security.  Throughout the years we lived in a series of rented homes.  We were frequent visitors at the food bank.  We bought groceries with food stamps. There was no extra spending money, no family vacations.  Even McDonald’s seemed a luxury.

Of course at the time we never knew this because at the time my parents made sure we always had the things we needed.  We may have bought our clothes from the sale rack at the discount store and eaten an unusual amount of Hamburger Helper, but for the most part it seemed we did not want for anything.  Looking back I don’t remember the struggles.  I remember the Christmas Santa Claus came to visit us at the farmhouse.  I remember the make-shift living room floor picnics at the house on Market Street.  I remember the elaborate birthday parties on Buffalo Street.  I remember the unconditional love.

I don’t know how they did it.

My parents at age 40 had a dramatically different life than I have at age 40.  I hold a mortgage with the promise of home ownership.  I take annual trips to Puerto Rico.  I buy clothes on sale out of choice, not necessity.  The struggles and sacrifices of my parents gave me this life; I would not have it otherwise.

So I hope my struggles and sacrifices, however trivial in comparison to those of my parents, serve as teaching moments and provide for Chris and Elijah the tools to achieve their dreams.  I want to create memorable birthdays and Christmases and living room picnics and offer to my sons the unconditional love my parents so freely gave to me.

A 40 like my 40, but better.

eye of the tiger

My son had a bad day yesterday.  It all began when he left his backpack in the car.  He does this a lot, leaving things behind.  His backpack, his lunchbox, his gloves.  Last summer he came home from day camp in just his bathing suit, having lost his clothes, shoes and spare eyeglasses while at the pool.  It’s to the point that whenever I walk down the dirty stretch of alley between my office and the coffee shop and I see a single shoe or a stray pair of pants I think, “Chris must have been here.”

Not long after dropping my other son off at pre-K, I received a voicemail from Chris.  I assumed he was calling to ask me to bring his backpack to the school, but it turns out he was calling to tell me that his glasses had been broken by a classmate.  He was hysterical in a manner that would have won him the Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress for the next decade, at least.   I called the school and assured Chris that I was not mad, clearly it was an accident.

The day went from bad to worse when we picked up Chris from the bus stop and discovered that not only had his glasses been broken, he had also lost them at some point during the day.  This was followed by an epic three-hour homework showdown where Chris declared that 12 divided by 4 was 27 and a comma went at the end of a sentence,

Some days.

The truth is Chris was not just having a bad day, he’s been having a bad month.  There have been changes to the family dynamic with the addition of our son Elijah, suddenly Chris is not the only child.  For almost two years now he has had all of our attention, now he has to share it.  He also has to share his bedroom, his toys and his dog.  It’s a lot.

Chris loves Elijah and he loves being a big brother.  Having Elijah in the house means Chris gets to do his two favorite things: give orders and tattle.  But still even when you consider the pluses, all of this change is a lot for any kid to process.

Last night before bed Chris was feeling down, the day’s events had finally caught up to him.  He felt stupid for losing his glasses, for not understanding his homework, for having a bad day.

Chris has been through a lot in his nine years. He had a rough start, at one point living in a tent as a baby.  Since then he has lived in six different homes, and not always with the best people.  He’s been neglected and forgotten.  He has seen and experienced things people ten times his age have never seen or experienced, yet still he wakes up every day smiling.

He is the very definition of resilience.

As I told him last night, “You’ve been through so much that wasn’t good, but here you are still standing.  You’re going to have bad days, but you’re going to get through them.  Everything that came before — that was the hard stuff.  Not forgetting your gloves, making sure you have your glasses, remembering to read the directions on your homework — that’s the easy stuff.  You can do the easy stuff.”

I’m willing to cut him some slack — to overlook the lost glasses, the forgotten backpacks, the missing gloves, the refusal to read and follow directions.  He just needs time to adjust.  And I know that he will adjust, because he always does.  He has spent a lifetime doing it — from one foster home to the next. He’s a survivor.

check, please

I hate the word bully. It has become yet another flashy buzzword for these early days of the 21st century — another cause célèbre, another brand to sell, another ribbon to wear.  We attribute every schoolyard skirmish and childish disagreement to the work of a bully. Even harmless name-calling, once a rite of passage for all children, is now considered full-on psychological warfare and verbal intimidation.  When the four year-old who calls a classmate a poopyhead on the playground is labeled a bully, we have gone too far.

I am not unsympathetic.  I was routinely called a faggot from the ages of 8 to 17.  I know firsthand that bullies exist in our schools; the evidence being my story and the stories of the broken children who suffered far more horribly than I at the hands of these would-be oppressors.   Without question we have an obligation to stop these bullies, but we also have an obligation to distinguish between the bully and the children simply learning to navigate the choppy waters of childhood.  When we use bully as some sort of catchall, we effectively neuter our children and foster a culture of victimhood.

I suppose it comes down to this: which is worse, marijuana or heroin?  Are they equally bad?  Simply stated, if marijuana calls you poopyhead and heroin torments you until you kill yourself, which one would you put your resources into stopping?

If all bullies are the same then the real bullies inevitably slip through the cracks, left to mature, in size if not mind.  I can think of at least a dozen grown-up bullies I have encountered in my adult life.  People with such shockingly low levels of self-esteem they can be made whole only by making others feel less.  For the pint-sized tyrants we have zero tolerance, but for the adults we make excuses: we convince ourselves it would be rude to contradict them; we shakes our heads and cluck that everyone has a right to their opinion; and my favorite, we cite the all-forgiving “free speech”.

Every morning I walk past a restaurant I used to frequent on a regular basis.  One evening while eating there with friends, several people from my group were openly hostile to our waitress.  One woman in particular was especially condescending and dismissive, taking every perceived mistake as a personal attack.  The tension at the table was palpable, many of us were horrified and uncomfortable, but no one more so than our poor server.  Now when I eat there I burn with embarrassment, not because of what my bullying dinner companions did, but because I did nothing to stop them.

Several months ago when picking my son up from school I was part of a conversation with two other parents.  The conversation devolved into a thinly-veiled discussion on race, specifically how unfortunate it was that this otherwise wonderful school was so “urban”.  Polite racism.  One of the parents hypothesized that the school might not have so many discipline problems if it was in another neighborhood, by which she meant white neighborhood.  When I think back on that conversation I burn with embarrassment, again not because of what the other parents said, but because I said nothing to contradict them.

When I was teenager I had an uncle who confronted me about being gay.  At the time I didn’t know what I was other than an overweight awkward teenager who never thought he’d have any kind of sex — gay or straight — but still this man persisted: Don’t you have a girlfriend?  Why don’t you have a girlfriend?  Don’t you like girls?  He kept on for about fifteen minutes.  I suppose he thought he could bully me into heterosexual submission.  In this memory I burn the most with embarrassment, unable to stand up even for myself.

Bullies grow up.  They become racists, homophobes, and generally nasty people who take joy in reducing a waitress to tears.  We may be vigilant about curtailing the abuses of a ten year-old bully, but for grown-up monsters we look the other way.  It might be that in conjunction with policing our playgrounds we should also hold ourselves accountable.  Perhaps we should ask ourselves how often we — the adults — stand up to our bullies?

sorry i never see you anymore

At our just-for-shits-and-giggles-non-legally binding 2012 big gay wedding we invited our closest friends and select family, 75 people.  This past Saturday when we appeased the suddenly-progressive legislative gods in Harrisburg with our legal wedding, we had two guests — our kids. We used to be very social people.  We used to host parties.  We used to have a lot of friends. The same people I would routinely see four hours a days five days a week I now see maybe once a year.

I sometimes think people are still waiting for us to host the party or organize the dinner, but then I realize that they’re all hosting their own parties and organizing their own dinners. I keep expecting the phone to ring, but it never does because we aren’t invited.  The cynic in me thinks it’s because we no longer have anything to offer, that we fell out of fashion, but the truth is things are different.  And not just for us.  For everyone.  Life went on.  While we were busy having kids, all of those friends we used to see every day have been living their lives, forging new relationships, moving into new homes, starting new jobs, creating new paths that just don’t include us.

Sometimes I feel bad that I no longer see these people.  Some days I mourn the perceived loss of those friendships.  I admonish myself for not being a better friend, for not keeping in contact, for not hosting that party.  I tell myself that all the other parents out there still see their friends every day, still host big parties, still stay out until midnight on a school night eating wings and singing karaoke at the Rivertowne.

Of course even if that were true — and I doubt it is — those parents have had a lifetime with their kids.  They had nine months to prepare and then every day thereafter to enjoy.  Chris turns 9 tomorrow and two years ago we didn’t even know he existed.  Elijah has been in our house for less than two weeks.  I don’t want to miss a minute with them because I’ve already missed so many.  I need to drink up the now before they grow up and resent me.

So I’m sorry I never see you anymore.  I wish I did.  Maybe one day I will.  And to the person a few weeks ago who mentioned that we should have them over to our house: I’ll pencil that in for sometime in late 2023.