crying on the toilet and other bathroom distractions

The following is an excerpt from my book Which One of You is the Mother? You can purchase the book on Amazon here.


The difference between five and nine is greater than four. We learned this new math in the days and weeks following Elijah’s placement with us. I had imagined a five year old would arrive factory ready — just plug him in, flip the switch and presto! you have a fully functioning mini humanoid. This is untrue. It turns out five year olds are basically talking babies that can use the toilet. You still have to bathe them, dress them, tie their shoes, hold their hands in public, teach them to read, force them to nap, force them to brush their teeth, monitor them as they brush their teeth, and clean up after they brush their teeth, and while they may be able to talk the toilet business is 50/50 on a good day.

Chris was a breeze in comparison. Granted he was a few years older, so he could be trusted to take a bath, dress himself and not run out into traffic. Elijah was another story. He was exhausting. He required constant attention. I laugh at the former me who once considered adopting a child under the age of three. I could absolutely handle a newborn, I bragged to my friends and family. If an all-things-considered-well-behaved five year old nearly drove me to the brink a newborn would have killed me.

And Elijah is a good kid. Oh sure sometimes he pees his pants while waiting in line at the amusement park but otherwise he’s fairly continent. He is an average five year old who listens 75% of the time and hates napping. He has never once been horrible in public, which is more than I could say for those non-GMO-gluten-free-Paleo kids I see at the mall. (And for the record, I see you other parents judging me when my son eats his genetically modified deep-fried sugar-dipped potato-in-a-bun.) Elijah may ask a million questions but he asks them because he’s curious. He wants to learn. There is no end to his inquisition: What are clouds? Where does the moon sleep? Do girls have wieners? I do my best to answer his questions, but I also recognize that I am not an expert in meteorology, astronomy or female anatomy.

The endless questions were nothing compared to the boundless energy and I began to fear that I had met my match. Here I was a forty year old man and my undoing would be at the hands of a five year old. Elijah had been with us for about two weeks the Sunday afternoon I fell victim to a plate of questionable Middle Eastern kebabs. Food poisoning is never pleasant and I spent the better part of the night projectile vomiting the previous day’s spaghetti dinner.

The next morning I awoke dehydrated with a blinding headache. If it had been just me I could have managed the situation. I would have popped a few aspirin, confined myself to the couch and slept the day away. But it wasn’t just me. It was me and a five year old (due to a clerical error Elijah was still not enrolled in school).  Todd had gone back to work the previous week and now I was on daddy duty, food poisoning be damned.

Five year olds don’t understand being sick. They don’t understand blinding headaches and dehydration. They cannot be left to their own devices while you cough your best Camille in some faraway Bavarian sanatorium. Five year olds want to play and be five. Five year olds do not want to sit quietly and watch Law & Order reruns all day. They instead prefer to run through the house singing at top volume and pretending to be a Disney princess. At least that’s what my five year old preferred to do on this particular day. When I suggested we take a nap after his 437th encore of Let It Go, he laughed at me. My five year old son laughed at me and then he threw all forty pounds of his little body onto my stomach which at this point, now void of food, had begun to digest my internal organs.

It was sometime around 2:45 p.m. that I excused myself to the bathroom where I cried for seven and a half peaceful minutes.

I do this a lot now. I excuse myself to the bathroom and I cry. The bathroom is my sanctuary. I have spent the better part of an hour holed up behind its locked door, watching videos on my phone or reading the back of the shampoo bottle. Sometimes I turn on the water and I pretend I’m taking a shower. Sometimes I slip down into the bubbles and let Calgon take me away. Sometimes I fall asleep on the toilet.

I would kill for a midday nap. I think most adults wish they could indulge in a nap at some point during the day. But children hate naps. If I tell Elijah to take a nap he will collapse on the floor and begin to sob uncontrollably. The first time he did this I hurriedly closed all the windows in the house, afraid that the neighbors would think I was beating him. Now if I even mention the word nap he launches into a five-act opera entitled Emotionally Unstable Italian Grandmother at the Funeral of Her Dead Husband.

The truth is we’re still figuring him out. He’s an odd little kid; he thinks it’s hilarious to look you directly in the eyes when you’re speaking to him and then do the exact opposite of what you just told him to do even though you’re sure he heard you because, after all, he was looking you directly in the eyes when you were talking to him. He also loves to repeat everything you say except for those moments when he’s pretending not to hear you. He eats nothing but chicken nuggets with mustard. Give him a choice between eating a plate of fresh vegetables and being water boarded by Dick Cheney and he’d go with virtual drowning by Darth Vader.

If Chris is the very definition of resilience, then Elijah is the very definition of obstinance.

But still, he makes me laugh. His preschool teacher remarked that she had never before met a five year old who understood sarcasm…and then used it. His caseworker noted in his file that Elijah was “a chameleon”. She said, “He could adapt to any environment and would often assume the personalities of those around him.” It was no doubt a coping mechanism he had adopted, the result of having lived in so many different homes.

In the foster home where he lived before, Elijah had been taught that physical affection was unacceptable; there were no hugs or goodnight kisses. He adapted to this environment and learned to live without affection. When we met him Elijah was emotionally reserved, if not aloof and frosty. He forbade us to hug or kiss him for those first few months. One night before bed he told me that I could not kiss him on the cheek because “boys don’t kiss”. They do in this house, I said, but respected his wishes. Finally after months of watching us shower Chris with affection Elijah changed his outlook. Now he hugs first and when we tuck the boys into bed he demands to be kissed goodnight.

Time moves slowly when you are living inside a moment. In the time before hugs and kisses Elijah would only call us by our first names; it seemed we would never be Dad and Papa. We never forced the issue. If he was comfortable calling us Sean and Todd then he could call us Sean and Todd. Still, when addressing one another in front of him we always referred to each other as Dad and Papa. We instructed Chris to do the same when talking about us to Elijah. We laid the groundwork and it took time, but eventually Elijah began to experiment with our new names until those new names became our only names. Now every morning he wakes me up by crawling into bed and whispering mischievously into my ear, “Daddy!”  Now he rushes Todd at the door and with open arms delivers a welcoming, “Papa!” No longer Sean and Todd, now it seems we are who we have always been, his Dad and Papa.

He has become so much like the three of us; it’s hard to know who he is after us especially when we never knew who he was before us. Our obstinate little chameleon has now assumed our manner of speaking, our casual attitude, our sense of humor. Unfortunately he has also adopted some of Chris’s less desirable qualities, like selective laziness. Long gone are the days when Elijah would voluntarily (and thoroughly) clean up after himself. We’ve said goodbye to the boy who eagerly offered to set the dinner table. Now we’re left with the pint-sized smartass who, when asked to carry more than one bag of groceries into the house, indignantly replies, “I only have two hands”.

The difference between five and nine is still greater than four. But with each whisper of Daddy, with each offer of I love you, with each willing hug that difference shrinks. Chris and Elijah wanted a forever home, but what they received in the bargain was so much more than a roof and four walls. They found each other. Elijah idolizes Chris and has assumed the role of loyal companion and much smaller shadow. And Chris, the boy who wanted an older brother, has himself taken that role and become the defender, confidante and best friend.


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.

two boys kissing is gay

Ew. Gross.

 

It happened shortly after dinner last night. The boys were watching an animated series about a group of misfit teenage superheroes, most of the PG-13 humor going straight over their heads. The scene featured a boy and a girl sharing a plate of spaghetti, a riff on that classic moment in Lady & the Tramp.  At the point where the would-be sweethearts are set to kiss, a second boy popped into the scene locking lips with the first boy.

 

Ew. Gross.

 

“Excuse me,” I said to my nine year-old son in my best oh-hell-no-you-did-not inside voice.  Time stopped.

 

I considered the moment. It was a cheap joke. Two boys kissing. We’ve all seen it employed before – on television, in the movies, even in the hallowed gay halls of musical theater. (Boy + Boy) x Kissing = Funny. The lazy math of straight comedy writers. The joke being on us.

 

I asked my son – who on numerous occasions has witnessed his two fathers share a loving lip-lock – why it was gross, these two boys kissing. He searched for an answer, but could find none. Silence. This was a teachable moment. I could wait.

 

Eventually he confessed that the other kids at school had told him that two boys kissing was – in the schoolyard vernacular of adolescence – gay. Like fat and retarded, gay is the all-purpose go-to insult of children everywhere. 

 

Gay.

 

You’re not okay. You’re different. 

 

I gently reminded him that he had two fathers who were gay and that there was nothing wrong with being gay. It was no different than being born white or black; it’s just what you are. He apologized for hurting my feelings. Of course this was much bigger than my feelings. 

 

There are people in this world who think we should not be married, who think we should not have children, who think the children we have should be taken away from us. For those people the word gay is a weapon. A word that once meant happy, now made dirty, passed on to their children to fight the fight in schoolyards everywhere. 

 

Ew. Gross. When you say it, you make those people credible. You give them power. You let them win. 

 

We talked, well past his bedtime, because there was much to talk about. You need to stand up for yourself. You need to stand up for your family. Be proud. Always.

 

My son clings to me, announcing to everyone that I am his dad. On a recent trip to the beach he proudly told all the kids that he had two dads. Two gay dads. The issue was never that we were gay. The issue was never two men kissing. Ew. Gross. was learned on a playground. A cheap joke passed down from parent to child turned into a weapon and used to make a little boy feel not okay. Different. 

 

don’t worry, be happy-ish

I worry that I’m not a good parent.  I worry that I’m too selfish to be a good parent.  I worry that I’ve made too many mistakes to be a good parent.

I worry that I try too hard.  I worry that I don’t try hard enough.  I worry that I let my son play too much Minecraft and then I worry that I nap too much when he plays too much Minecraft.  I worry when my son gets a “D” on his math test and then I worry when I can’t figure out why he got a “D” on his math test.  I worry that there are not enough hugs, not enough I love yous.  I worry that there is enough criticism, enough nagging.

I worry that I won’t be enough.  I worry that I’ll be too much.

I worry I’ll never be as good a father as my husband.  I’m jealous of his patience and his kindness and his ability to remain calm always.  I worry my kids will prefer him to me; or worse, they will prefer me to him.  I worry I don’t love him as much as he loves me.  I worry he will get a better offer.

I worry that I’m turning 40 in six days.  I worry what that means.  I worry that I won’t have the energy to keep up with a five year-old and a nine year-old.  I worry that my kids will think I’m old.  I worry that I am old.

I worry that I worry too much and I worry that all this worrying means I’m missing out on moments I can never get back.  I worry that I won’t know what to do when I stop all the worry.  I worry that I’m not evolved, just neurotic.  So very, very neurotic. 😃