It’s not the number or combination of parents that defines a family. It’s the love. In this special Huffington Post Gay Voices / RaiseAChild.US “Let Love Define Family®” series for National Adoption Month, contributing writer Beth Hallstrom shares the story of one Pittsburgh family who understands that clearly, and is always happy to stumble upon teachable moments and help others -- typically more confused than prejudiced.
By happy accident, the family of Sean O’Donnell, Todd Collar and their two sons has become ambassadors for fostering and adoption by the LGBT community and they are delighted to take the time to explain how they created their family to curious people who are far more likely to be puzzled than prejudiced
"We're a different kind of family, but actually we're not," Sean explained. "We're just like everyone else. We love our children and we do whatever we need to do to give them a good life. At the end of the day, the only difference is that we're two guys."
Sean said the opportunities to enlighten often crop up when the family is on an outing or eating at a restaurant and even at work. Once, a member of the United Church of Christ, where he is the office manager, actually asked him, "Which one of you is the mother?"
"People can't seem to figure out where the kids came from and they want to know who their mothers are. They are always surprised that the kids weren't adopted internationally, as if there are no adoptable children in the U.S. They also always tell us how much the kids look like us, which they don't. I think people think we need to hear that," Sean said, laughing.
After the incident with the lady at work, Sean began chronicling their experiences online with seansbiggayblog, which led to him to pen his memoir, also titled Which One of You is the Mother? (published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform).
"The book is the story of how we came to adoption and the roles we assumed in this new kind of family. It's kind of like pulling back the curtain on the roles society has assigned to various family members. You throw two dads in the mix and it confuses some people. It's also a humorous look at all the things that can go right," he said.
Sean, 40, and 44-year old Todd, who handles billing for an ophthalmology practice, have been together for 18 years. Both are natives of the same small town near Pittsburgh but didn't connect until after high school.
They were married the first time unofficially in 2012 then, in February, had what they tongue-in-cheek call the 21st century version of a shotgun wedding.
"To adopt Elijah, our younger son, which we did in West Virginia, we had to be for real married so both our names could appear on his birth certificate. We were at the Carnegie Science Center that day, met the pastor at lunchtime, got married, then went back to our trip," Sean recalled.
Both men always knew they wanted children but thought fostering was the only option for same-sex couples. They consulted with Three Rivers Adoption Council and learned adoption was, indeed, possible. They began the certification process and, nine months after it was finalized, they were matched with Chris, then seven-years-old, who was in Oregon.
"Nine months. How's that for irony?," Sean asked.
"Chris had been with his foster family for two years," he explained, "and had seen so many kids come and go. He was just waiting for his turn. He was only seven but he was running out of time. The longer kids are in foster care, the smaller their chances are of being adopted."
Chris met Sean and Todd at the door with a big smile on his face and, Sean recalled, "He hugged us right away and started reading to us. Everything crystallized and we both had an 'OMG' moment and we knew he was our kid. It's overwhelming -- the thing you want your whole life and think you'll never have is suddenly right there in front of you."
The new Dads traveled to Oregon on a Monday and came home with Chris that Friday.
"I think he would've left with us that first night we met. I think he had his backpack ready to go and was convinced he was coming home with us. Now it seems like he's always been with us," Todd noted.
Elijah, who is five, came to the family in January from West Virginia and his adoption was finalized in October. His first meeting with Sean and Todd was the polar opposite of their experience with Chris.
"Elijah ignored us for three hours and pretended we weren't there. We started to play hide and seek with Chris and, suddenly, Elijah wanted to play, too," Todd said.
"You know, you meet the kids for the first time and have a rough idea of what they're like and then -- boom -- you fall in love and want to wrap them up in a blanket like a baby and take them home. It is a powerful moment," Todd said.
Chris and Elijah are full-fledged brothers now, Todd said, adding, "we can tell because they can fight and they make up right away. Elijah liked the idea of having someone to follow around and Chris liked the idea of having someone to boss around. It's a match made in heaven."
Sean and Todd said another match made in heaven is fostering and adoption by the LGBT community, which they promote whenever they can, especially on Sean's blog. They are also considering adding to their family by adopting another child.
"Todd and I are committed to adoption. There are 415,000 kids in foster care and countless LGBT couples and individuals who want families. Fostering and adoption is the way to do it. Everybody wins," Sean said.
They are also passionate about dispelling common myths about adoption as they encourage others.
"It's not a difficult process if you have the right attitude. Not all kids who need [to be] adopted are infants. There are so many older kids waiting for loving homes. It's tragic to think some of these children will remain in foster care until age 18. Probably the biggest misconception of all is that adoption is expensive. Chris's adoption in Oregon cost us nothing. Even our plane tickets and the cost of the rental car were covered. And for Elijah, we will only have to pay a few hundred dollars in legal fees," Sean noted.
"People frequently tell us how we changed our kids' lives and that's not entirely true. They changed our lives forever and for the better. You don't need to have money to build your family through adoption, just love. If you have love, you can do this," he added.
Have you considered building a family through fostering, adopting or weekend hosting? RaiseAChild.US would like to help you. Visit us at www.RaiseAChild.US and RSVP to join us for free, fun and educational RaiseAChild.US events throughout Southern California:
Tues., Dec. 1st 6:30PM to 8:30PM Andaz West Hollywood Hotel
Wed., Dec. 2nd 6:30PM to 8:30PM The Prado at Balboa Park, San Diego
Thur., Dec. 3rd 6:30PM to 8:30PM The Art Theatre of Long Beach
Sun., Dec. 13th 2:00PM to 4:00PM Museum of Art History in Lancaster, CA
RaiseAChild.US is the nationwide leader in the recruitment and support of LGBT and all prospective parents interested in building families through fostering and adoption to meet the needs of the 415,000 children in the foster care system. RaiseAChild.US
recruits, educates, and nurtures supportive relationships equally with all prospective foster and adoptive parents while partnering with agencies to improve the process of advancing foster children to safe, loving and permanent homes. Take the next step to parenthood at www.RaiseAChild.US.