Family of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley Hale walks in woods on wedding day

Benefits and Responsibilities

The first thing that happened in our Zoom adoption hearing was that Tommy accidentally knocked over the computer and sent it tumbling to the floor.

We recovered the computer and apologized to the judge and everyone laughed. It was family court, after all.

We’d been looking forward to our adoption date for months at that point. I say “our” adoption date, but really, I had nothing to do with it other than signing a paper saying that I agreed with Chris’s adoption of the kids. He was the one who had to do all the background checks and financial statements and letters of intent and interviews with the lawyer. Mostly, I was just a bystander.

But really, I wasn’t a bystander at all. Not when it came to the emotional part of the adoption.

We initially brought up the idea of adoption to the kids over a year ago. Chris and I were engaged to be married at that point. How would they feel about it? “Adopt me!” Tommy had screamed mere months after Chris had arrived. But now that they were older and had lived with Chris for much longer, how did they feel?

They were still really excited about it.

We talked about it on and off for months – though, to be honest, it wasn’t the topic that took up the majority (or even many) of our conversations with them. Mostly we talked about the everyday activities that each of the kids were doing. Austin was playing baseball and got a big role in the musical. Tommy was excited for soccer but also for the books he was reading at school on famous scientists. Claire had a lot to say about cheerleading, and school, and why we really should let her have a public TikTok account. (No.)

Often, Chris and I would talk after the kids went to bed and he’d fill me in on other conversations he’d had with them throughout the day. Austin and Chris were the earliest risers, and they usually chatted as Chris made Austin breakfast. Tommy loved to come up and snuggle with Chris for a few minutes every day after school and relay the events of his day. And Chris picked up Claire every day from cheer practice, and got to hear the excitement and frustrations she was feeling. These updates that I got from Chris were almost always about small things, tiny wins and little annoyances. But they were still fun for me to hear.

This school year also marked the beginning of new routines with the kids. Every morning, Chris made breakfast and packed lunches, while I organized backpacks and reminded the boys to brush their teeth. We’d spent so much time at home – really all of our relationship – that coming back into the world and all the normal routines of parenting was something new for us, too. Some days, I’d marvel at the way that Chris wasn’t just another person in the house, someone who followed my directions but ultimately was just a sidekick. He was their parent.

For example, one day, Austin couldn’t find his favorite shoes. We all looked around, and they were nowhere to be seen. I forgot about it, and a few days later, I finally mentioned it to Chris. Apparently, they’d found the missing shoe, but Austin had grown and the shoes didn’t fit. “I ordered new ones,” Chris said.

These are the chores of parenting, of course. They are the things that are mostly boring, sometimes frustrating, and usually eat into any extra cash or patience or energy you have lying around. And Chris was doing it. I sometimes reflected on it here on the blog, and often when he did something relatively simple (especially in the early days) I tried to tell him how great it was that he was taking on such an active role in the kids’ lives. But mostly, we just kept moving from this practice to that playdate to another evening helping with homework.

Months passed. We got a lawyer. The adoption date was set. We told our family.

We met with the lawyer in the fall, just after our wedding, and went over what it would mean for Chris to legally become the kids’ father. She explained to us that after the adoption was complete, Chris would have all the benefits and responsibilities of a birth parent. We loved this phrase and started to use it often over the next few months. If a kid was sick or covered in mud or whining excessively and needed parental intervention? “Benefits and responsibilities” I’d say in a sing-song voice and raise my eyebrows. And usually, Chris would go and do the “responsibilities” part that followed.

But we also loved this phrase because it was legal-speak for what parents do – give care and love.

In the days before the adoption, we prepared for any potential questions the judge might ask. Our lawyer interviewed each of the kids alone, asking them questions about how their dad helps with their schooling and what he does around the house and all sorts of other things.

Then she interviewed the two of us. Some of the questions were simple (“is Chris in good physical shape?”) but many of them were more involved and quite touching. What does Chris do with the kids in his free time? What’s his favorite thing about each child? What was it like to come and join our family?

He didn’t speak in any sort of legal terms, referencing specific “benefits” and “responsibilities.” He didn’t mention that he spends hours going over Claire’s homework with her and that he’s bought dozens of new books for Austin and that he carries Tommy every single time we go on a family hike. He may have mentioned the care he does, but he didn’t focus on it.

He talked about love. How proud he was of them. How he loved hugging them tight and how he was so amazed by the way they loved him back.

“What are your dreams for the kids?” Our lawyer asked. This made Chris choke up, so much so that he couldn’t answer.

Finally, he said, “to be happy.” And then, I cried too.

The preparation wasn’t really needed, in the end. The hearing was straightforward, our lawyer was prepared and we didn’t have to answer any difficult – or even really any heartfelt – questions. In what seemed like such a short period of time, Chris was granted all of the “benefits and responsibilities” every biological parent gets at the start.

And in that moment, he became their legal father.

We went out to brunch to celebrate and Tommy almost spilled his meal in his lap and we needed extra napkins and everyone whined that they had to go back to school in the afternoon. Nothing had really changed. We were still the same family, and Chris was still doing all the care – all those responsibilities – that he’d been doing for a long time.

And yet, over the past week, I kept reflecting on the adoption. I hadn’t realized how much it would affect me to go through the process. I already knew that Chris loved the kids. But to sit down and declare it – not just to show it through a well-made peanut butter sandwich – was an incredible thing for me to experience.

Yes, every day of parenting is mostly about the responsibilities. It’s about the care and the daily monotony involved in getting small people to learn and grow and move on to the next day.

And yet.

It’s also about the love that’s in every single one of those actions, and how by doing them over and over again, we bond to our kids, and they bond to us. It all happens in such small and incremental moments, that I think sometimes we can miss how amazing it is to love another human. Or three.

I am sure two years ago, Chris would have hoped for our kids to be happy in life. He was just in the early days of really knowing them, but that’s a reasonable thing to hope for any child.

Now, however, it chokes him up to say that all he wants is for the kids “to be happy.” Of course, he gets choked up not because of some legal paperwork. He gets choked up with emotion because he deeply loves them.

It’s an incredible benefit.

Image Credit: Sharyn Peavey.


    • M Brimley

      I love that. And no, the kids kept the name they got from their dad Shawn – and everyone is happy about that. There’s a longer story behind it, but I think that’s for another blog post!

  • A Beck

    I’ve followed you for roughly 3.5 years. That’s how long it’s been since I became a widow at the age of 35. I would read your stories over and over during the early days. You hadn’t started seeing Chris at this point. After you and Chris got together, the stories started to become more bittersweet for me. While I’m genuinely happy for you and your children to have found one of what seems to be a unicorn, it’s hard sometimes. Turning 39 in a couple of weeks, I’m feeling more and more hopeless about finding someone to love again.

    • M Brimley

      Oh, my heart hurts reading this. Because I know how you feel. Yes, I found Chris about 2.5 years after Shawn died, but that’s very early for most widows. I can’t, of course, tell you what the future holds, but I do also know that I went through periods of feeling really hopeless about finding love again. In my widow group (most of whom are around 4-5 years out from being widowed) I’d say about a third have found new love, another third have found some new love that didn’t necessarily last but was meaningful, and the other third is either not dating or hasn’t found the love they want yet. BUT – a year ago, there were far fewer people who’d found love. Each year does give us a bit more time to grow and heal and honestly, just to weed through the crap of dating. But I know it’s not necessarily helpful to hear all this when you’re unhappily without a partner.

      I’ve thought about this a lot as I write the blog, actually. I don’t know where the right place is to focus as I go forward, and I’m really trying to find my footing. How much do I share about my family? What do I say to widows who don’t have my experience? How can I still talk about widowhood from where I sit today? I honestly don’t have the answers, but I really appreciate your note.