Children and husband of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley Hale pose at baseball game

First Father’s Day

One of the more surprising things we discovered as we began the adoption process was this: once Chris officially adopted the kids, their birth certificates would change to show him as the father.

And Shawn’s name would be removed.

It seemed strange to me. They are both the kids’ fathers, so why did the government need to erase Shawn’s name?

I get it, in the legal sense. It’s important for forms and other legal issues and I’m sure it is a product of the closed adoption system that was common in the past. But still. Shawn’s role in the kids’ lives mattered, and continues to matter.

Just not on paper.

It’s funny, how the government – and our culture – can declare something “official”. Weddings make love official. Contracts make ownership official. And adoptions make parenthood official.

But that’s also a bit strange, really, as Chris’s fatherhood didn’t start on March 15 this year. There wasn’t a specific day when fatherhood actually began for him, not really. It was a moment here and a moment there in the early days, when things seemed to shift between Chris and the kids. It was a day here and a day there when I was gone and he was the parent in charge. It was weeks and it was months and it was years of parenting through all the good and messy and boring and perfect moments. He wasn’t their father. And then, somehow, in some undefined moment, he was.

The kids see it this way, too. When our adoption attorney interviewed them about the adoption, she asked them a series of questions which began with, “What do you call the man named Chris Hale? Why do you call him that?” Later, when I asked Austin how he answered this, he said, “I call him Dad,” and then he paused looking at me like I was asking a really stupid question. “And I call him that….because he’s my dad.”

It was almost as though he couldn’t conceptualize it any other way. His dad is his dad.

Austin remembers his dad Shawn, of course. He still recalls the games they used to play and the funny stories that Shawn used to tell. But Austin sees no need to choose between his dads, and neither do Claire or Tommy. (In fact, one of the reasons that we think Tommy calls Chris by his name is because he does the same with Shawn.) We’ve been clear from the start that having Chris in their lives is additive, and that they are still connected to Shawn in so many ways. They are both their dads.

You’d think this would make Father’s Day complicated, and while it’s not perfectly straightforward, we navigate it. Plus, we’ve always also celebrated all of the other great fathers in the kids’ lives – their newest grandpa, Pop, as well as Grandpa Tom and also their amazing uncles and other family members. We love all of them on Father’s Day.

But this one is the first official one for Chris. That feels important to mark.

Yes, the kids made him cards even that first Father’s Day he spent with us, in 2020. He wasn’t living with us yet, but he was a meaningful figure in their lives and they wanted to do it. Last year, they also made those same cards, with sweet notes inside. And the cards this year don’t say, “happy official Father’s Day!” because they don’t think of him like that, not unless I ask them directly about how things have changed. He’s just Dad to them.

Maybe the person who thinks about the change the most is me.

For a long, long time I was grateful for everything Chris brought to the kids’ lives. I loved him so much and I would be so happy if I saw him with one of the kids doing something sweet. I appreciated the help with bedtime and homework and everyday life with kids. I love that he wanted to co-parent with me, not just follow my directions. But I worried whenever one of the kids was crazy or frustrating or just really annoying. I didn’t want anything to damage their relationship with each other. I wanted to make sure that everything was perfect for him, and for them.

But slowly, things changed for me. Similar to the kids, I’m not sure exactly when this change happened, but I realized at some point that he wasn’t going to run away if things went badly with the kids one day or one week or even one month. He wanted to parent them. He wanted to be a dad. He wanted this, and he wanted them.

I came to realize that no matter what happened, he would be their dad.

Maybe I realized it at the same time the kids did, but I didn’t really know it at the time. Rather, like Austin, I looked up one day and thought, “he’s their dad”.

I’m going to end with a story that an acquaintance recalled to me via email a week ago. Chris and the kids had been at our dear friend Mark’s memorial service, and because of Covid, I was unable to be there. I asked Chris to read something for me, and at the end, he stood up and began to speak. Here’s what happened, according to the acquaintance:

At one point your husband appeared to be choking back tears and struggling to finish the sentence he was reading. Your daughter gently reached up and placed her hand on his arm to offer him comfort and, perhaps, subtle encouragement to keep going. I don’t know how many other people witnessed this two-second occurrence, but my family and I happened to be sitting directly behind yours.

After the service ended, and my wife and I were sharing our thoughts about all the powerful and emotional moments we had witnessed, we both independently asked each other if the other had seen that moment of grace — and we both had, and took note of it.

I didn’t witness this moment. But I’ve seen these moments of grace and love a million times between Chris and the kids. I see how Tommy comes running when Chris comes home from a business trip and I see how Austin lights up when he offers to take him out in the truck and I see how Claire runs up to him in the stands at her track meets. I see how Chris snuggles with Tommy on the couch every day after school and I see how he talks honestly and thoughtfully with Austin about how to interact with girls and I see how he slowly wakes up Claire in the morning and then offers to make her breakfast.

I see the love between them.

It’s not one thing that made Chris into their father, not in my mind and not in their minds. Yes, it’s his first “official” Father’s Day. And, yes, his name is now on their birth certificates.

But he didn’t become a dad because of the birth certificate or the adoption decree or the fact that two-thirds of our kids call him “Dad”. It wasn’t one moment, one thing, or one official decree.

Once, he wasn’t their dad.

Now, he is.

Happy Father’s Day, to the man I love the most in this world.