The two dads, Shawn and Chris, for blog by DC widow writer Marjorie Brimley Hale

Three Kids, Two Dads

These days, everyone in our community is used to hearing Claire, Austin and Tommy call Chris, “Dad.” But it wasn’t always that way.

In fact, for the first year he was in their lives, they called him “Chris.” He didn’t ever ask them to call him anything else, and they didn’t think to do it. It wasn’t until the summer of 2021 when Claire first decided to call Chris, “Dad.” I wrote about it in the blog post, Ask a Widow: How Do Your Kids Think About Their (Dead) Dad When They Have a (New, Alive) Dad?:

Over the past few months, Claire went from calling Chris by his name to calling him “Dad.” He didn’t ask her to do this, and neither did I, but for some reason she did it. It was a bit out-of-the-blue. We were sitting around after dinner and she turned to Chris and said, “Can I call you Dad? I think I want to. It sounds different but I like it. Dad. Dad. Dad. See, I think I like it!”

Chris told Claire that she could call him anything she wanted. So she tried it out for a while, and eventually, it stuck. The boys switch back and forth, and Chris responds to both “Chris” and “Dad.” He has told them many times that they can call him whatever they want to call him, and it won’t change how much he loves them. He doesn’t make a big deal out of it when they call him “Dad,” though I know he loves to hear them shout to him from across the room, Dad, can you help me with my cleats?

It’s been about six months since I wrote that post. The boys still sometimes call Chris by his name and sometimes they use “Dad.” Claire always calls Chris, “Dad.” We just roll with it. We don’t think the name matters that much, not really.

What does matter is this: he’s their dad.

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about this (most of them private) on my blog. Other people want to know how I can talk and write about Chris being the kids’ dad, when they already have a dad named Shawn. I get it. It’s a hard thing to understand. In fact, I recently got this public comment from a reader on the post “She’s His Daughter” which she graciously allowed me to reprint here:

Wow. Beautiful writing, as always. As a fellow widow with a daughter, I had to read it several times. The references to “our daughter” and “she’s his daughter, after all” were honestly tough for me to read. I’m not condemning how you feel, I just don’t feel the same way. My teen daughter would be so angry if I ever called someone else her father, and she would also never tolerate being referred to as another man’s daughter. This is very interesting and thought provoking.

I was with an old friend when I saw the comment and I read it to her. She reminded me that, in fact, I’d once told her I felt this way. I’d said – emphatically – that it would be impossible for someone else to love my kids like Shawn had, and that they’d never really have anyone who they would call “Dad”, not again.

And now I’m writing blog posts with titles like, “She’s His Daughter” about the relationship between Claire and Chris. Honestly, if I’d read that post two years ago on someone else’s blog, I think I would have thought it was a piece of fiction. What widow has that scenario actually happen?

I think there are two key things that led me to the place I am now, a place where my kids call Chris their dad and where I write posts about them being his kids.

First, I had to subscribe to the idea that love was additive, which I did, even before Chris came along (for proof – click on that 2019 post). I believed this first because of my kids. I didn’t think that I loved Claire less once Austin and Tommy were born. I just learned to also love the boys when they arrived in the world. It wasn’t a zero-sum game for me, and it’s not when I think about Chris parenting the kids, either. I think that my kids get more love, not less, by having another dad.

They think that too. It’s awkward semantically (“your dad Chris” and “your dad Shawn”) but it’s not actually awkward in practice. There’s photos of their dad Shawn up in the house, stories of their dad Shawn that we tell, and memories of their dad Shawn that they have. And there’s everything that happens every single day right now with their dad Chris. I could see this as a negative (by thinking Chris is taking away from Shawn’s memory; or that Shawn’s memory makes Chris less of a “real dad”) but I just don’t. And neither does Chris.

And thus, neither do our kids.

Second, you have to meet someone who wants to be their dad. He also has to be willing to do the work to become their dad. This isn’t a value statement about what “should” happen in order to have the best outcome for your family. You might meet a great partner, one who you are perfectly matched for, and yet also one who isn’t going to be the dad of your kids. Maybe the two of you want to live apart, maybe he had kids from another relationship that he needs to prioritize, maybe your kids are older and don’t want to claim anyone else as “Dad”. My situation may not be what happens with you. Widowhood – and parenting – looks different for everyone. There is no one right way. I believe that to my core.

Having Chris in my life is honestly not something I ever thought would happen for me. Even once I was dating Chris, I never imagined he’d become my kids’ dad. I was just so enamored with him in the beginning that I didn’t think much beyond him being my boyfriend. Maybe he’d keep living in Atlanta and I’d get to see him every few weeks. Even that seemed amazing and perfect for me. But becoming the kids’ dad? No way.

But he has. There wasn’t a specific day when I finally felt it. It was a process. And it wasn’t the only way that things can turn out, or even the best way for every family. It’s just the way it turned out for me and the kids and Chris. And I feel so lucky that it did, but I also think I’d feel lucky if it was a bit different, too. I’d still feel happy that the kids have come through the past four years and are emotionally whole.

My kids have two dads. And, no, we don’t talk about who is a better dad, because – in our house – that’s like talking about which kid we love the most. But I can tell you this: there’s no one right way to be a family. There are about a million right ways.

And there’s also a million ways that things can change in life, and lead you to a place you never quite imagined.


  • Kelley

    Beautifully written. This is exactly how my sister in law feels with my nieces and nephews after my brother died. Many don’t understand it but I’ve always said If they are happy I’m happy.
    So glad to hear your family is doing well.

    • M Brimley

      Oh, I love hearing this! And thank you for the kind wishes. I feel so lucky to have so many people rooting for us.