Austin and Chris walk in street for blog by DC widow writer Marjorie Brimley Hale

What Would He Be Like?

My kids like to ask questions that surprise me. They’re much more curious about illness and death and things like guardianship papers than most other kids their age, so I’m used to tough questions. We talk about what happens when people die, how adults plan for death and what it means to die young. You’d think I’d be prepared for every question, and yet, they still continue to surprise me.

The other day, we were sitting around the dinner table talking about what would happen to them if Chris and I died. (They really want the specifics. I get it. It’s a possibility they know exists in the world.) Chris was working, so it was just the four of us. I explained that it was very unlikely, but then I explained what would happen in that case and how they would be taken care of. Then they briefly asked about what it was like for me when Shawn died, and I answered truthfully, though not fully. What child needs to know about her mother’s deep grief? They’d seen enough back then.

We spent a little while remembering Shawn, and Tommy shared his one memory, which he does every time. (“Shawn was tickling me on the bed!”) Claire and Austin remembered Shawn taking them to the toy store and to the diner with the toy train on the ceiling. They had a funny few minutes remembering all the details of the diner, and then Claire said, “Mom, if our dad Shawn was still alive, what do you think he’d be like?”

I replied that I thought he’d be kind and thoughtful, but that wasn’t her question. She clarified that she wanted to know what kind of a parent he would be.

And that was a very hard question to answer.

Obviously, I knew Shawn as a parent. I knew how he handled potty training and princess parties and even the first few months of Little League baseball. I knew that he loved spoiling the kids and how his favorite thing to do was to let the kids pile on top of him and watch a movie. I knew what he was like for the kids back then.

But parenting is different now.

It’s different because my kids are different. First, they are older. Two of them are in middle school and even Tommy is nothing like he once was. Their concerns and problems and successes and joys are at a different level than they were 5 or 10 years ago. Obviously, parenting a 13-year-old who wants to go out with her friends is different than parenting a 3-year-old who wants to have a tea party with her dolls.

(For those with young kids, I’m sorry to say that it does not get much easier. Just different.)

They are also different because they’ve lived a lot of life in the past 5 years. They’ve watched a parent get sick and die, they’ve lived with their grandfather, they’ve watched their mom struggle through a lot of different situations and they’ve watched their mom fall in love. They’ve met their dad Chris when he was just my boyfriend and they’ve seen us get married. They’ve grown to deeply love him and they’ve been adopted and now they live in Colombia. They are older, yes, but it’s also that they are different in so many other ways.

They’re Claire, Austin and Tommy, but they’re not the 3, 6 and 8-year old kids of 5 years ago. Parenting my kids is sometimes what I thought it would be like back when they were babies, but most days I’m surprised by what it entails.

I bet Shawn would be too.

So when I think about Shawn as a parent, it’s sometimes hard to even imagine what he’d be like right now. I mean, I can imagine the outline of how he’d be, but when I really think about what he’d say to the question, “can I get Snapchat?”…well, I just don’t know what he’d say.

And so, I don’t know how to answer my kids when they ask me questions like “what would our dad Shawn be like?” I can be vague and say something like, “he would love you, of course, and support you” or I can try and draw some sort of parallel between how Shawn made decisions about bribing Tommy to use the potty and somehow extrapolate it into how he’d react today over what Claire wears to a birthday party. But either way, I can’t know.

It’s something I’ve talked about other times on this blog – how I can’t know what never was. But it’s strange, this not-knowing, because over the years, it’s grown. In the months just after Shawn died, I knew exactly how he would have responded to a parenting situation. Now, I struggle to imagine.

All this is complicated, of course, by the fact that Chris is the kids’ dad, the one who is parenting them every day. They know exactly how he parents and how he reacts in different situations. They know he will always hug them right when they come in the door and they know he will be the first person to help with any sort of homework. They know he has an impressive way of never really getting mad. They know he likes dancing salsa in the kitchen with them and that he will always get excited about the stories they tell.

They also know he’s a real stickler for allowing only a specific amount of screen time and they know that he will always wait to start grace until everyone is seated at the table. They know he doesn’t like laziness or rudeness. Like all kids, they want more freedom and more fun and more sweet things at inappropriate times. Chris (and me, of course, though that’s not really the point of this blog post) lives in the real world where there are limits, and where good parenting looks like saying “no” sometimes and “you need to apologize” other times. Chris isn’t living in the world of years-ago memories about toy stores and ice cream shops. He’s living right in the present day, right here with all of us. It is a world full of love and also it’s a world that is not always perfect in the day-to-day.

On the edge of this whole conversation with the kids that night, I could feel a creeping sensation. I didn’t want the kids to compare their dads, if that’s what they meant to do, because it felt unfair to both of them. Unfair to Shawn, because he did a lot more than take them to the toy store. And unfair to Chris, because he does a lot more than make everyone brush their teeth.

And yet, the kids wondered. I could tell that my answers didn’t satisfy them, but that’s because I don’t really have answers about how Shawn would be as a parent now. He would be different from Chris, I’m sure, though it’s hard for me to say how. Not because I didn’t know Shawn. But because it’s difficult to think of how he’d react to a situation I never saw him face.

It’s also something I know I resist imagining.

Of course, it’s unjust that Shawn missed – and will miss – much of the kids’ lives. Tommy has now been alive longer without Shawn than with him. But that doesn’t mean his parenting back then didn’t matter. It also doesn’t mean that Chris’s parenting now is somehow lesser. They’re just two parts of the kids’ lives, two men whose love was – and is – the most important part of the parenting.