Husband of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley Hale hugs their son at wedding

When He Is Theirs, and They Are His

Most kids meet their dad at birth. But that doesn’t tell the whole story of our family, not really.

One father saw them come into this world, and one father is with them now. This is the story of the kids and their second father.

He did not see them take their first breaths or walk their first steps or go to their first days of kindergarten. He did not see toddler tantrums and diaper blowouts and spaghetti all over the high chair.

They were not his then, and he was not theirs.

When he first came in their lives, they were little, but not so little as to immediately think he was a replacement for their father, the one who died when they were almost too young to grieve. Had they cried at their father’s funeral? I wasn’t sure. I was so consumed by my own grief that I didn’t see much of theirs. “Kids are resilient,” I said over and over until I believed it myself. They had my love, and they knew they had so much other love – from their grandfather, who lived with us, and from our community around us.

But they also knew they only had one parent: me. And for years, that’s how it was – mom, one daughter and two sons. Our family.

He was my boyfriend first, a fun playmate for them, the one who would run around with them in the backyard and build a treehouse when they asked and laugh at everything they did that was adorable. But our family was still a family of four, even when my youngest child, then 6, looked at him in the first few months of knowing him and asked, “so, are you our dad now?”

He never tired of throwing a baseball, over and over again. He liked to ride bikes, for hours on end, and played board games that he always seemed to lose. He laughed at their jokes. He was fun, just like a boyfriend should be.

But he was not theirs, not yet. And they were not his, not yet.

In those early days, I was nervous for him to be around the kids. I knew he was wonderful, but what if our relationship didn’t last? Yes, I loved him. But what if he spent more time with the kids and realized that this life – the life of parenting – just wasn’t for him? What then?

How could I break their hearts once again?

“Are you sure?” I asked him a million times. Was he sure this was what he wanted? Not just a girlfriend, but a whole family?

As a biological mother, I had stumbled into parenting. Yes, I wanted to be a mother, but I didn’t really know what that meant until I had a newborn baby in my arms. I didn’t have much of a plan, and “winging it” was honestly what I did in those early months and years. That was okay, because my children were so young they didn’t know any different.

But becoming a parent to kids who were older and so much more aware would be different. It meant a level of choice and intention that I hadn’t needed when I became a parent.

“Are you sure?” I kept asking him.

“I’m sure,” he said, over and over.

He began to help with virtual school, and then made the peanut-butter sandwiches for lunch one day and then the next day and soon he was in charge of that. They talked about their father, the one who gave them their hazel-colored eyes, and he asked them about the photos up around the house, the ones of a man he never knew. Sometimes, when one of the kids did something impossibly cute, I’d exchange a knowing glance with him, and see his eyes light up.

One day, he had to settle a fight between the kids, and in a low, steady voice, I came upon him counseling the smallest child, the one with tears running down his face.

A moment later, I saw them embrace.

Was he becoming theirs? Were they becoming his?

Months passed, and one night, the middle child woke us both up. He had a migraine, and I knew that he was likely to throw up next. It was one of the few ways his migraine would ease.

I ran to get a bucket. It took me a while as the house was pitch black and when I got upstairs, my boyfriend and my child were on the bathroom floor. They were lying down on the white tile, both of them only in their underwear. My boyfriend spoke. “The little guy says he feels better when he’s lying down, but he didn’t want to be alone, so I’m just going to stay here next to him.”

“He might throw up,” I said.

My boyfriend shrugged and smiled just a bit at me. Maybe he wanted me to know that he could do it.

As I left a few minutes later, I looked back at them. The window was open, blowing cool air into the room and the only light came from the moon outside. Both of them had their eyes closed and I watched the man I love softly stroke my son’s head.

It was just a few weeks later that my daughter started calling him, “Dad.” We weren’t really sure why, but it was something she decided on her own. When she asked if it was okay that she call him “Dad,” he said, “you can call me anything you want. I love you no matter what name I have.”

And I realized that he was theirs, and they were his. He knew it. And they knew it too.

But legally, they were still only mine. Even as we went on holidays together, even as he went to every Little League game and even as we planned our wedding, I was still the only parent on every school form and insurance paper. It was just how it was.

We talked about it changing. He wanted to adopt them, if they wanted it, too. “Adopt me!” my youngest screamed, even though he was 7 and didn’t really know what it meant. Would it happen right when we got married? No, we told them, that date would come later.

We talked about it for many months both before and after our wedding – what paperwork we needed to do and the lawyer we needed to have and, more important, what it would mean to be adopted. But it was still a bit confusing to them at that point. Wasn’t he theirs, already?

The official notice finally arrived, a few months after our wedding. One night at dinner, he said to the kids, “well, the best thing that happened to me today is that we got a court date for our adoption!”

I asked the kids, “do you know what that means?”

My youngest child got a wide look in his eyes and exclaimed, “it means that we will all share DNA!”

Everyone laughed. Sharing DNA! What a silly thing to think.

And yet.

I looked at my new husband. He explained again to the three of them that it was a legal process, where he’d become their father in every way in the eyes of the government. The court would make it so. “You’ll be my son, legally,” he said in response to the 7-year-old, the one who couldn’t really conceptualize it all. He had only been three when he’d lost his father. My new husband was the dad he really knew.

“So….” my youngest child said, clearly thinking. “Right now I’m your illegal son!”

We all laughed. An illegal son!

Because he had been theirs for so long at that point, and they had been his. What did the law really matter?

As I wrote this piece one night, I thought about the day that had just happened. Our daughter had been worried about a project at school, one that was confusing. My husband had spent an hour helping her read over the directions and piece together the information. Our middle boy had been frustrated about a ball game, and he had mediated the conflict between his friends in the backyard. Our youngest boy had bashed his head playing outside and just needed some extra love. I found them when I came downstairs, sitting together with an icepack in the kitchen.

My husband. But also, their father.

What does it mean to be a parent? What does it mean to come into a family with all the joy and all the difficulty that is there?

We finally have an adoption date. We’ve signed the right papers and paid the fees and discussed our outfits for the court date. It’s coming. There is a date on the calendar, one that I knew would fall right when the daffodils began to come out of the ground.

That date is tomorrow.

Legally, he will soon be their father. But it isn’t this date that will make him their dad. It’s funny because this court date is both the most important date of our lives, and simultaneously the least important date.

It isn’t one date, of course, that will make him their father. It is hundreds of dates and thousands of moments.

It is the day when he first was called “Dad”. It is the moment that he got a hug meant only for a parent. It was the night on the bathroom floor.

It was then that he was theirs, and they were his.

Image Credit: Sharyn Peavey.