From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
When Brad Pitt finally realized that he was ready to be a parent, his rationale was characteristically self-deprecating: "I'm finally at a place where I won't mess 'em up too much," he told reporters back in '04. But on Dec. 3, Pitt embraced fatherhood with unabashed pride. A day after Pitt announced that he would be seeking to adopt Angelina Jolie's children Zahara and Maddox, the beaming actor was surrounded by well-wishers on the chilly Calgary set of his upcoming movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Says a source on the set: "There was a lot of handshaking, hugs and back-slapping all around."

The cause for celebration was proof that the actor, who turns 42 on Dec. 18, was entering a new chapter in his life. The adoption petition—including a move to change the children's last name to Jolie-Pitt—is the first step, say insiders, in a carefully conceived plan to become a legally recognized family. Because the adoption process could take up to nine months, "they are putting all the steps in place for their marriage," says a source. "Angelina wanted to do it right. This is a woman who values her relationships with her children more than anything. Now she is creating a family in the context of an adult relationship."

In Pitt, she may have found the ideal partner. The product of a close-knit Springfield, Mo., clan, he has talked of wanting a family for years. Back when Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were newly-weds in 2001. he even joked of having "a little commune" of at least seven children. That dream failed to materialize, so Pitt focused on his role as devoted uncle to the kids of siblings Doug and Julie. "He's their personal play gym. They climb all over him." Doug told the Springfield News-Leader last year. Added Julie: "He hates to have his hair brushed, but he lets those girls brush his hair and put makeup on him and nail polish on his fingernails and toenails. He is crazy mad about them." (Not surprisingly, Pitt's family responded enthusiastically to the adoption news. "We're thrilled, of course," says Doug, who said he was not surprised, "just happy for bro.") But since Pitt turned 40 in 2003. his interest in fatherhood intensified. "It's time. ... I just feel I have something to offer them, that I would be a responsible guy through life now." he said recently. After visiting AIDS- and poverty-stricken children in Africa last year, Pitt told GQ that adoption "makes all the sense in the world," adding that he embraced "the responsibility of putting your life second, and your job is to show this little one around the world."

Few parents take those words quite so literally. Since the start of their relationship. Pitt has squired Jolie and her kids to Kenya. England, Ethiopia, Canada, Tokyo and Pakistan, where they spent Thanksgiving. The couple are rarely seen in public without at least one of the children at their side (and more frequently, in Pitt's arms). Whether tenderly suiting Maddox up (including safety helmet, of course) for a dirt-bike ride near Jolie's Buckinghamshire. England, home in June or playing with Zahara outside his Malibu home, Pitt seems at ease with parenthood. Along the way, Maddox has taken to calling him Daddy, and Jolie, say friends, has never been happier. By bringing together Pitt. Maddox and Zahara, "she is creating something." says a source, "that she has never had herself."

That would be an old-fashioned nuclear family. After in-depth discussions in recent weeks, the couple decided to begin the adoption proceedings. "They are taking this," says a source, "very seriously." Says Pitt's brother Doug: "He'll be a natural." First, however, he'll have to navigate some red tape (see box). But once the Jolie-Pitts are officially a foursome, the clan will likely grow. Jolie told PEOPLE in October that she's "planning" to adopt more children. "There's something about making a choice, waking up and traveling somewhere and finding your family," she said. "Sooner or later, I'll end up everywhere." And now she'll be traveling with Zahara and Maddox's dad by her side.

Jason Lynch. Sharon Cotliar in New York City. Maureen Harrington in Los Angeles. Kate Klise in Springfield. Christine Kilpatrick in Calgary and Pete Norman in London

  • Contributors:
  • Sharon Cotliar,
  • Maureen Harrington,
  • Kate Klise,
  • Christine Kilpatrick,
  • Pete Norman.