Breaking Up With Kids: The New Normal (by Ellen Knott)

Breaking Up With Kids: The New Normal

In many areas, I am a typical woman. I love to get dressed up, do my hair and put on makeup. I love to shop and cook and wear high heels. In so many ways, I am the quintessential female. But there is one difference that I see in myself that sets me apart from my peers and that is I don’t have an overwhelming urge to have children.

My heart and my ovaries do not ache to reproduce. In fact, I firmly believe that we should do a little less procreating and should place a much larger focus on the children that are already in this world who need to be raised. But that is not the subject of this so I digress.

I moved back to my hometown in an attempt to slow down and be closer to my family. I had lived here about a year when I ran into my ex’s mom. We had always been close, as she was definitely the cool mom when we were kids, and we had kept up with each other since.

Years before, she had been a huge part of my life, as had his whole family. He and I had been great friends, then lovers that ended horribly as most young love does.

We cut ties, I moved away and we hadn’t spoken since. He had a child with someone else and seemed happy from what I gathered on social media. I didn’t know until I ran into his mom that he was no longer with the mother of his child and in fact, hadn’t been for some time. She suggested I give him a call for old time’s sake and passed along his number.

I thought about whether to use that phone number for several days, perhaps even a week. I couldn’t exactly remember what had gone wrong the first go around. In the end, I decided on a friendly text to feel out the situation. I received an immediate, welcoming response. Thus began a few weeks long text dialogue and what now seems like impending doom.

Within a day or two, he asked me to meet him for dinner, which I declined…that day. But things quickly changed from, “Hey, how’s it going,” to “Are you coming over right after work?” And then shortly after that, things evolved from, “I’ve got my daughter tonight,” to “Where did you put Anna and Elsa?”

We finished painting her bedroom pink together and I picked out the perfect bedding to match because boys just don’t know how to do these things. Needless to say, we dove right in, whether either of us meant to or not. We didn’t want to be in a relationship, it just kind of happened.

At first, I was apprehensive to meet her. It just felt like a huge commitment, which is something I typically try to steer clear of. But I loved her the moment I laid eyes on her.

I watched him be an amazing father and I realized, for the first time, that it was a characteristic I found extremely attractive. We all spent time together and she and I became fast friends.

She wanted to sit on my side of the table at restaurants. She wanted me to do her hair instead of daddy. She wanted me to play, read, color and ride bikes and scooters with her. She tried new food because I had cooked it. She gave me fashion critiques as I got ready and always hugged me goodnight. As someone who has never really even known that they wanted a child of their own, this was perfect! I got the best of both worlds. I got to love a child with someone I loved and I didn’t have to go through nine months of what I can only assume I would hate. I didn’t have to endure morning sickness or watch my ankles turn into cankles.

It was actually awesome to be able to retain my independence and yet have a really cool place in this child’s life. When he accused me of being a pushover with her, I replied that it was my job to be fun and to make sure that she liked me and that I was sorry his “mean old dad” job sucked. Little did I know how prolific my “mean old dad” tease would turn out to be.

Things were great for a few months and then they quickly turned from bad to worse. He suddenly became cold and distant. He transitioned from constantly wanting me around to leaving his own house without even saying goodbye.

If anyone understands his fear of allowing anyone to get close to him, it’s me. He’s got quite a backstory and I know it word for word. But it seemed like we were, not only far better than that, but far beyond that. For all purposes, it appeared that he had really opened up to me and let me back into his life with ease and comfortability. He had helped me in so many ways and seen me through a death in my family with a loving and supportive tenderness that I will never forget. We talked about everything and spent many nights in bed discussing family and relationship dynamics and each other’s idiosyncrasies.

All that came clamoring down within a matter of weeks. Besides cold and distant, he’d added hateful and indignant to the mix. He said things that really cut me to my core. I, the ever consciously aware woman that I am, realized that these were behaviors that I was unwilling to tolerate, especially after attempting to discuss the issues with him. It was very clear to me that it was time to walk away.

I can say, with complete certainty, that I miss her more than I miss him.

Sure, I miss slow dancing in the kitchen to his terrible twangy country music. I miss him asking me how my day is going or calling to make sure I made it to my destination. Of course I miss our little jokes and his strange quirks. I even miss doing his laundry and my heart aches for the secureness I felt laying in his arms. But truth be told, what I miss the most is her. What I really miss is looking forward to 5:00 because I know I’ll be seeing her. I miss our talks, high-fives and her imagination. I miss playing Anna and Elsa and doll house with her. I miss her telling me to try different shoes with that dress. I miss sneaking her cookies at the grocery store when we’ve walked away from him even though it’s right before dinner. I miss holding her little hand and making sure she’s washed them. I miss singing Taylor Swift and Let It Go at the top of our lungs in the car. I miss her sassy little attitude and funny one liners.

I realized all of this yesterday. I had a particularly good day. My spirits were higher than they’d been since I’d put the kibosh on things. I was feeling extra confident and decided to watch a tutorial on YouTube that instructed me how to fishtail braid my hair. I conquered the feat and was pretty proud of myself.

That is, until the realization hit me that I would never get to fishtail braid her hair. It all hit me at once, like a ton of bricks. A braid brought all of my progress to a screeching halt. I guess I had just subconsciously convinced myself that we were still best buds and that I’d see her soon. That simply isn’t the case.

For me, and I’m sure for a number of people in similar situations, this is the harshest reality in this whole breaking up process. This is the “new normal” that hit me the hardest. This is what took my breath away upon realization. I never expected to fall in such love with someone that wasn’t him. I never expected to know what it felt like to love something that wasn’t even mine, not one bit of my blood. I didn’t even know that I possessed the emotional capacity to do so.

The finality of the fact that I no longer get to be her fun grown-up is heart breaking. I don’t get to hang out with her anymore. I don’t get to satisfy a void in my heart I wasn’t even aware I had. And that’s just it, there isn’t a bitter and jaded 28 year old man sized hole in my heart. No, that would be too easy to cope with. Instead, there is a beautiful brown eyed 5 year old little girl sized hole in my heart.

I suppose, for now, I can retain and recite the cliché words of wisdom, “This too shall pass,” “Time heals all wounds,” and even “She isn’t your kid.” But that hole is still there and it still eats away a little bit of my spirit every time I think about it. I hope it gets better. I earnestly hope that this gut wrenching feeling and tightness in my chest recede with time. I just don’t anticipate that time to come in the foreseeable future and that’s a crushing reality.

At first, I thought that I wished we had never formed this bond and I was mad at him for allowing it to happen. But now I can say with confidence that I am so incredibly grateful that we did. I recently heard a quote that I thought, at the time, related to him. I’ve now come to realize it is completely and utterly about them both. “I will never regret you or say I wish I’d never met you because once upon a time, you were exactly what I needed.” And there you have it. The truth of the matter is that she was exactly what I needed.

So thank you, sweet girl. Thank you for teaching me that I am capable of love outside of my own selfish desires. Thank you for teaching me that I am, in fact, capable of being maternal and nurturing. Thank you for teaching me that someone’s “baggage” is not only not a bad thing, but can be the most amazing thing one can take from a relationship, albeit a failed one. If we never meet again and even if I’m silent, please know that I will always be rooting for you. Thanks for the fashion advice. Thanks for the giggles. Thanks for everything.


Ellen Knott
About the Author: Ellen Knott

Ellen Knott is a paralegal, an aspiring writer and a self-proclaimed hot mess. Her passions include shoes, wine and sarcasm. In her free time, she loves to see live music, hang out with her dog and fail at Pinterest projects.

You can contact her at .

23 Comments

Eric

Your article was spot on. Seeing that my, “former,” step-grandson and I aren’t the only ones going through this gives some comfort. He’s 7 now, and my ex and I had raised him in our home from birth. I viewed him the same as if he was my own son. There is definitely a grieving process to get through. The strangest things cause me to get misty-eyed. I was flipping the channels the other day and happened to pass by Sponge Bob. Tears hit me like a wave hitting the shore. My heart raced on another day when I heard a little boy playing outside. He laughed so much like my grandson. I’ll see something interesting and think, “I wish I could tell him about that. He’d like it.” They say time heals, but it seems to take an eternity.

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ERIC

Your article is deeply touching. My step-grandson lived with us from the day he came home from the hospital after his birth. I’ve loved and cared for him as if he were my own son. He’s seven now. His grandma and I are divorcing. I’ve lost my boy in the process because there aren’t any stepparent, let alone step-grandparent, rights where we live. It feels like the part of my heart where he lives has been torn out. I know we’ll both heal eventually, but it hurts so bad in the meantime. I miss him so much.

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Jenna

This broke my heart.
This is my new reality:
I fell into the same routine with someone who was never on my radar.
And my heart hurts for his son and all the plans we’ve made together. And the sleep overs the sleepy hugs when he crawls into bed and the early morning wake ups.
I’m going to miss that the most

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robert

The two lovely children , the dog , the extended family; it hurts just so much and doubles the pain . Your invited into this family not quite sure how much you are allowed to love ,slowly and surely love grows but when your first love decides its time to finish, you get discarded like an old shoe. No rights, no visiting time you are just meant to let it go. No heart can work like that and the damage is not contained.

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Hey Sigmund

The hurt is deep and very real. I completely understand. It takes a brave, open heart to be willing to love and with an already established family the loss feels greater because of the ties that are broken. The pain will pass, but don’t let it harden you. This is your first love, but there will be others for you. Take the time you need to grieve, and be kind to yourself while you do. When you are able, start being open to what comes next – there is a happier version of you and a love you deserve waiting to find you.

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Susan Malone

I loved your article, you are a great writer and a loving person. I’m not trying to be harsh, but I have seen too many of my friends go through both sides of your story, and would like to flip it to the child’s view.

While your relationship with this little girl was beautiful and loving, I doubt she looks back at it wistfully as you do. She was probably very hurt and confused when you were not around anymore. I’m guessing she will not be so quick to warm up to the next woman in her father’s life.
While I understand it is difficult, because I have been divorced and trying to date with two small children, I would like to caution parents to not put their kids in the mix until they are very certain that the one their with is in fact, ‘the one’.

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Patty

I couldn’t agree more with Susan. I think it is wonderful that this little girl was able to give to you (Ellen) emotionally something that was absent from your life. However, as a social worker, I have seen and dealt with too many children who experience this type of “desertion” in their lives and for some children, it occurs numerous times throughout their young lives. It creates in them a tremendous amount of “baggage” that can negatively impact their relationships throughout their whole life. If there is one thing I could ask divorced parents to consider, it would be this—please do not bring another adult into your child’s life too quickly. Date that person for at least a year before you even introduce your child(ren) to them. As the adult, you are to protect your children even if that is difficult for you. Loving your kids means doing the hard stuff. Keep your private life separate–your kids will appreciate you for protecting them emotionally.

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Hey Sigmund

I absolutely agree that it’s really important to wait to introduce children to a new relationship, but in this case, both adults knew each other well. As with any breakup, it all depends on how the adults deal with it in relation to the children – e.g. not badmouthing the other adult, and explaining the breakup in the best way personal so the child doesn’t take it personally. It sounds as though these two adults are doing this well. I’ve also seen dreadful baggage come from long term relationship breakups. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees. Another thing to keep in mind is that With stepfamilies, the very difficult issues that are unique to stepfamily life won’t make themselves known until the family becomes a ‘family’. Thank you for your heartfelt comment. You obviously have the very best interests of the children at heart.

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Ellen Knott

Let me preface this with I definitely agree with you. Introducing your child to someone should certainly be a very thoughtful and cautionary process. Karen is correct in that we did know each other very well prior to this. Also, she has an amazing mother and the two of them coparent very well. She is a wonderful kid with two phenomenal parents. I say all this to say that she isn’t needing for anything and there isn’t a void that I would hypothetically need to fill. Thank you so much for you feedback. 🙂

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Lela

I LOVE your story!!! My husband and I have a granddaughter that we don’t get to see since her mom and our son (my step-son) divorced. She’s almost 5 now and my heart truly aches for her. We were a part of her life for the first 3 years and then the mom slowly started removing us from her life. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through and am still going through. What you wrote at the end really resonates within me and helps give me some peace: “Thank you for teaching me that someone’s “baggage” is not only not a bad thing, but can be the most amazing thing one can take from a relationship, albeit a failed one. If we never meet again and even if I’m silent, please know that I will always be rooting for you. Thanks for the fashion advice. Thanks for the giggles. Thanks for everything.” Thank you for sharing your story!

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Ellen Knott

Thank you so much for this sweet comment! I’m so sorry you are having to go through that.

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Anngie

Thanks for sharing your story! My ex-husband had a 3 year old son at the time we married. And I
Was fully committed to being this little boy’s mommy ( his mom died when he was a baby).
Well, as circumstance would have it, we eventually divorced. I begged my ex-husband to still allow me to be a part of this kid’s life, since I was the only mommy he knew. He outright refused.
I often tell people that the hardest part of my divorce was losing my mother-in-law and my stepson! It’s comforting to hear that others have felt the same way.

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Peggy

I just wanted to let you know that this is a great article! I know your mom is so proud!

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Denise W

Ellen, Don’t stop! You have a true gift! This was awesome. You can reach so many people with your words.

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Ash

Great article! I believe the author means “rooting for you” rather than “routing.” Overall a great read.

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Kate

Sorry that has happened to you. I am sure she has a “you” shaped hole in her heart too.

It was falling in love with a friends child that made me realise that I did after all want children, despite spending most of my 20’s thinking otherwise. If I could not have had my own I would have adopted – children are the greatest gift in life. This is coming from someone who used to avoid them at all costs! You have a lot to offer, don’t rule out being a parent one day.

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Ellen Knott

I am certainly open to the idea. It just isn’t my life’s focus. Thanks for the feedback!

Reply

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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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