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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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