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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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