it's complicated

When Breaking Up With a Dad Means Breaking Up With His Kid, Too

Photo-Illustration: J.V. Aranda

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I used to be terrified of children. Then I met a man I’ll call Mark.

I was in my mid-20s when it happened, moonlighting as an editor at a local arts blog. Mark was a visual artist six years my senior; I interviewed him about his creative process and preferred materials, and weeks later, he asked me out on a date.

I approached our first few hangouts warily: Mark and I had mutual friends, and he’d mentioned his son in our interview, so I knew he was a dad to a 6-month-old boy I’ll call Bo. I, on the other hand, had never had any significant interaction with other people’s kids, and I was hesitant to embark on anything serious with someone who had one. I was careful, guarded during our time together, slow to respond to his texts suggesting future dates. But the more I saw him, the more I began to wonder if I was being fair. I thought about my guy friend who got a girl pregnant during a one-night stand in college, and how I’d hate for someone to rule him out just because he was a dad. Eventually, after a couple of months of dinners and bar hopping, Mark and I agreed that we were in a relationship. And then, soon enough, Bo and I were, too.

Mark was understandably cautious about introducing new people to his son — I was the first person he’d been with since breaking up with Bo’s mother — and so I didn’t meet Bo face to face until a few months after we started dating. Once I did, though, Bo quickly became the center of our time together — the three of us would walk to the farmers’ market in a nearby park, grab lunch at the Whole Foods hot bar, or spend the day at the science museum.

But tension surrounded our idyllic little trio. Mark told me up front that he was in a good place with his ex, but it didn’t take long for me to find out this wasn’t exactly the case. Though he did his best to hide it from me at first, I could sense things growing increasingly tense between them — there were heated late-night phone calls and strings of multi-line texts accusing him of choosing me over his son or not being present enough. And with no formal custody or child support agreements in place, the rest of the arguments usually revolved around money and time. After months of contention, about a year after Mark and I began dating, Bo’s mom took a job offer and moved more than 800 miles away, with their son in tow. Weekend walks to the playground turned into lots of FaceTime sessions and scraping together cash for plane tickets as often as possible.

Despite the distance, I was there for Bo’s 2nd and 3rd birthdays, presenting him with cute outfits I had too much fun picking out, and seeing in his eyes upon opening that I definitely should have gone with the toy excavator instead (the dude couldn’t get enough of construction equipment). I loved spending time with him whenever I could — asking about his day at school, holding his hand as we crossed the street, propping up next to him on his little bed while Mark read him a story. They were great together. We were great together, the three of us. It felt like I was part of this little family, however imperfect.

Then, abruptly, I wasn’t.

The morning of the day I found out about the cheating, Bo was visiting. We’d taken him to the splash park. I’d watched him clumsily jump around in his little Velcro sandals and swim trunks while water shot out in spurts from the concrete. He and I shared a half-empty plastic bag of cheese crackers while sitting on a set of side-by-side swings in the sun. I didn’t know that later that day, while we were at his parents’ house with Bo, Mark would finally break down and admit a secret he had kept from me for eight months, a secret that would detonate our relationship of nearly two and a half years. I didn’t know it was the last day I’d ever see Bo.

I called a friend to pick me up from their house, and she drove me around in circles as I wept and tried to explain, through sobs, what had come to light. The following days brought an avalanche of apology texts, promises that he’d make it better. He begged me to believe and forgive him. I couldn’t, and I knew I never would.

I mourned the relationship and did what I needed to move on, a generous mix of yoga, alcohol, and venting to various sympathetic friends. But as the days and months stretched on and the pain slowly dulled, I couldn’t shake the punch-to-the-gut feeling that happened every time I stumbled on an old photo of him in my phone or found a crumpled Toys“R”Us receipt at the bottom of my purse. I’d be meandering around the grocery store and the sound of a little boy laughing would make my throat seize up. Thinking about Mark made me feel angry, but when I thought about Bo, I just felt sad. I missed him. I felt guilty. I felt robbed.

Desperate to shake these lingering feelings, I started seeing a therapist, hoping that I could finally shed the last bit of old skin from my past and move on. A few sessions in, I sat next to the low-light lamp with a box of tissues and told her the story of my last breakup — and how it really been two breakups in one. I explained how I had never felt connected to a child until I got to watch Bo grow from a 6-month-old to a vivacious toddler. How I never got to say good-bye to him, or to explain why I’d suddenly vanished from his life. How I missed the feeling of seeing someone I loved with a child they loved. A child I loved too. I loved Bo so, so much.

“He’s probably asked about you, you know,” my therapist said at one session. I think she said it to be comforting, but it felt like a hot poker to my chest.

Knowing I was a writer, my therapist suggested I write Bo a letter. The point wasn’t to send it, but to say the things I never got to say — to explain myself and offer a proper good-bye. It was wrenching to write, but the letter helped, as did dozens more therapy sessions.
Still, I don’t know if my love for Bo will ever completely go away. I’d heard enough warnings from friends that I’d felt prepared for the challenges of dating a parent: things like knowing you would never come first, or having to deal with the kid’s other parent. But I wasn’t prepared to become so attached to Bo, or for losing him to be the hardest part of the breakup.

It’s been years since Mark and I split. I’m married now, and we talk sometimes about having children. I know that I want them, eventually, a desire that would’ve shocked my former self. And I know that when it happens, I’ll be ready — I know dating someone with a kid isn’t comparable to actually having one yourself, but I feel like the experience illuminated the kind of parent I might be. These days, when I see a child wildly sprinting down the sidewalk or being wheeled around in a stroller, instead of just moving along, I smile. I have Bo to thank for that.

When Dumping a Dad Means Breaking Up With His Kid, Too