how i got this baby

The Woman Who Acts Like a Parent But Isn’t One

Because no two paths to parenthood look the same, the Cut’s How I Got This Baby invites parents to share their stories. Want to share yours? Email and tell us a bit about how you became a parent.

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

After a prior relationship ended badly, Andrea decided to stop dating people with kids. But her first date with her now-boyfriend, the father of a 10-month-old, went so well that she decided to go with it. The couple moved in together a year and a half into their relationship and now live half the time with his kindergarten-aged son. Andrea discusses acting like a parent while not being a parent, wishing there were a term for her relationship with her boyfriend’s son, moments she feels like an outsider, and her feelings about having a biological child.

On searching for a family model. I look at a lot of my friends and it seems like they’ve always been like, I want kids, I know I want kids. That’s not me: I tended to average out at being indifferent about having kids. I was an elementary-school classroom teacher for a while, and there was a lot I really liked about being around kids — but I also valued my independence.

My friends who grew up wanting to get married and were so excited to have kids would then end up complaining all the time, about their spouse, their kids, not being able to do the things they wanted to do and having to give up career aspirations. Knowing that I might have to hit pause on my career or couldn’t do something like go off on a ski trip felt like a lot to give up, especially when I looked around and saw my friends talking about how they never had sex anymore and how tired they were and never got to go on vacation. They’d come visit me and talk about how great it was to get away from their kids.

I mean, I knew there was a lot more to it than that, but it did make me think. Some people seemed to get very scientific about planning things out — marriage and having children seemed more about checking boxes than wanting to build a loving family unit. I just wasn’t seeing a model of a family with kids that I really aspired to have for myself. Everything seemed to be colored by an eternal exhaustion and frustration.

This was around the time I was in my late 20s, and by the time I got into my mid-30s, some of my friends were getting divorced, their marriages crumbling under the weight of responsibility and parenthood. People were having their first kid, their second kid, and then their first divorce.

On going on a date with a dad. My boyfriend and I met randomly, when we were out one night with friends. I’d been going through a lot of dating disappointments — I’d recently broken up with someone I’d dated for six months without ever really getting a commitment. That night, my now-boyfriend and I exchanged numbers at a bar. We went out a week later, and it clicked really fast.

I found out he was a dad on our first date. We were talking about families, and I said something to the effect of, If you ever had a kid, in the context of raising kids in the city. And he said, “Well, I do have a kid.” We talked about it a little bit, but I didn’t want to push too much because it was just a first date. A little red flag went up — I’d dated someone with a kid before, and it had not gone well because he was still working through aspects of single parenthood. But I was having a good time, so I went with it.

My boyfriend had been married to his son’s mom, but they’d been separated since before his son was born. He seemed fairly relaxed about this. I think part of it was his son was 10 months old, which made it a little easier — if your kid is 10 years old, they want to know who this woman hanging out with Daddy is. I didn’t meet my boyfriend’s son until we’d been dating for a few months, but even then, we’d go to brunch and — while babies are super perceptive — he wasn’t even talking yet. He couldn’t ask questions or get concerned. I was like any other friend of his dad’s he might meet.

On parenting while not being a parent. My boyfriend and his ex-wife share custody pretty much 50-50. When his son wasn’t with him, we had a very “normal” dating relationship — we’d go out to dinner or take weekend trips. When we’d meet up and he had his son, we’d go to the museum, go to the park, do very kid-friendly things together. At the point where we realized this was really going somewhere, that was when I really tried to get to know his son more.

Around that time, I realized that — while I was not a parent — I was doing some parenting. I was telling a friend of mine about how we were having trouble getting my boyfriend’s son to go down for naps, and she suggested that I join a parenting group to get some advice. This was right around the time we were planning on moving in together, and it hit me on a deeper level — I wasn’t just moving in with my boyfriend. The three of us were moving in together.  It was scary and exciting all at once.

On seeming like a mom. Being mistaken for his mom can be really awkward. If it’s a waiter or someone random at a museum, and someone says, Oh, your son is so cute, then I might not correct them. I can’t correct every stranger on the street or I’d never get anywhere. It’s also not a conversation that’s worth having with every single person, explaining exactly what our relationship is. But as he’s gotten older — he’s in kindergarten now — he hears me going along with it and sometimes gets confused and it’s a tricky thing to explain to a little kid, but we try. Other times he just kinds of brushes it off and keeps going. He doesn’t call me Mom, and I would never want him to call me Mom. But strangers assume I’m his mom multiple times a week.

One problem is that there’s no term for the relationship I have with my boyfriend’s son. My boyfriend and I are both a little bit ambivalent about marriage — but sometimes I do think about how I’m not even technically a stepparent because we’re not married. There have been times where I’ve had a hard time with that and it’s been a source of tension in some of my friendships, because people will view me as someone who’s not a parent. And I’m not a mom, but I do act as a parent. I have many of the internal conflicts that parents have — I worry about whether he’s eating enough vegetables or watching too much TV or if he’s too sensitive or too tough, I have work-life balance problems. I go grocery shopping for three. I plan activities for the weekend that are centered around him. But I feel a societal sort of distrust around me, because I don’t quite fit into a clear category. It’s tough when you can’t name the relationship in a way that makes that relationship clear.

On feeling like an outsider. Sometimes I feel like I don’t get “credit” for any kind of parenting. I think moms and parents in general don’t get a lot of credit, and it’s even harder when what you are isn’t so easy to define. My relationship with my boyfriend’s son impacts every aspect of my life, and happily so, but I’ve had some unsatisfying exchanges. When I’m asked to travel for work, for example, I’ve gotten the feeling that people are thinking, Wait, you’re not really his mom — what do you mean you can’t miss your pseudo-stepson’s birthday party? There’s a weird skepticism that comes with confronting our relationship.

A lot of the time I feel very much the same as other parents: I can hold my own in many different parenting conversations. Right now, we’re dealing with random moodiness — just like lots of other parents of kindergartners. But every now and then I’ll be talking to a parent friend and feel like I’m more on the outside. About a year into my relationship with my boyfriend, for example, I was talking with a friend who asked who his son’s pediatrician was. And I realized I had no idea who his pediatrician was. I don’t take him to the doctor — his parents do.

On living with a shared-custody situation. It’s not easy to be the partner of a man who has a kid. It’s not easy to start the relationship itself — there are a lot of barriers to being spontaneous and laid-back and all those other fun early-relationship things. When you’re in a long-term relationship like mine, you have a certain say in what your family looks like and where you live, but there’s always another party involved. My boyfriend and I go back and forth about having a biological child together. We live in an expensive city, and if his son’s mother doesn’t ever want to move, we might not be able to raise another child here.

I think I enjoy being a parent and am better at it than I ever thought I would be. Part of me definitely would love to have a child of my own, and I think my boyfriend’s son would be an amazing sibling. But it’s hard enough to manage our lives right now and feel like we have some semblance of control — introducing another kid into the equation might make it even harder. And sometimes I do go back to my original feelings about being a mother. Do I really want to? I don’t know.

Plus, I have the benefit of something that I think is true for a lot of families with a shared-custody situation: You have the ability to be a really good parent because you have the ability to not be a parent. I mean, you’re always a parent, but we can get things done and have our own time during weekends when we don’t have him. Then we can focus on him, a 100 percent, when we do have him.

On her family. Unfortunately, some of my female friends fall into the traditional gender roles that come out in heterosexual married couples and parents — there’s a lot of complaining about having to do “everything.” My boyfriend is an incredibly hands-on parent. The tasks that typically fall on a mother’s shoulders fall on him. If his son is sick or upset, he wants his daddy, not me. That’s the opposite of a lot of other families I know. Many of my friends who have kids with their spouses say they are jealous of me because my boyfriend is such a good father and so tuned in and hands-on, which I have to admit I kind of enjoy.

I don’t know what we’ll end up ultimately deciding about having a biological kid. But I do know there are a lot more factors in play, when you’re in a situation like ours. I really wish our relationship with my boyfriend’s ex-wife were different. I think we could have a much more productive co-parenting relationship.

But while it might seem that I’m being negative about our family structure, things are really great the majority of the time. We have a lot of fun together; there’s a lot of joy and love in our family. We have lovely vacations, really fun weekends, lots of family traditions and inside jokes and all that great stuff. It’s just that sometimes the obstacles or issues feel really big.

The Woman Who Acts Like a Parent But Isn’t One