how i got this baby

The Mom Who Left Her Husband at 20 Weeks Pregnant

Illustration: Palesa Monareng

Because no two paths to parenthood look the same, “How I Got This Baby” is a series that invites parents to share their stories.

When Eleanor met Joe in 2012, he was everything that she wasn’t at that time in her life — and that’s what attracted her to him. Eleanor was in intensive outpatient treatment for an eating disorder and starting to question whether the career path she’d been pursuing since childhood — music — was a mistake. “I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t love myself,” Eleanor says. Joe, on the other hand, was charismatic, upbeat, and free-spirited. “I couldn’t even eat a meal without feeling anxiety, but he was just floating, totally unencumbered by life around him,” she adds. 
About a month after meeting, the pair moved in together. “I told myself, ‘Here’s my path. This is the man I’m going to marry.’ It gave me direction,” she says. When Joe mentioned one day that he didn’t think he would ever want to get married or have kids, Eleanor brushed it off, confident he would change his mind. 

That fall, Eleanor moved to Paris to teach English for nine months and the couple continued their relationship long distance. On Skype, she noticed that Joe was becoming more invested in her and soon began talking of marriage. By February, he had moved to France to be with her while she finished her teaching contract. In April, he proposed. It had been just over a year since they met. 

The couple moved to Denver where Joe had a sister and Eleanor had a cousin. Eleanor took on nanny and teaching gigs, while Joe bounced between substitute-teaching positions and jobs at call centers. Within a year, they married. Eleanor found an internship with a music-education nonprofit, and Joe decided he wanted to become an architect and began auditing classes part-time at a nearby university. Then happy news came for the couple: After a year of trying, Eleanor was pregnant. She gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Jane, in the summer. A month later, Joe enrolled in a three-and-a-half-year program to earn his master’s degree in architecture. 

The couple was “broke,” says Eleanor, so Joe took out student loans to pay for his degree, and Eleanor supported their family of three in an entry-level job at the nonprofit where she had interned. Joe helped too; he worked ten to 15 hours a week as a roofer, and later found a part-time job building models for an architectural firm. In the summers, he took on a full-time work schedule.

Eleanor knew the years ahead would be grueling, but she was convinced that their sacrifices would be worth it.  Joe would emerge from this program with a secure career and a higher income. But then, Eleanor began to get a funny feeling that something wasn’t right with her husband. 

On adjusting to motherhood while Joe immersed himself in graduate school

Once he started working toward his master’s degree, Joe was out of the house every day of the week and coming home in the middle of the night. It wasn’t unusual for him to be gone until 3 a.m. He said it was pretty typical for architecture students to pull all-nighters at the school’s studio cramming for exams. I thought the summers would be a reprieve from the late nights, because he just had a job and no school work. But he always had the same excuse: He didn’t want to get his body out of sync with the school-year schedule. Every night he’d go out to our garage to smoke. I would fall asleep and then it would be 2 a.m. and he still wouldn’t be in bed. I’d look in the garage and he wouldn’t be there. When I asked where he was, he would always tell me, “I went to smoke a cigarette in my car and I fell asleep and woke up five hours later.” I assumed he had gone to hang out with friends.

He had one close friend — not someone he met at school — whom I suspected he was hanging out with multiple nights a week. This person was not a good influence. I had met a couple of Joe’s classmates from school who were lovely and one even babysat for us. But this particular friend and the people in this circle were not people I could have my daughter around. Joe smoked a lot of pot and was high much of the time. His friend was the same way but didn’t have a kid and didn’t have a care in the world. One or two times I went along to hang out with them. We’d sit around the kitchen table, while he and his friend would roll joints and smoke shatter. It was really intense weed usage.

During that period, though, we did have some nice moments just the two of us. Every three months or so, we’d have a date night and go out and have fun. Or his mom would come and visit so we could go out. Those infrequent moments of connection felt like a preview of the outcome we were working to achieve.

On Joe’s first months as a father

When I was pregnant with Jane, Joe was somewhat involved and present at doctor’s appointments, but there was something lacking emotionally. It took Joe some time to connect with her as a newborn, but by the time she was 6 or 7 months old, it was clear that he loved her. That said, he was never a responsible parent. One time when Jane was 2 years old, I had a late meeting so Joe had been watching her. I came home at 9:30 p.m and the TV was on and Joe was asleep on the couch. Jane was running around with pee in her training underwear. She had found his cigarettes and torn them up and tossed the tobacco all over the family-room floor.

On how the pandemic highlighted their differences

In 2020, things really started going wrong for us. When everything officially shut down, he told me his classes were supposed to be virtual, but his professors weren’t prepared, so they were giving him independent reading to do. Then in the fall, he told me that all the lectures were recorded and he could watch them whenever he wanted. I never saw him in a Zoom class.

Also, until 2020, I didn’t fully realize how much my political ideology meant to me. As I grew older, I found myself becoming more liberal, while Joe dove deeper into conservatism and conspiracy theories.  He was anti-mask and anti-vaccine. And over the summer during the riots prompted by George Floyd’s murder, he began saying he didn’t believe in systemic racism. We were arguing in ways that we hadn’t in the past.

On deciding to try for a second child

Despite what was happening at home, I wanted another baby. So in April 2020, we started trying. At first, Joe gave me a little pushback. He said he didn’t want to have another kid until he was done with school. But I told him that because it took us a year to get pregnant the first time, he would be done with school by the time the baby was born. After that, he dropped his protests.

Within about four months, I was pregnant. It was kind of a bummer when I told Joe. I get emotional thinking about it. I had made a special shirt for Jane to wear when we told Joe about the new baby, and I was so excited to make a video of the moment it happened. Jane and I climbed into bed while Joe was sleeping and I tried to wake him. When he finally did and I told him, he didn’t have much of a reaction. He was just groggy.

When I was around 15 weeks pregnant with our second child, I scheduled a 3-D ultrasound to see the baby on the big screen for the first time. I reminded Joe of the appointment that morning and all day: “Don’t forget we have this ultrasound tonight.” When I called him on the way home from work after picking up Jane to say I’d pick him up in 20 minutes, though, he said he couldn’t come to the ultrasound — he had homework due at nine o’clock. I was shocked and hurt.

On life during her second pregnancy

During that time, I would work from 5 a.m. to noon while he watched our daughter. At noon, he went out to the garage, where he had made a workstation for himself. In my first trimester, we started couples counseling, and I told myself that after our son was born and Joe finished school, I would give myself one more year to see if our relationship got better. But during my pregnancy, things stayed tumultuous. I was worried about getting COVID and he wasn’t. When I was about four months pregnant, Joe said he was going to hang out with a friend who was currently in quarantine because he had had a COVID exposure. Joe was like, “It’s fine. He doesn’t have symptoms.” I sobbed at the kitchen table, begging him not to go, but he left anyway. He started disappearing again and I wouldn’t be able to find his car.

On suspecting something was awry with Joe’s finances

Around this time, in October 2020, Joe started getting paid differently. He’d been at the same job for months, but suddenly he was no longer being paid by direct deposit. Instead, he was getting money orders and depositing them at a grocery store. He told me that the architectural firm where he was working was struggling because of COVID. They didn’t have as many clients and so they couldn’t afford their payroll software anymore. All of this sounds ridiculous when I look back and say it out loud, but at the time, I just wanted things to work. You can’t imagine that someone is being deceitful when you’ve committed your life to them.

This wasn’t the first time I’d noticed issues. One Christmas a few years earlier I looked in our bank account and saw we were missing half of our savings. Soon I found out that he had purchased a gun without telling me and had been hiding it. He had also racked up thousands of dollars in parking fines to the point where his car was booted. He asked his parents for money to pay for it without me knowing. There was another point in one of his early school semesters when he messed up his financial-aid application and cashed out a retirement account to pay the school.

On what she found in Joe’s emails

Because we shared a computer, both of us were always logged into our emails. In early December, I decided to try to learn more about his job, given the money-order situation. But nothing was turning up when I searched his inbox. And then in the course of looking, I started seeing emails from his school. There were emails from teachers asking why he wasn’t in class and him responding, “My daughter got into the Benadryl and drank it. We’re in the hospital” or “My daughter’s babysitter quit at the last minute and we haven’t been able to find a new one, so I haven’t been coming to school.” All of that was completely false. None of that had happened. Then I saw emails from administrators popping up about his enrollment status and Joe saying, “I can’t enroll. What’s going on?” and then emails from higher-up administrators saying “let’s get this solved. We’ll meet and figure out how you can enroll in classes again.” It was unclear exactly what was happening, but it seemed like he hadn’t been enrolled all semester.

I asked Joe about it and he admitted he had messed up this fall, but promised me that he’d be able to finish shortly. Because I knew that he was bad with details, I convinced him to let me send a joint email to his enrollment coordinator, asking for his enrollment status and how many credits he had left to finish. I was thinking, I can help him figure out what we have to do to get these last classes scheduled.

On realizing that Joe had been lying about school

Joe’s enrollment coordinator emailed us back within a day or two. He said that Joe hadn’t been enrolled since April 2019. It was December 2020. He had been lying about being in a master’s program for a year and a half. I had thought he was going to be graduating in June.

I walked into the bedroom and I woke him up and I asked him to leave. He tried to lie about it. He tried to say the school was wrong. That was always his coping mechanism when faced with something. But he didn’t put up a fight.

That morning, while Joe was getting our daughter ready for day care, I took a walk around the neighborhood. I was in shock and trying to process it. I looked up and there was a bald eagle, right there flying above me. It was the first time in my life I had ever seen an eagle in nature. It felt like a sign. That was how the end started for us.

On discovering the truth — or most of it

I later learned that during his fourth semester of the program in the spring of 2019, he hadn’t properly filed his financial-aid paperwork. After that, he was no longer allowed to enroll in classes because he had thousands of dollars in an unpaid balance. So what he was doing while he was pretending to be in school? I don’t think I’ll ever really know, but because of the weird money order I assume he was doing work he didn’t want me to know about. Every time I have asked him about it, he always sticks to the same story that he was trying to keep up with his classwork even though he was no longer in school.

Looking back, there were tons of red flags: the vague, generic responses when I would ask how finals were going; the absence of Zoom classes; the money shadiness. And now there’s also a new tinge to the memory of my pregnancy, knowing that he was lying about having homework just to get out of going to the ultrasound. There was never a moment in my pregnancy with my son that he showed excitement or even support.

After everything came out, he admitted to me that he never wanted kids. He had felt like I was pressuring him and shared that he just said “yes” so that I would stop talking about it. That’s crazy to me because neither of my pregnancies was an accident. We tried actively for over 11 months to get pregnant the first time.

I had committed to marrying him and so I tried to rationalize his behavior, like “it’s just the stress of him being in school and once he has more free time, things will be different” or “life will get easier once he gets older and more mature.” I remember thinking, He’s smoking too much, but it’s not his fault. He’s got a dependency and I just need to get him better. I realize now that I have too much empathy.

On navigating separation

For the rest of December, Joe stayed at a friend’s house, then went to his parents’ house in Ohio for Christmas, and then he traveled to Florida with friends. This was while I was at home 25 weeks pregnant with our child and taking care of Jane on my own.

When he got back in January, we sat down and I said, “I need to have certain conditions met if we’re going to try to work on this relationship.” One of them was that I needed him to not smoke weed for two months so we could tackle this with clear heads. He was unwilling to do that. Then he gave me some conditions that I was unwilling to take on. He told me that I wasn’t allowed to discuss any of my political beliefs with my daughter — that I must only speak to her about the Christian conservative political beliefs that he had until she was older and had a foundation in his belief system. That was an absolute no for me. I was not going to hide my identity and my beliefs from our child.

On deciding to divorce

By the end of January, I was five months pregnant and had made the decision to divorce.

That winter was really strange for us. He still lived in the house and had a cot set up in my daughter’s room, but it was mostly a technicality because he was gone at all hours. He had re-enrolled in graduate school that semester. His parents had reached out to the university and they were able to pay down his balance enough that the university gave him a second chance. Because we were separated and going to get divorced, his parents also agreed to give him a stipend. They paid us a couple hundred dollars every month to help cover his living expenses.

On giving birth to her son

My son was born in April of that year. I had a home birth. My parents and my sister and her husband were there in the room, and so was Joe. He probably gave me about as much support as my brother-in-law did.

My mom was my primary birthing partner and Jane helped, too. She wore giant gloves and helped the midwife catch her new brother. Usually the father will cut the cord or catch the baby, but he didn’t. Physically, Joe was there in the room, but he wasn’t really present. It felt like the start of a new family for us: my daughter, my son, and me.

I ended up being transferred to the hospital for a few hours because I had a postpartum hemorrhage and lost 40 percent of my blood. While I was getting a blood transfusion, my parents were home with my kids. Joe came and went during that period of time.

Because I had lost a massive amount of blood, I wasn’t supposed to walk around carrying the baby and I felt very tired. That first night of my son’s life, I remember we were all in my bedroom together and I looked at Joe and said, “My mom said she could help me. But if you want to be here, you can be the person to help. It’s our son. Would you like to support me tonight?” He chose not to help.

On managing as a single mom

In May 2021, I officially filed for divorce. While my daughter was at day care, I carried my 4-week-old son into the courthouse downtown to drop off the papers and start the process, assured that I was making the right decision. Joe moved out that summer and went back to Ohio. I felt hope for the first time in years. I realized how much Joe had been dragging me down and how worried he had made me for my future. Although those first newborn months were really difficult, it was also an incredibly hopeful and exciting time.

My parents moved to be close to me, so I leaned on my mom for support. We were still in the thick of COVID. I would be sitting at work trying to get my job done and I’d get a phone call from day care saying my daughter or my son were sick and I would have to pick them up and get them COVID tested. Back then, it was probably every other week that I was home with one of them for 24 hours while waiting to find out if they were positive. I would get in my car and I would just sob all the way to the day care, saying, “How am I going to do this? I can’t do this on my own.” Thankfully, I had an amazing boss who gave me flexibility. I think if I had been at any other job, I probably would have been fired.

It sort of felt like our life was a steam train and I was the engine and I had to shovel that coal in every morning to keep fueling myself up. If I didn’t, soon enough I would burn out and the whole train would stop. I know I will look back on these first few years of my son’s life triumphantly. It was impossibly difficult, but I found ways to get through it and be happy.

On Joe’s relationship with the kids now

Joe sees the kids every Christmas. He’ll take Jane back to Ohio with him for five or six days. It’s different with our son: He’ll spend maybe two to six hours at the start or the end of the trip here in Colorado with him; they’ve only spent ten or 15 hours together total in the past couple years. Joe also FaceTimes every week or two and talks to the kids for maybe five minutes. My daughter is 6 now and she speaks of him with fondness and every once in a while, she’ll talk about how she misses him. He’s the fun dad. When she’s with him, she doesn’t have a bedtime. She just gets to play and watch YouTube on his phone.

Jane doesn’t know that her dad didn’t want her. She just knows that he shows her love now and they have fun together. He has never taken the time to bond and connect with my son, although he’s kind to him when he sees him and says that he loves him. It’s heartbreaking for me as their mother.

On moving forward

I’ve been dating a guy named Drew for a little over a year. I’m pretty sure we’re getting engaged soon. My son started calling him Papa, but my daughter still calls him by his name mostly. I don’t have trust issues with Drew. He owns a tech company. He’s incredibly competent, straightforward, and upfront. My issue is that I am hyper-independent. I got used to doing every single thing on my own: child care, cleaning, scheduling, finances. I often make decisions or do things on my own, and then he’s like, “Whoa, you should have checked with me first. I would like to be a part of this process.”

Joe met someone too and they’re living together. We only talk when we’re coordinating the kids. He’s working at an architecture firm as a drafter, an entry-level position that doesn’t require a license. He never got his degree and it looks like he never will. He can’t have his transcripts transferred to a new school until he pays off his balance.

On what she’s learned

No one goes into a marriage thinking that it’s going to end. I had blind faith that if we loved each other enough, everything would be fine. Now I have to work really hard to not be jaded. My dad keeps saying that Drew and I have to get engaged and married before we move in together and have a child. But I don’t think any of that matters. Having a ring on your finger means nothing. It’s hard for me to go into a relationship with optimism. It’s hard to look at a little problem and not think, Can you imagine what an issue this will be years from now? I’ve had to learn that if things are making me uncomfortable, I have to communicate them. It’s not some giant red flag that means the end of a relationship.

The subjects’ names have been changed to protect their identities. 

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