I got divorced five years ago when my kids were 5 and 9. A year later, I introduced my kids to a man I had been dating for a few months. I hadn’t planned to do the co-habitation thing, but then Covid happened, so my partner spent a good deal of time with my kids and moved in a year later. After two years of living together, we’ve broken up and he moved out. I’ve told the kids, now 10 and 14, and they seem fine. But given that this is my first breakup as a divorced parent, I’m worried there’s got to be more to this. Their dad had a similar situation last summer, but it imploded with much more drama (and his partner also had kids, adding to the complexity — mine had no children), which means my kids have technically been through this once already even though I haven’t. But does that make it worse? How do I parent this?
First off, it sounds like you already are parenting through this. We tend to think there’s a right way of handling big life moments, and I have to come to realize that there absolutely is not. The complexity of love and loss and breakups and transitions are impossible to navigate with any sort of rulebook, so let’s just start with that.
I know a lot of couples that shacked up during Covid lockdown and broke up soon after life opened up again. I think it’s as fair as it is important to acknowledge that you made a decision during a moment that required different considerations, and it was the right choice for you at the time. So was ending the relationship when you did.
These two things, in my opinion, are most important when it comes to communicating this transition with your kids. All we can ever do is what feels right. Which is exactly what you did.
While I haven’t co-habitated with a partner of any kind since my marriage (it’s been five years), I recognize that I am a bit of an anomaly in that department, especially during the Covid years when many people moved in with their partners out of necessity, convenience, and because they didn’t have a choice. I also am aware that much of my refusal to mix dating with family comes from a need to control something that for years I felt I couldn’t.
After years of being adamant about the separation of my family and dating lives, I am questioning whether that is just another way to avoid the idea of breakups altogether.
As for the way your ex’s relationship ended, I would like to think that, for better and for worse, once a child experiences a parental breakup, they are unsurprised by another. I do not say this cynically. The opposite, actually! I think it’s important for children to understand that breakups happen more often than not and that people who do not make each other happy should not be together. Far too often people think of breakups as a failure, and in many cases, they are a healthy and natural end to something.
This is an important lesson at any age and one I did not learn as a child, teenager, or even young adult, because I was never modeled a healthy (or unhealthy!) breakup of any kind. Everyone in my family and extended family stayed married for better and for worse, which made me think I had to, too. (I feel it’s crucial to create a healthier dialogue when it comes to breaking up. More applause, less stigma. More transparency and honesty, less shame.)
And much like I was never modeled an empowering breakup scenario, I haven’t modeled one either. I had no idea how to navigate a high-stakes breakup/divorce and “stuck it out” way longer than I should have. I think my current fear of high-stakes commitment can be traced back to my fear of ending a high-stakes commitment. I had a recent revelation that I raised my kids without modeling any kind of exit strategy for unhealthy relationships, which is another reason why I talk so publicly about their importance.
The fact that we all change our minds is a beautiful thing.
After years of being adamant about the separation of my family and dating lives, I am questioning whether that is just another way to avoid the idea of breakups altogether. Which I don’t think is doing my children any favors.
Breakups are hard and require courage, especially when the stakes are high. And while it is far easier to break up with someone when they stay on the periphery of our lives, there is much to be learned from opening the same relationship doors we will likely eventually close. And I believe that allowing our children to witness that is generous and teachable.
The fact that we all change our minds is a beautiful thing. And growth, regardless of circumstances, is positive. Our choices in the present moment — who to date, when to include that person in your children’s lives, and when to end a relationship — come from years of experience. We can only learn from what we believe we’ve done right and will do differently next time.
Knowing what worked for you and acting on it was as personal a decision as knowing what didn’t work for you and then acting on that.
As long as your actions come from a place of love and transparency — for yourself and for your family — I think you’ve done everything right.
And based on your children’s flexible reaction, it sounds like they do, too.
I want to answer any and all questions you all have about the exhilarating, terrifying, and wonderful experience of dating and having sex with new people after becoming a parent. Send me your questions at email@example.com.
Rebecca Woolf writes Romper’s Sex & the Single Mom series. She has worked as a writer for more than two decades and is the author of two books, Rockabye: From Wild to Child and All of This: A Memoir of Death and Desire. You can subscribe to her newsletter, The Braid, for more. She lives in Los Angeles with her four children.