*This was originally published on Scary Mommy.
My relationship with a divorced father of three has been one of the most grueling, maddening, fulfilling, self-revealing things I’ve ever done, and it has taken me a ton of wrong moves and bad fights to find my way. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:
- It’s not personal. Despite wanting to smack someone whenever this is said to me, the fact is that it’s true. His kids dislike you only as a concept, not as a person — they’re just looking for that same safety and stability we all are, and you just happen to be the embodiment of all that threatens that.
- It’s not personal except when it is. While it’s true that his kids wouldn’t like anyone with their father, it isn’t anyone — it’s you. You’re the one who’s there, feeling resented, in the way, and often pushed to the margins of his life. You’re entitled to your feelings about that, and you get some space to make it about you too. Because some of it is.
- Don’t push too hard. There’s nothing worse than a desperate clown doing tricks for approval. Kids have an instinct for sniffing out disingenuity and if you try too hard, they’ll take a magnifying glass to whatever warts they’ve already decided you have. This process is going to take exactly as much time as it will take, and not a moment less.
- Jealousy is ok. I know how this one sounds — selfish and a bit silly for an adult to be jealous of children. But it’s not really about being jealous of them — it’s about a longing to be a part of all the intimacies in his life. You can’t help that itchy churning at the base of your stomach when he takes them on vacation without you, or coaches them in games you’re not allowed to go to. This doesn’t make you a bad person — it doesn’t mean that you don’t see the beauty in his relationships with his kids, or even that you would have it any other way. It just means that you’re human, and in love, and want to be a part of what is pure and true in his life. And sometimes it hurts when you’re not.
- His kids are just scared. A friend told me that when she was young, her father’s girlfriend reinforced the fear that she was going to lose her father. She’d already lost something immense when her parents divorced, and she couldn’t bear the thought of losing anything else. My friend’s resentment was just fear dressed up as something else, and the girlfriend was just collateral damage. Hearing that cracked everything wide open for me. His kids are just scared.They are just scared.
- Go easy on him. He’s probably doing the best he can and the last thing he needs is to feel even guiltier than he already feels. Chances are, no matter where he is he feels like he’s letting someone down, and between the two factions in his life, you are (supposedly) the grownup. You get to decide to make his life easier. Sometimes, when parenting duties push me off the docket, I can see in his eyes how torn up he feels — how much he hates disappointing me, but has no choice. When I am my better self and I see that look in his eyes, the last thing I want to do is make him feel even worse for doing what’s right. (I am not always my better self.)
- You wouldn’t want him to be a bad father. If he was the kind of man who would put his girlfriend before his kids, you wouldn’t want him.
- Stay in your own lane. If he’s your entire world then all you’ll be able to see when he’s with his kids is time that you don’t get to be with him. Keep your life full of things that are only yours — that have nothing to do with who you are as a girlfriend. It can be a beautiful thing if you let it, but if you don’t, he’ll feel the pressure of being the only thing in your life, even if it goes unsaid. Staying in your own lane is not only crucial to your own sense of self, but has the added benefit of making you more appealing as a girlfriend. Let him miss you a little.
- You can always leave. You both love each other very much. You have something real and maybe even rare with him, and the only thing either one of you wants to do is plan a life together. And sometimes that isn’t enough. No one is putting a gun to your head and forcing you to be in this relationship — if what he has to offer is not enough, you get to leave.
- Let go. When I want something badly, I often fail to do the one thing that might actually allow for me to have it: relinquish control. I get lost in my own plans to ensure that I get whatever it is that I think I need, and I become convinced that there must be some Answer that I just haven’t found yet. There isn’t. There’s no plan, no single or set of actions that I can take that will ensure the success of this relationship (or, incidentally, cause its demise). Either his kids will come around or they won’t, and either my boyfriend and I will be able to move through all of it together or we won’t. And when I realize that I’m not actually powerful enough to make this go one way or another — that all I can do is show up every day — it’s actually an incredible relief.