Q: I have an 11-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son. I got divorced about a year ago and started dating a guy right after separation. I find myself wanting to spend more time with my boyfriend than the kids. I feel relaxed and calm with him at his place. When I get home, looking at the kids, being with them, makes me anxious, and I start having fears of whether I’m doing the right things.
My children stay with me and are with their dad at certain times. Mostly, my kids are home and desperate for me to be home rather than having them spend time with their dad. At the same time, I don’t want to introduce the kids to my boyfriend until we are sure we’re going forward. And the kids are not even ready to accept a new person in their lives. I feel as if I’m in the middle of everything.
A: First, let me say that I appreciate your honesty. It is not uncommon for parents to look at their children and feel exhausted and anxious; they often just won’t admit it. In your letter, you have numerous issues happening at the same time: You have a new relationship that makes you feel relaxed and calm, you prefer his company to your children’s, the children prefer your company over their father’s, the children haven’t met your boyfriend, and you feel as if you are in some kind of limbo with it all.
When you have this many issues, you need to start with one thing at a time. For instance, you could decide that it’s time for your children to meet your boyfriend.
It seems as if you’ve been separated for about a year and have been with your boyfriend for about the same time. This may be a decision you can make together. Maybe he doesn’t sleep over at first, but you ease him into your life, so you can enjoy both halves of your life together. If he is a relaxing and calm presence, he may be good for the whole family dynamic. Just be sure to sit with him and really think about it. What are the boundaries? When will you tell your ex? What is the messaging to the children? If you had a prickly divorce, check in with your lawyers to ensure every decision you make is within the parameters of your custody agreement.
After you talk to your boyfriend, sit with your kids yourself and tell them about your boyfriend, while letting them know where they fit into this scenario. “Bill has been an important part of my life. He’s a good friend, and we’ve been dating for a while now. I want you to meet him, and how you feel about this is the most important thing here.”
Children can handle a tremendous amount of change, they just want to know that they are still the most important people in your life. To ensure that your children feel as if they’re safe, chosen, first and loved, use clear communication and boundaries. Slowly bring your boyfriend around, give your children time to process and have family meetings about how it’s going.
I am not suggesting that your children get to decide whom you date, but there are many stories that go like: “Well, things were okay, then my mom’s boyfriend came around, and he was more important than us.”
This is about doing the hard work of creating a life for yourself that places your happiness and your children’s emotional safety at the top. They are not in opposition to each other; it just takes time.
As for how stressed out your children make you, know that you deserve support. Please find someone who can help you connect with your kids in ways that feel easy and authentic, whether that’s a therapist, a coach, a group, etc. They are quickly entering their tween years, and it is important that you are a present, kind and firm parent. You don’t have to be hanging off their every word, but creating simple ways to visit with them fills up their attachment cups in an important way. Getting food, gaming, reading books, playing old-school board and card games, shooting hoops, watching shows or movies: All of these are easy ways to connect with your children. But you need a plan. I suggest having family meetings, so your children can work with you to solve problems and make arrangements. (The meetings seem like more work until you realize how much time and angst you’ll save with them.)
For now, choose one issue to work on and take it slow. There is no rush, but your brain may cause you to feel panicked. When you feel as if you’re hitting a wall, that’s a sign that you need support! Good luck.