How learning to reparent myself helped me move past a lifetime of abusive relationships

dating someone with kids

I’ve always known I didn’t want children, and that I wasn’t open to dating someone with kids (or anyone who wanted them).

There’s a five-generations-long traumatic pattern in my family. When a baby is born, the older child gets, as my aunt says, “dropped like a hot potato.” When my sister was born four months early, my mother entered severe postpartum depression which exacerbated her alcoholism and emotional abuse. This was mostly directed at me. The neglect was the best of it.

I started heavily drinking and using drugs at the age of 13 in an attempt to protect myself from my mother—as long as I didn’t drink warm Chardonnay as she did, I figured I was fine. 

I didn’t pay rent for the first time until I was 30. I lived in eight places that year, finally landing in the middle of someone else’s storm. 

Enter Tim. Every morning I would wake up and rush down to the coffee shop in town, at first to bum cigarettes and weed, but soon it was to see this strange charismatic man. Once he told me how everyone was trying to have sex with him now that he was single and had lost weight. “I’m not,” I promised. And then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I moved in with him after hooking up just a few times—I was getting kicked out of the latest place, after all.

Tim had been a dad since the age of 17. He was now 37, with three children by two women (an ex-wife, and an ex-wife-in-progress). The latter had placed a restraining order on him for choking her—a thing I couldn’t believe he’d ever do. How could I? I had nowhere else to go. 

Due to the restraining order, he was not allowed to see his two younger children. We spent the summer taking acid and smoking pot. Idyllic.  

I couch-surfed California that September, returning the day he got custody back. That’s when my fear set in about dating someone with kids—and being around them all the time. Fear that he would soon use to his advantage. “You’ll be fine,” he said. “You’ve been a kid.” It was not fine. In some ways, I’d never been a kid. In others, I still was. 

Tim was a threefold abuser. The first was when he abused, the second when he convinced others that his victim was the villain, and the third? When he convinced his victim that, too.

It started with manipulation and triangulation, which felt like home to me. There is a saying, “If something feels like home, and home was not a safe place to be, RUN.” Instead, I froze in place.

The children entered stage left, rushing into their backyard that felt like my backyard. They started joking about throwing my tiny dog into the fire pit. 

“That’s just kids,” his eldest daughter said. Was it? 

I liked them despite that, and despite the knowledge that I wouldn’t get my needs met if they were there. Tim did not miss one opportunity to trigger me. If I could be crazy, then he didn’t have to look at himself. It was the classic, “The problem is not the problem; the problem is how you reacted to the problem” scenario, to which I was very accustomed.

The younger child wet the bed one day, and he threw my only blanket on the urine-soaked mattress. Everything I owned fit into a Ford Focus then. When I protested, Tim mocked me about “my blankie.” It took me so long to disentangle this that I even wrote an article four years ago over-owning my part, still believing his lies.

I borrowed a handmade She-Ra costume from an acquaintance for Halloween. Tim gave the cardboard and duct tape crown and sword to the kids, letting them leave them out in the rain until they disintegrated. Then he screamed at me about “your princess crown, you f*cking baby, competing with my children! You are not well!”

The issue was that it wasn’t my costume, but returning it in good shape was my responsibility. I couldn’t access rational thought to attempt to explain this, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway

Once I drove two hours to buy a certain specialty food item. The next day when I returned home, it was gone. His explanation? “I had to feed them to my children. There was no other option.” He stared at me, challenging me to have a reaction.

I stayed frozen or on the defense unless I was drunk. When drunk, all the resentment at hearing him spout the same blame over and over spilled out. “If your ex is so mentally ill,” I asked, “and you knew that from your first date, then why did you have children with her?” 

I wasn’t really questioning that. What I actually meant was that I was sick of him complaining about the consequences of his actions as if they were things that had been done to him. He flew across the couch—all 6’3 inches and 300 pounds of him—and choked me until I almost blacked out. I got away and cut my arm open in front of him. “You don’t have to hurt me,” I was trying to say, “ I can do it.” 

I was never able to calm down enough to grasp what I was choosing to endure. This was always by design. I kept going back for the next five years until I finally moved to New York City. We didn’t stop talking until he got together with his third ex-wife. 

In the meantime, my sister became a mother, and, by some miracle, a very good one. At my grandmother’s funeral luncheon my nieces came rushing to meet my dog. “Nice, nice, to the doggy,” the eldest cautioned the youngest. 

I’m three years sober now. I’ve had a significant amount of outside help, working with a therapist and intuitive. I’ve done inner work to reparent myself—forcing myself to look in my own eyes in the mirror and say, “I love you” every day, until I could do it without crying, until I could believe it. I did yoga and went for long walks. In short, I began to treat myself the way I was looking for others to treat me, the way my parents couldn’t. I now know the truth about myself, which helps me see the truth in others.

Dating someone with kids isn’t about the kids. It’s about the adults. Sick adult behavior leads to sick child behavior, creating and handing down intergenerational trauma. I chose to break the cycle for my line childless while my sister did it with children. First I learned how to have a healthy relationship with myself, then with 12-step sponsors, followed by colleagues and friends. Recently I managed to attract—and be attracted to—a man who is capable of a healthy partnership.

Luckily, he doesn’t have children, but if he did, it wouldn’t be a dealbreaker. And that feels really good to (finally) be able to say.

Craving true connection? If you’re ready to date like a human again, sign up for early access to the forthcoming Keepler dating app here.

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