I’m Head-Over-Heels For My New Fiancé. For My Daughter, It’s More Complicated.

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Paula Boudes

I had been separated from the father of my kids for a year when I met, and quietly began a long-distance relationship with my now-fiancé, Sean. I had expected the two-home transition to break the hearts of my 5- and 7-year-old children, but to my surprise, they were mostly unfazed by the change, maybe even grateful for it. Coparenting had its fits and starts but, for the most part, everything was going relatively well.

At first, I wanted to shield the kids from knowing about him. I wasn’t sure where the relationship was going, and I recognized that my romantic involvement with someone who was not their dad might be a pretty big deal. We’d cross that bridge when we got to it, or if we got to it, I thought. As such, Sean and I mostly hung out (via video and voice calls) on the days the kids were with their dad, or at night when I was sure they were asleep. On three occasions, he flew out for brief 3-day visits, unbeknownst to, well, everyone but me.

Then came Thanksgiving. It was my ex’s turn with the kids, and he had decided to take them to see his parents in Las Vegas. Saddened by the thought of spending the holiday away from my kids for the first time, I booked an impromptu trip to Chicago to see my new flame. A solo vacation of any kind was harder to conceal, so I shared my plans, which more or less marked the end of the clandestine phase of our relationship and, I’ll admit, was a relief. I started to casually drop the name of my new ‘friend’ in Chicago, and I felt giddy every time I did. I was head-over-heels in love and I couldn’t wait to share my joy with my kids.

It wasn’t long before my daughter sniffed us out and started taunting me about whether or not he was my boyfriend. I copped to it, we all had a good laugh and the kids were more curious than ever about the mysterious guy from out of town who won my heart. I suspected the three of them would get along famously—a theory I tested with over-the-phone chess games (my daughter is kind of a whiz), sharing music over Spotify (both Sean and my son can really get down to “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas) and letting the children get out of bed on one or two occasions to eavesdrop on our conversations. Bottom line? The kids liked Sean and were excited to finally meet him in person.

The big meeting came during a long weekend in February, and, sure enough, everything went swimmingly. The kids warmed to him immediately and he played with them for hours while I worked. Occasionally, I’d overhear them fighting for his attention. (“Build a train track with me, Sean!” or “Hey, no! I said I was going to show Sean my dance routine!”) But on the whole, it was smooth sailing. He also helped with the dishes, participated in bedtime and shared all sorts of jobs that come with running a household. Most importantly, he fully appreciated my (and my ex’s) existing relationship with the kids and the sacred aspects of our routine. (Lullabies and school drop-offs are just for Mama, thank you very much.) Basically, I had my best friend around supporting me in every way and it was pretty damn dreamy.

Naturally, I checked in with my daughter after his visit, and was relieved to hear her feelings were as unequivocally positive. She couldn’t wait for him to come back, and wanted to be his pen pal in the meantime—an idea he proposed and she eagerly accepted.

Subsequent visits followed the same easy breezy pattern, so I found myself surprised in early May when, during one of his stays, I noticed some quirks in my daughter’s behavior. On movie nights, she would aggressively sandwich herself between the two of us, almost as if she didn’t want us to be too close. When we tried to get a moment alone, she would immediately stop her independent activity and demand to know whether or not we’d been “smoochy kissing,” before insisting that one or both of us play with her immediately. And any time she was with Sean, she’d walk a razor’s edge between hostility and playfulness—a combination of aggressive in-your-face goofiness, mean-spirited teasing and pointed sulking. She even started saying the nickname she’d given him (“Sean-bon”) with a bit of a sneer.

Feeling concerned and mildly uncomfortable, I set out to understand what was wrong. I asked her if she had any feelings she wanted to share about my relationship, and she admitted things were weird; She told me she was glad to see me so happy, but that sometimes she gets jealous and just wants me all to herself. All this made perfect sense, so I figured the best solution was some more one-on-one time. Sean and I also agreed to put the kibosh on cuddling and other physical displays of affection in front of the kids. Still my daughter’s strange behavior persisted.

Ultimately, it was Sean who got to the heart of the matter after a particularly horrific walk home from the playground. (He tried to get her to hold his hand when crossing a busy street. She yelled, “You’re not the boss of me! You can’t tell me what to do!” and charged ahead.) Back at home, the two of them talked it over and she admitted she was confused. “I like you a lot,” she told him. “But I don’t understand who you are to me. You’re not my dad…so who are you? It just feels weird.”

Sean listened and empathized. His response: “I understand that. Maybe we should just start off by being friends, since we do play together quite a bit.” She said she’d like that, and the rest of the visit went much better.

After he left to go back to Chicago, I sat down with her for a longer heart-to-heart. She explained that she liked Sean a lot and even admitted that life is more fun with him around. (Partly because, with his help, I am more relaxed and have more time and attention to give.) She also said that she felt anxious about the relationship moving too fast, adding that she didn’t want to call him her stepdad anytime soon (something neither one of us had suggested) or say “I love you” to him (a phrase he casually, but genuinely, uses at bedtime and goodbyes).

I let her words sink in. For the first time, I was able to truly appreciate how strange and overwhelming it must be to have such a significant new relationship essentially imposed on her. I also realized that she’s just a little kid, and my expectation that she assert her boundaries without “acting out” was pretty lofty. I reassured her that all her feelings were valid, and that she shouldn’t feel any pressure to think of Sean as anything other than a friend and someone I love. I also pointed out that there are different ways to love someone, just like she loves her friends and extended family differently than she loves her mama and papa. Finally, I told her that everyone develops feelings for the people close to them in different ways and on their own timeline; I wasn’t going to ask Sean to stop saying he loved her, because he meant it, but I wanted her to know that no one would think twice about her not saying it back.

The next time he came to visit, he stayed for two months, a more significant trial-run before his permanent move just a few weeks ago. I was nervous at first, but it quickly became clear that a mutual understanding had been reached; my daughter’s behavior and attitude had noticeably improved, and I was learning to expect and need less from her in terms of reciprocation, validation and anything other than being a kid.

After all, sometimes you don’t need to define the relationship in order to know it’s an important one. Sometimes the proof is in the goofy dances, early morning chess games and fully loaded dishwasher. Sometimes my daughter and my partner hold hands, and sometimes they do not. Both are OK.

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