If there’s one thing that makes me act like a teenager, it’s heartbreak.
When I decided to become a mother at 29—a single mother by choice, at that—I’d been supporting myself for almost 15 years. I had a relatively stable job, which didn’t pay much but came with benefits. I’d also been single for a significant stretch of time. I’d never imagined my life leading to a two-parent family with children, so waiting on a partner wasn’t a natural consideration for me. In fact, when I was looking for advice on the legalities of having a known sperm donor, and at-home insemination, I was thrown off when the person advising me noted that I might want to consider how a future partner might play into my decisions. Sorry, what?
I was speaking with a staff member from a local LGBT parenting organization. She wanted me to consider the possibility that I’d get into a serious long-term relationship down the road and might then want my new partner to legally become my child’s second parent. I had a hard time imagining this; it really wasn’t on my mind and wasn’t a desire I had.
However, when my daughter Anna was about two years old, I entered into a relationship. I went into it thinking it would be nice to go out on dates, have some adult time. I didn’t expect it to grow in to what it did. The relationship wasn’t always easy, but it was extremely important to me. It also brought a new person into Anna’s life, and they liked each other. Because of her age, there wasn’t a lot to discuss. I didn’t need to label the relationship because it stood on its own—and I didn’t need to explain what it would mean for her down the road.
I have a lot of difficulty with separation and a lot of attachment issues. I know this about myself, I work on it, but these things are also a part of me. It’s an extreme understatement to say that when this person and I broke up, I was a wreck. As parents, we want to protect our children, we want to be selfless. I feel I’m expected to say I kept my heartbreak to myself—that I was mature and responsible and didn’t let my daughter in on it. Judge me if you must, but it just wasn’t possible.
As much as I respect Anna without treating her as my adult equal, when you’re a single parent (or primary parent), it’s a different kind of bond that forms. My daughter is the one person I see and speak to every day. She’s the only other member of our household. As a tiny child, she is absolutely not expected to be my emotional support or take on my burdens, but her proximity means she does tend to have a sense of how I’m doing.
When my relationship dissolved, my ex had already moved far away, so there was no need to discuss what this meant for Anna—they’d already been out-of-touch for some time, we’d already dealt with that separation as much as we could. When we broke up I’d already been depressed for some time, for reasons both related and unrelated to the relationship, which made it that much harder to recover. My sadness lasted a long time. It was not easy on me, and the more I hid it from Anna, the further away I got from her and the less engaged I was as a parent—which didn’t feel fair. Because my Anna is particularly observant, sensitive and articulate, she had a lot of questions. “Will we see them again?” “Why are you taking a break?” “Why did you hurt each other’s feelings?” “Are you a special kissing kind of friends?” “Do you love each other?”
One clear memory from my parents’ divorce is that they kept telling me they loved me. “We still love each other, but it didn’t work out.” “We are not married anymore but will always be your parents.” In the case of not having labels and language in place to work with and break down, it was a bit more difficult to explain this situation to Anna. Certain things remind me of my ex, just as certain things remind her of my ex—in turn, sometimes she brings up reminders when I don’t expect them, occasionally even ones I’d forgotten.
It’s been awhile now since the breakup. I’ve thought about it a lot, but there was no way I could have written about this heartbreak when it was still fresh. In this recent stretch of time, emotions have resurfaced. My ex was in town recently and we were in touch, which threw me into a fit of nostalgia. It was difficult. The other day, without knowing my ex had been on my mind or weighing on my heart, Anna announced that she missed them. The context was innocent enough—we were meeting with a friend whose baby shared the same first name, a name Anna had only previously associated with my ex. I burst into tears in front of her. Anna asked me if I missed them, too. I was able to collect myself, reassure her I was OK, and bring the conversation back around without overloading her.
Where is the line between a healthy display of emotions and when is it too much? How do we stay within the boundaries we set, once we’ve defined them? Can shame be avoided? Heavy, messy emotions are difficult enough without having to feel guilty for them.
I don’t regret the love I experienced, and I know not all relationships end terribly. I also realize other relationships can last a long time, yet have even worse endings. Going through heartbreak as a single parent has been one of my biggest challenges to date—one of the only things that caused some distance between my daughter and I. It’s also the only time I’ve felt truly embarrassed as a parent, like maybe I couldn’t do it right after all, if I couldn’t even manage my emotions and obligations.
There’s something that feels so hopelessly juvenile to me about breakups—they tend to be so melodramatic and dire, and yet so real. Feeling that my emotions are immature, that they reduce my capacity as a parent, has its own negative impact on me. The truth is, I don’t date much or love easily, and I don’t have much of a desire for either of those things to change—they’re pretty hard-wired in me as far as I’m concerned.
My daughter may, later in her life, be more interested in relationships than I’ve been—she might be more open, and her own breakups may have less of an emotional impact. I have no way of knowing. I do worry, in my desperate desire to protect her from my own difficult-to-control emotions, that I could be teaching her not to be open, not to share her feelings or want to experience love. And is this not even more damaging than the alternative?
Tara-Michelle Ziniuk is a Toronto-based queer mom to a four-year-old. She started off as a single-mom-by-choice and now co-parents. You can read more of her posts here and follow her on Twitter @therealrealTMZ.