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What It’s Like Raising a Kid You Didn’t Want

I love my son. I just don't love being a parent.

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I hate being a mom. And I really hate being a single mom. I don’t hate my kid; I adore him. But I hate taking care of him, I hate being solely responsible for him, I hate “playing,” and I hate supporting him on my own (his father contributes nothing and there’s little I can do about it). Most of all, I hate that I often see him as a burden and I hate the thought that on some level, he either knows this already or will divine this as he grows older.

Do unwanted children have a different experience of love? I don’t know. I love my son and I care for him deeply, but before he was born I did not intend to raise him. He is part of a surely vast population of living, breathing, feeling obligations. I know what that means for me, but not what it means for him. Will he grow up with the feeling that he is a burden? Or seek out relationships with people who push him away or minimize him? Will he do that to others?

This story was submitted by a Fatherly reader. Opinions expressed in the story do not reflect the opinions of Fatherly as a publication. The fact that we’re printing the story does, however, reflect a belief that it is an interesting and worthwhile read.

I worry about this so much that I’m always trying not to communicate how I feel. He’s old enough now to understand some things, so I try to explain that I’m, say, short-tempered because I’m tired, or unavailable because I have other tasks that require my focus. But kids read truth between words, and adults fall in the chasm that separates language from thought.  The other day I was sitting outside with my eyes closed trying to get a moment, and I told my son that I was enjoying the quiet, that I liked the feeling of being alone sometimes. He looked at me for a second and said, “I don’t know what you mean, Mommy. I always like being with you.”

My heart broke. All the love in the world doesn’t make it mutual.

My son was the result of a contraception fail with a man I was passionately in love with — for a short time. He turned out to be not a great guy, but this didn’t become fully clear until several months after my son’s birth, when the fights over money, his violent outbursts, and total lack of interest in fatherhood defined a desolate plain.

I could have had an abortion (as his father had urged me to do). But I had decided it was not an option for me, and so I was left with a limited set of choices.

What I had really wanted was to give my son up for adoption, and I had begun that process, but his dad would not waive custody, saying that he’d raise the child himself. I doubted that he would, but my only other option was to lie to him about the pregnancy, keep him away from the birth, and ensure his name never appeared on the birth certificate. (Even then, he could have pursued custody legally.) In spite of how awful he was acting and how little financial and emotional support he was providing, that felt way too deceptive and complicated to me.

I was stuck. I stumbled through.

I think a lot about past generations — or current generations in many places — living without accessible abortion, where unwanted kids were known as… kids. The Irish sit-com Bridget and Eamon, set in the 1980s, does a brilliant job of portraying this: The Catholic couple’s many kids are encouraged to play in the street and are regularly made fun of. In one episode, money is tight and some of the kids have to go live with a relative. The kids are lined up, gym class–style, while the parents alternate picking their favorites. It’s tragicomically funny, and I’m OK with laughing at it. But in real life, the joke doesn’t land.

I am also the product of an unplanned — and unwanted, in the case of my father — pregnancy. So is my mother. My whole family seems to have gatecrashed existence. I don’t know that we’re any more damaged than other people, but I do find myself defaulting to annoyance. I was on the receiving end of that. It’s a perfect generational cycle.

In the case of my son, I did not feel a surge of love for him at his birth. My heart is not gushing when I look at him. A lot of normal child behaviors make me angry if they’ll result in my having to clean something up, which is pretty much everything he does. And his ramblings, which in another context could be endearing, just strain my capacity for listening and empathy.

It’s hard to say how much of this is a result of my not being a kid person. I’ve never been “good with kids” — I’ve always found them tiring. But I suspect the real reason I hate being a parent is the total and complete lack of support, combined with a sort of invisibility that comes with being a swamped, broke, stressed-out single parent. It’s the worst of both worlds: full-on sacrifice but also just appearing like I’m failing — at work, at bills, at loving my kid enough.

Some family members have since contributed to childcare expenses, for which I’m grateful. But I am still just scraping by (and sometimes not). My son’s father does not visit or take him for a weekend, so I don’t have any time off. My friendships have mostly faded away. I need exercise and therapy, but I don’t have time or money for those, either. A lot of this is similar to what many parents go through. But in my case, the real cost is emotional, and it’s my son who pays it.

I may be a bad parent in many ways, but I’m also wildly, obsessively protective of him and concerned for his well-being. So much, maybe even most, of what kids need is emotional, but in my situation, the basics — childcare, food, housing — take up all my physical and emotional energy. When parents use up all their energy to provide the basics, how does a kid feel loved?