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Breaking Up With the Boyfriend, Not His Kids

She was 11 years old when we first met. This adventure-seeking tomboy who made me laugh and terrified me at the same time. Her dad and I had been dating for only a few weeks. We hadn't even kissed yet. It was crazy for us to be involving his kids in our relationship so soon. But we both acknowledged that something about this felt real.

And so, he picked me up for ice cream one night with his daughter and son, then 9, in tow.

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I was nervous. I was only 25 at the time and had never dated a man with kids before. I'd been around children my whole life, working as a nanny for years, but this was different. These kids had the potential to one day become my stepchildren—a responsibility far greater than anything I had ever contemplated taking on before.

That first meeting went great, though. His son was shy, but he smiled and laughed with me. His daughter and I immediately connected. I hadn't expected this instant bond, but I was absolutely open to it.

I'm still not sure if I was falling in love with him or with the picture of the life we might have had, the family I had always wanted.

That weekend, I went with the three of them on a trip to his cabin. We swam in the lake, made smores around the fire and played board games on a rainy afternoon. And when the kids went to bed, he and I stayed up all night talking, becoming pretty much inseparable from that point forward.

On his weeks with the kids, I got up and helped get them ready for school. I started going to his son's hockey games, at one point cheering for the wrong team (I had never in my life paid attention to sports before and had no idea what I was watching). But I was ecstatic just to be there. On the weekends, I taught his daughter how to make French toast and eggs. We talked about her friends, boys and the teachers she liked. The conversations never seemed to end.

The first time I met their mother, my stomach was in knots. He was running late at work and had asked me to pick the kids up, a task I didn't at all mind, except … I was sure this woman must hate me.

How could she not? I was dating her ex-husband and spending every other week with her kids.

But instead of being rude to me or making it clear my presence was unwanted, she came out and shook my hand. "Thank you for being so good to my kids," she said. "They love you, and it makes me happy knowing they are so comfortable having you around."

And with that, I relaxed, confident in the knowledge that we were all going to make this work.

The months went by. He was talking marriage while I was talking more babies. We were playing house, and I'm still not sure if I was falling in love with him or with the picture of the life we might have had, the family I had always wanted.

But the reality was, I was only 25. He was nearly eight years older than me and we had lived completely different lives. When he had been my age, he was married to his high school sweetheart and supporting a family of four.

The hardest thing for me to grasp was that I would never be the stepmother to his children I had once pictured myself as.

Meanwhile, I was kind of just figuring myself out. It was the first real relationship I had ever been in. When we fought, I didn't know how to navigate or bounce back from that. And when life got hard, I didn't know how to lean on him. It was a relationship that was probably doomed from the start. Despite how much good really was there.

But when it ended, when we both finally agreed we were done, the hardest thing for me to grasp was that I would never be the stepmother to his children I had once pictured myself as.

It was hard for me to let go of him. But it was crushing to have to let go of them.

So the first time she called me, asking if I could pick her up, I wasn't sure how to respond. I wanted to, more than anything, but I didn't know if I had the right.

I called him, hesitant, and asked if I could spend a few hours with her, explaining that she sounded upset. To my surprise, he said "yes," simply telling me where to drop her off when we were done.

Years went by and this pattern continued. Both he and his ex wife allowed me to pick her up from time to time, taking her to movies or hiking or out to dinner. I would have done the same for his son in a heartbeat, but he was younger. And a boy. He didn't miss me in quite the same way she did, and that was OK.

Still, it meant everything to me that everyone involved seemed intent on allowing me to remain in her life, for as long as she wanted me to be. When she was 16, she needed surgery, and her mom called me with updates daily, even asking me to come over and stay with her at one point, so that she could get out of the house to run some errands.

That ex-wife I had been so afraid of meeting years before had now become one of the biggest advocates for me remaining in her daughter's life. Had either he or she ever objected to this relationship at any point in time, ever expressed any concerns at all, I would have had to respect that. I would have needed to back off.

But I am forever grateful that neither of them ever did, that I got to watch this little girl grow into a beautiful and capable 18-year-old woman—someone who I am more proud of every single day.

She is smart and responsible. Warm and sincere. Funny and confident in this way we should all want our daughters to grow up to be. She is my go-to babysitter now and was one of the first people to learn that I would be adopting my daughter. She's also one of the first to visit when I finally brought her home. My little girl lights up when she sees her, always offering hugs and laughter for her "Auntie Maddie." I love knowing my daughter will have this young woman to look up to.

Our relationship has absolutely shaped the way I date though, now that I am the one with a child to consider. I haven't introduced any man to my daughter because I know in my heart what those introductions mean and how impossible it can be to let go of those bonds once they are formed.

There is no denying that the love I felt for those kids all those years ago made things so much harder when it all fell apart.

As soon as you bring kids into the mix, you lose sight of what is and isn't working in the actual relationship. You get caught up in being a family instead, and it makes it so much harder to separate the two and figure out if the relationship would have staying power on its own.

And it makes it harder on everyone involved when it ends.

I sent her a text recently, asking if I could write a piece about her, about our relationship, and about how grateful I am to have been allowed to remain a part of her life all these years. She responded with, "Oh my gosh! I would love that! I don't know if I would be where I am without the help of you and staying in my life!" And my eyes welled up with tears.

Because damn if I don't love that little girl, the one who isn't so little anymore.

I have no regrets. I'm grateful every day that her dad and I did things the way we did. And that he trusted me enough to allow me to maintain a relationship with her, even though there were certainly times when that made things awkward for us both. It means everything to me to still be involved in her life today, and to know that she, in turn, is a part of my daughter's life as well.

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My two favorite girls.

But there is no denying that the love I felt for those kids all those years ago made things so much harder when it all fell apart, which makes me hesitant now in raising my own daughter. I'm trying to know when, and if, those introductions are right. Because now I know how much more difficult it can be to let go when it isn't just the relationship being lost; it's also the picture of a family you all imagined yourselves to be.

Image via Leah Campbell

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