“How come we only do things when she’s with us?” I asked.

It wasn’t long after my parents had divorced. My dad had started dating again. The only time we ever left the house to do things was when it was with his girlfriend (who is now my stepmom). My 14-year-old mind just wanted to feel like I mattered. Like our family mattered. I wanted us to do things as a family, and (at the time) she wasn’t family.

This, apparently, was the “objection” to his dating that he had been expecting, and I got the canned, “I’m allowed to be happy and move on” response. There was no discussion. It just was.

It wasn’t what I meant at all, but I never had the chance to explain that. I didn’t care that he was dating. I just wanted to matter to my father. To be important enough to spend time with him and my brothers without some (at the time) stranger.

But that didn’t happen.

A couple years later, my mom was dating. While driving somewhere I no longer recall, her boyfriend’s best friend admitted to me that he was using my mom for her car and money. My mom wasn’t rich at all. She worked 3rd shift at Walmart. But she had a job, a car, and supported his lazy ass while he sat home unemployed. He drove her to work in her own car and dropped her off. He picked her up from work in her own car. I don’t know where he went in her car while she was working.

When I confronted my mother with this information and inquired why she allowed herself to be treated this way, she didn’t want to hear it. She was completely dismissive of my opinion of how awfully she was being treated and disbelieved the fact that she was being used. I can’t remember what her exact response was. All I remember was the feeling. I didn’t matter. My thoughts and feelings were not important.

Those feelings are stuck in me like a spike in a railroad. When I separated from my first wife, I swore to myself my children would never feel unwanted if I could help it. I would never make them feel like anyone was more important to me than them.

I had several disagreements with my second wife. Her social life was, and still is, the most important thing to her. She would frequently want to do things on the weekends I had my boys and get pissy with me when I wouldn’t get a sitter for them. I told her like I tell everyone else…my kids come first. I’d rather stay home with my kids than go out drinking. Or to a concert. Or wherever it was she wanted to go.

That train wreck ended 10 years ago (wow, didn’t realize it had been that long until just now).

I’ve been dating a nice woman for the past 4 years. This woman has a daughter and was a foster mom for four girls when I met her. We never did anything socially. Time spent together was stolen in those moments the kids let us. I thought I’d never have to choose between her and my children. I thought, if anyone, she’d get it. I thought she’d understand. She was a single mom and put her kiddos first, too.

Fast-forward 4 years. The foster kids are no longer with us. Her daughter graduates next month. She randomly throws jabs my way about never spending time with her. She frequently makes snide remarks about my children. I mean, my children are difficult, no question. But they are still my children, and I’m not going to put up with it.

Around a month ago, she decided she wanted to go to Florida for a week on Spring Break. She asked me if C’s mom would keep him for a week so I could go with her. Um, no. Two things. First, the only time his mom has kept him longer than a weekend in the past 10 years is when she took him on vacation and when I was recovering from my surgery. She would have said no. Secondly, why the fuck would I go on a vacation without my child? Now that I’m thinking about it, she had planned on taking her daughter initially. The only reason she didn’t was that her daughter’s sibling was due to be born that week. So, really, she wanted me and her daughter to go, but not C. What the fuck? Would it have been nice to get away for a few days? Yes. Would I have felt like shit for not taking my son with me? Also yes. I was appalled she even asked. I would never ask her to exclude her daughter from something I wanted to do. What would it have felt like to him, I wonder, if I told him I was going to Florida without him? I would rather (and did) spend the week working, while he pestered me about when I could play with him than go on a vacation without him.

While she was in Florida, she texted me and started asking about other plans. Let’s do this in the summer. Let’s do that. My mental health has been absolutely abysmal lately, and I told her so. I told her I didn’t want to think about anything at the moment other than getting help for myself and my children. Baby C is doing well but still has some social issues. He still craves constant attention. He still wants me to watch him as he does mundane things like play a video game or plays with one of his toys. When I take him to the park, he insists that I watch him climb or slide. It’s cute for a 4-year-old. For an 11-year-old, it’s worrisome. He should be out of this phase. I’m trying to break him of this, but not having much luck to date. Baby A is going through a depressive episode of his own, and I’m struggling to get him to care for himself. I can’t get him to call a doctor. I can’t get him to call a therapist. I can’t get him to look for a job. The only way I can get him to do things around the house is to go full drill sergeant on him, and then we end up arguing. It’s tiresome.

So, to my surprise, the response I get from her to this admission is, “I hardly see you, when we have spent time together, C cannot handle it.” This snapped something in me. This wasn’t a typical “I wish we got to spend more time together” comment. This statement was laced with resentment.

Over the next few days, this comment kept eating away at me. I can only fight so many battles. I’m fighting my own and those of two of my children. I don’t have the mental stamina to fight a fourth battle. Especially not for someone who laments the time I spend fighting those battles because I’m not spending that time with her.

Look, I get it. She doesn’t want to be alone. Unfortunately, I can’t be the person who keeps the loneliness away. I have more important things to do. So, I’m done. I told her I can’t be what she needs me to be and that my kids come first. It was heartbreaking, but it’s what I have to do.