Being with a partner who has addiction issues is hard, and having a child with them is hard, too.
And while I can’t speak for everyone’s experience, because I only have mine, I feel like the main points I always talk about will still apply here.
So here's what to consider when parenting with an addict.
My partner had addiction issues since before our daughter was born, and she is now at a point where she understands what is going on as much as she can in her 4 (almost 5) year old mind.
But it wasn’t always so simple and easy to communicate, and learning how to parent while also figuring out how to navigate the world of addiction wasn’t either.
When we first found out about our little goofball, he was in a period of sobriety, albeit a somewhat shaky one. When he really processed this information, it led to him starting things up again in an attempt to deal with the crazy emotions one can have around such news, which also then led to him continuing as he wanted to be "functional".
Throughout the pregnancy, up to the delivery, and carrying on until this last cycle, we continued to experience the cycling of active use and sobriety.
For me, this topic brings a lot of learning.
Raising a child under any circumstances can be pretty challenging and stressful at times I’d imagine, and trying to learn and figure all of that out while also dealing with other pretty challenging and stressful situations really made that a difficult part of our lives.
When my partner was actively using, situations were often uncomfortable and difficult, family dynamics were tense or nonexistent altogether, and responsibilities were often unequal and unshared.
When he was sober, things weren’t always better, due to his overall struggles with trying to recover and navigate life in his own right, on top of being a parent, on top of our own relationship dynamics and struggles.
But, even though, of course, his addiction and recovery isn’t my responsibility, I do understand and take accountability for my own part in this, too. When I wasn’t doing my own part to work on myself as well I was just as responsible for our lives not running as smoothly as they could (even if I didn’t want to accept this at the time).
As time went on and I kept up my routine of learning as I went, I also had to discover what to tell our daughter when he would be made to leave the house or go away to rehab.
When she was a baby it was a little easier to get by without noticing it as much, but once she got older and started becoming more aware of things, I had to decide on what to say.
What I told her then, and how she knows things to be even now in reference to these situations, was that her dad was sick, and had to go to the doctors (which then needed a little bit of clarification to differentiate between this and her normal children's doctor, but still ended up working out pretty well).
This seemed to be enough for her, and while she would still miss him and have emotions and feelings of her own in relation to his addiction, it became a little easier to explain and empathize with her. And of course, we did what we could when it was healthy for us to do so, like FaceTime calls and weekend family rehab visits.
Another difficult thing to navigate was his free time.
After rehab and once he was able to return home, I was challenged with what to expect on so many fronts, one of which was how he spent his time.
So often he would have to work all day and squeeze in meetings on top of that, while it also seemed that he would always have time for everything and everyone else but us.
This of course made me upset, because I used to think, “Aren’t we the most important? When is it finally going to be time for us?”
I felt like we were given the short end of the stick on so many things, and I just wanted it to finally be our time. I wanted us to be a family again and for things to be right this time.
But finally, after years of the addiction and sobriety cycle, it clicked.
You see, as much as you want things to go a certain way, and even if you know you deserve it, not everything will happen exactly as you imagined it to be.
Sure, we would like to see them enter recovery and have things be “normal”, but every single person has their own path of doing things, and we can never fully anticipate what that will be.
The best we can do is navigate our own path during these different and often really challenging situations, and go from there.
When my partner was struggling during active addiction, it was hard. But no matter what, I never spoke badly of him, especially to our daughter, and did as much as I could to explain things in a healthy way. Since I was primarily in charge of her, I made the decision to take her to therapy to make sure that she was handling his addiction as best as her young self could. And I never kept her away from him as a punishment.
I didn’t want her to become a pawn or a bargaining chip, and just as I wanted to show my healthy support of his recovery, so did I want to model the same for her. I also made sure to never promise anything that I couldn’t keep, and provided a realistic set of habits that kept her in good spirits while also ensuring that she wasn’t missing out on anything.
I knew that when he was in the healthy state of mind he was a great dad to her, and a great partner to me, and held hope that that state of things would return. But at the same time, I finally figured out what worked best for us when things weren’t so great, and made decisions and boundaries based on that that worked best for all of us (even if it didn’t seem fair at times).
For our daughter, I’m sure that things may have been confusing at times, but really, all I could do was the best with what I had. And based off of how she was during the worst of it, I think that worked out.
While she had her moments, she kept up her happy and hopeful demeanor, and I like to believe that she also kept up her own hope for her dad. Sure, it didn’t look ideal at all times, and I sometimes wondered if she noticed how our family looked different, but in reality, she fared along just fine, and continues to do so to this day.
And, I’m not going to lie, we both think it’s a little funny when she randomly says “Remember when dada used to be in rehab?!” with her sly little laugh (I always said doctor but I guess she picked up the word rehab along the way).
Is it every parent’s dream to hear their 4 year old talk about rehab? No. But being able to freely talk about it while in a better place as a family? I’ll take it.
And of course, no matter if your partner is in active addiction or in recovery, it all comes down to making sure you are also always continuing your self work.
But how does my self work tie into my partner’s addiction and us as parents?
Well, we’ve all heard the phrase “you can’t pour from an empty cup”, right? It applies here, too.
We all want to be the best versions of ourselves as possible, and we all want to be good parents. The first step in going in that direction is making sure we are taking care of ourselves first (and no, that isn't selfish).
That means doing things to understand ourselves better, to lessen our stresses and upsets, and to feel better and healthier more of the time.
I can tell you from personal experience, it’s really hard to figure out life and being a parent when I’m all over the place. That’s where I start to really struggle and lose myself even more.
But when I do my best to be independent in my own right, and to find happiness and clarity and love in myself, I feel better and more confident, which helps tremendously in my parenting role as well.
From there, I can find out what works best for our daughter and I’m better able to reach her on her level of understanding (on any topic). And the better our overall relationship is, the better off we are in the long run as a whole.
Also, by showing her that I am trying to do my best, and that no matter what I am continuing to learn about myself, not let situations or circumstances hurt me or keep me down, feel empathy for others, and show love and support while tending to myself first, I am giving a positive example for the way I hope she lives and leads her own life, in any relationship with anyone she encounters.
And, of course, with my partner, the more stable and healthy I am, the better our relationship (on any level) becomes as well. From that point, I can be sure that I am doing what’s best for me, and I can make the best decision to keep myself in the best place mentally, emotionally, and on all levels, without expecting him to take responsibility for that which is my own. I am also able to make boundaries, stop enabling, and show my support and love from a better point.
Thankfully he entered recovery and had it really stick around the time I finally figured all of this out, so we were able to be on similar pages on most topics as a whole. But even if that wasn’t the case, I would have been in the right state of mind to continue getting better and doing what was right for her and I, regardless.
Once he was in recovery and I was also working on a recovery of my own, I was less inclined to rely on him for emotional regulation and validation. I let him do his recovery in a way that worked for him, without trying to control it so that it made me feel comfortable in my negative beliefs and feelings of lack. And having that start when it did paved the way for how we both live now, and does much to help our overall relationship. We are both able to be independent as much as we see fit, but still feel secure in our relationship and family roles, and don’t feel as though the other is holding us back or down in any way.
What I hope you gain from this, is that there is no right or wrong way to do things. But, just like with every topic, the most important thing is that you do everything you can to help yourself first. From there, you become much stronger and more able to navigate any situation or role you encounter in life, and do the most for your loved ones and everyone in your life, including yourself.
And also, no matter what feelings or thoughts you have at the time on any subject, what matters the most isn’t the emotions of what you experienced and how you carry that around now, but what you learn from it.
And really, we are all constantly learning and figuring things out, whether it’s how to live our own lives or how to navigate addiction with our children. But at the end of the day, always remember that you are doing the best you can.