Loving your child with ex's traits
June 9, 2024 5:25 PM   Subscribe

I'm childless and never married. I've always been curious if as a divorced parent, and you see traits of your ex,physical or otherwise, in the child as they grow up,

Is it just something taken lightly and shrug and say, oh he gets that from his Father's side of the family...or could it be more problematic in your affection for the child. And relatedly, if you have adopted a child and you see the need of the child who needs a loving home, and your absolute want of a child, is it simply no issue at all that you would love the adopted child as equally as a biological of yours
.Hope this isn't asked intensively, that wasn't the intent
posted by Czjewel to Human Relations (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I am divorced and have a son and a grandson. For me, traits are an absolutely zero issue. Nothing about traits from either side of the family affect my affections for them whatsoever. Also, I look at them as individuals who are their own separate humans, regardless of any lineage b.s. I do, however, sometimes enjoy joking, "It's great that kids have two parents because then I can blame the bad stuff on their dad's side of the family and the good stuff on my side of the family, hahahahaha!!"

I have two adopted nieces and two adopted nephews, and traits regarding them are a non-issue, also; my love for them and connection with them is 100% equal to the love I feel for my biological relatives; biological genetics have no effect whatsoever on my feelings for them; they are 100% beloved family.
posted by SageTrail at 5:58 PM on June 9 [5 favorites]

My father was the child of divorced parents. He had two sisters and a brother but my father had the same name as his father (my grandfather) and the two boys both looked a lot like their father. My father said that his mother took out a lot of her resentment on the boys and was verbally and physically abusive until the boys outgrew her. To hear her tell it, my grandfather just walked out on her one day, but I have good reason to doubt anything she says.

When I was an adult, I asked my father why we never had a close relationship with that grandmother like we did with my other grandparents, including my grandfather and his wife, my dad's stepmother. It broke my heart when he told me about the abuse. All of my other cousins thought my grandmother was a saint, but we always kept our distance and I still have a weird relationship with my cousins because it kills me to hear how they talk about how wonderful "our" grandmother was.

There was some other shady stuff, like my grandmother always told my dad that his father never paid child support and that's why she couldn't afford things like school trips and band instruments. My father never asked his father because, back in the 1950-60s, kids really couldn't ask their parents about money. Years later, when my father was an adult, he mentioned it to his stepmother, who worked as an accountant, and she showed my dad a whole filing cabinet with checks and bank statements showing my grandfather had paid child support faithfully.

My father enlisted in the army young and still says it was a good escape from a terrible home. He suffered with alcohol use disorder for a long time and while I'm sure his military service was part of it, as was childhood abuse. His brother took his own life. My father felt responsible that he didn't stick around for his younger brother's sake.

Obviously, that's probably the extreme sad story, but I felt compelled to share it as soon as I saw your question. Maybe it's not common but some people do. I would hope these days, children would feel more empowered to tell an adult who could help.
posted by IdRatherNotSay at 6:33 PM on June 9 [5 favorites]

My college roommate never met her father until she was a teen, but had aspects of him anyway (mannerisms, sighing, etc.). Her mother would literally scream at her “you’re just like your father!”, even though my friend hadn’t met him yet.
posted by Melismata at 6:41 PM on June 9 [2 favorites]

I was the kid in this scenario. It was always clear to me that there were a couple things about me that were a little emotionally tricky for her to navigate because of how much my biodad's traits they were. It was also always crystal clear that they in no way affected her love for me. I was unconditionally loved for who I was even when some of who I was, reminded her of someone she had difficult history with.

All of that said, I picked up on enough of that stuff that I downplayed some of those traits and interests or kept them very private in ways I wouldn't have if I'd been a little less intensely tuned in to her emotions and wanting to avoid causing her any sadness. So it had some repercussions for me - but not in the sense of her love for me being affected.
posted by Stacey at 6:44 PM on June 9 [2 favorites]

I'm very fortunate that my child appears thusfar to have none of the other parent's traits that drove me batshit insane. And he has many of their good qualities, qualities which i don't have. He's an introvert like I am but has an amazing ability to capably and confidently do extroverty things in the manner of his mother. I'm glad that the universe put us together, that genetic diversity apparently can be high on the list of unconscious selection criteria for a mate (neither his mother nor I were thinking about having a kid when we met, that's for sure). It's possible he's got some very obvious traits of his mother that I simply don't see because I just frikkin love him, or they are the traits I liked and probably still like about his mother, or because he's really become his own person.
posted by jerome powell buys his sweatbands in bulk only at 7:14 PM on June 9 [2 favorites]

I notice some traits that are obviously related to my kids' dad, but don't really think about them in that context. They're MY KIDS' traits, unrelated to whether they are also their father's. So I think of them as being part of the people I love.
posted by metasarah at 7:18 PM on June 9 [3 favorites]

I physically resemble my father. I believe that this is one reason that my mother was so abusive to me after the divorce.
posted by SPrintF at 8:36 PM on June 9 [4 favorites]

All three of my sons resemble my ex-husband. That's fine, it's never been an issue.

The behavioral traits that one of them inherited, however... that was a challenge.

One bonus, though - knowing his dad since we were kids, and especially through his pretty rough teen and early adult years - it's given me some added insight as to some of his reactions to things. That's helped moderate some of it. It's even more fun, let me tell you, when it comes down to evaluating the best way to approach him on an issue, when it's likely to be reacted to with some sort of combination of mine and my ex's personalities, plus his own uniqueness for his life events.

Despite everything that son has been through, he's coming through and stabilizing at a YOUNGER age than his father did, by nearly a decade. Pretty sure I owe at least some of that to having some warning. :)

The really unfair part, in my only-half-joking opinion, is I'm now the primary caregiver/stay-at-home grandma of his child - who got all of her father, plus her mother, and there's a great deal of me and my daughter (another primary caregiver), too. Figuring the best method for getting cooperation out of her - at five - is a daily experience in knowledge AND luck... and how much sleep she's had.
posted by stormyteal at 8:59 PM on June 9 [4 favorites]

I am a parent through adoption. As far as I know, I would have been able to conceive and carry a child to term, but I never did, so I can't compare my parenting of my kids to what it would have been like to parent biological children. When you say would I love them equally: sometimes I think I have even more obligation to my children than if I had birthed them. I didn't bring them into this world. Rather, I was responsible for disrupting them from their birth culture and language and country.

I also sometimes think maybe I don't bring the burden of expecting them to be like me or my ex-husband because of the adoption (which is generally a healthier approach to parenting, in my opinion). But they each are like me in some weirdly specific ways. I don't know if that's a coincidence or nurture. I also can see how my younger kid is like my ex-husband in at least one positive way.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:28 PM on June 9 [1 favorite]

I have both and an ex I can't stand, and can say that the ex's traits don't impact my deep affection for my kids at all because as other posters said those traits are my kids traits. It has actually been quite a happy accident that my biological kid came after my adopted kids because we are so very alike in a lot of ways that I worry I would have over-identified what I felt and wanted as a child to be the same truth for her, rather than having enough experience to see her as her own person.

Almost all the mothers I know with adopted and bio kids feel the same towards their kids. I know several adoptive fathers who strongly favour their bio kids. The bio kids in those cases overwhelmingly are much closer to their adopted siblings over the father.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 12:29 AM on June 10

I am incredibly similar to my dad personality-wise and that has definitely caused issues between my mother and I, given that their very acrimonious divorce and custody battles were partly caused by personality clashes.
posted by LizBoBiz at 1:12 AM on June 10

I knew a woman once who got divorced and her ex-husband moved to a different country with their 3 kids. I asked if she missed the kids and she said "no, not really - they reminded her too much of their father". I was pretty shocked at the time and, having had children myself since, still think this was such a harsh response. Kids are their own people with their own personalities and reducing them to 'just like their father' is far far too simplistic.
posted by el_presidente at 4:29 AM on June 10 [3 favorites]

The comments about kids displaying parents’ traits and getting put down for them as people strikes me as abusive. One thing that surprised me about parenting after having been abused (and doing 5 years of therapy) is how easy it has been to not be that level of asshole to my kids. Of course I’ve had less than stellar moments and some of my hang ups will end up as needing donations to the therapy jar, but it is really not that hard to keep words like “you remind me of the worst of your father” out of your mouth, if you are committed to seeing your children as people.

Do those feelings exist? Yes. I have an extremely introverted husband, and one introverted kid and one more extroverted kid. At the points I want to have jolly family time and one kid is “yay” and one + my spouse are like “no pls must recharge in quiet room” that I don’t feel the kind of moment like “why do I bother trying to create fun family excursions” directed at the no-excursions crowd. But that is just a feeling and it’s my shit and it’s not fun for the family if half hate it.

Sometimes my extrovert kid and I go anyway, and I do worry my introvert kid feels that I am more cheered by his brother. I try to actively make it clear it’s not about that - my love and appreciation for both are solid, it’s just about Sunday 2-5pm. But can I as an adult make a choice to support both my kids and fiercely appreciate their unique selves? Yes, just imperfectly at times.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:45 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]

I think it really depends, as much as we all want to say it wouldn't matter. I also think physical traits are a lot less challenging than (negative) behaviour traits.

A big factor is how high-conflict the marriage and divorce were. For my parents, it was very high conflict and it was very clear to me how much both parents hated many traits in the other that I shared, whether it was the direct "you're just like your father" or ranting about my mother's flaws that I often shared to some degree. I have almost no relationship with either one now, though it's hard to tell how much this stuff was a factor since there was a lot of other negative stuff.

I hope to avoid all of that. So far I have, but my child is very young. I do see some of her father's personality traits in her already but they're mostly positive or neutral ones. It probably helps that we (parents) don't hate each other. It will be challenging/triggering for me to deal with if she inherits the same severe mental health issues that caused massive issues in my relationship with her father. I can't imagine it affecting my love for her, but I would guess most, if not all, parents believe that whereas the child's view of it may be different.

I'm not sure if this counts as a trait, but one dynamic that can sometimes happen is that if there is domestic violence or just a lot of meanness between parents and the kids grow up in that environment, they will often start copying the abusive/mean behaviour and directing it at the usual target, which is of course extremely hard to deal with for that person.
posted by randomnity at 6:28 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]

It's abnormal and unusual for a parent to feel conflicted towards (parts of) their child that resembles the other parent. Feeling conflicted or negative about seeing one's ex's traits in one's child is basically a giant flashing neon sign saying one urgently needs therapy to stop projecting one's feelings about one's ex onto the child.

If you are experiencing such feelings towards your child, please don't ignore those feelings or normalize those feelings! It is a sign that you need help, support, and recovery from your pain, so that you do not inadvertently traumatize your child. If you are someone who has experienced this type of negative projection from your parent who was too hung up on their unresolved anger towards their ex to love you easily and unconditionally, I'm so sorry, that is NOT normal, you deserved so much better, and you should seriously consider seeking therapy to to understand and overcome what your parent did to you.

Your question reminds me of a scene from the movie ROOM. The story goes like: a man kidnaps Brie Larson's character and locks her in a shed and rapes her for seven years. She eventually manages to escape with the help of her 5 year old child who is the product of rape. After her escape she's doing an interview for the like a TV talk show, and the interviewer asks her whether she will ever tell her child the truth about his "father". Brie Larson's character immediately says that rapist is not her child's father, because a father is a person who loves and cares for his child. The interviewer tries again and says, but what about the biological relationship, to which Larson's character says, "That's not a relationship. [The child] is nobody's but mine."

And the thing is, it is clear that this is the first time Larson's character has ever considered such a question AND she finds it hella offensive.

So, like, it's not that Brie Larson's character wrestled with conflicted feelings towards this child who reminds her of her rapist, but then eventually reasoned to herself about all this and therefore decided to love her child. No. She just loved this child always, without any questions and without any conflict, and when someone asks her to think about the fact that this child's biological father is a monster, she's outraged that they dared to connect her beloved child to such an evil person. In her mind she has completely erased the connection her child has to anyone so hateful, because her child is entirely and unconditionally wonderful, lovable, etc.

THAT is a normal "good enough" parent right there: a parent for whom loving their child is effortlessly unconditional, and to them the idea of hating the parts of their child which remind them of their ex is an outrageous or nonsensical notion.
posted by MiraK at 8:44 AM on June 10

It didn't happen to me for a long time. Until my eldest hit puberty, I couldn't see any of her other parent in her, even though I was looking for it out of curiosity. She just looked pretty much like me, pale with brown hair and brown eyes. Same with personality traits, they were either her own, or just immature versions of mine. Her hair was nicer than mine because it was thicker, but that was the only thing I could point at as probably coming from the other side of the family.

Then she hit puberty and her face became the mirror of the faces of some stranger. She didn't get the face shape or nose or planes from my side of the family. It wasn't an unattractive face at all, it was just some other genetic strain. And that was fine. Although I didn't have any positive feelings for the other parent, I also couldn't really remember what their features looked like so I didn't think of her as necessarily looking like them. She could be taking after different members of their family, or looking like the other parent, but I neither cared, nor minded. Maybe she took after my paternal grandmother whom I never met or saw a photograph of. She was her and we were committed and because it was her, her features were pleasing to me. During this stage my memories of the other parent were pretty much eroding, and she was superimposed on them, and because I loved her I was apt to feel much more tolerant of them. I was by then inclined to shrug off their bad behaviour from when I knew them as simple immaturity rather than personality, because after all they had been very young.

From the mid-teens on things got quite rocky between us. I still loved her and put tons of effort into her, but she felt neglected. She had a lot of social difficulties and wanted us to be close and I couldn't sustain that, so she got into looking for company in a place I felt would be actively harmful to her. There was a bad conflict for about half a decade where I was stuck between spending time with her, or watching her spend it with someone I strongly disapproved of, that I felt was a bad influence. We fought about this. I ended up resenting her a lot, but I still didn't see her traits as coming from the other parent. I saw them as more being things she was learning from the inappropriate person who had glommed onto her, and on whom she had strongly attached. She was struggling very hard, and again, I assumed her difficulties were lack of social opportunities and immaturity.

When she finished high school things got no better. I had been told she was developmentally delayed, so I was still fixated on the hope that she would grow out of some of the traits that made me unhappy. It was early in this time that she took the steps to reconnect with the other parent, who it seems was very angry and resentful towards me. I had not realised they would be, because when they indicated they didn't want a relationship with either her or me, I had broken contact with them in accordance to their wishes, without argument. I had been assuming they were just not old enough to be a parent, which parallels the way I had been assuming my daughter was struggling due to delayed maturity. However I didn't trust them at all because of threats they had made towards her, which made me worried when I found out my daughter had sought them out and was going to meet them, as I thought there was a small chance that they would be actively harmful to her.

Through my daughter after she connected, I started to hear things about their other parent that led me to think of them as being basically selfish, and limited, but nothing at first out of the ordinary. My daughter and I discussed their other parent and my feelings about them, and I told her that while my earlier feelings were largely negative, but not deep, I felt that her parent couldn't be all bad and had to have many positive traits I just didn't know about. We hadn't clicked, that was all. I told her since she was half me and half the other parent genetically, and since I had some negative personality traits, but she was mainly comprised of good traits, I believed that she must have gotten a LOT of good traits from the other parent, and that there must be a great deal of good in them.

However my relationship with her continued to deteriorate. She was still living at home in her early twenties and going to university. She had taken a couple of gap years after graduating to attempt working in retail and waitressing, which had not worked at all well, before she decided that she needed to take higher ed, and then she had needed to take additional math before she would be accepted at the university. We were no longer close, and I was finding her traits more and more troubling. We still had boundary issues where she wanted lots of emotional support, and she still resented that I couldn't provide it to her satisfaction, nor that I could provide the material resources she wanted.

At this point I was much more likely to regard her traits as coming from the other parent and as being objectionable. She told me about their lawbreaking, and I saw her as having the same covetousness. She told me about their unkindness and emotional abuse with their current partner - she described it as abuse - and I saw a parallel in that to the way she would override my boundaries and demand emotional support while denigrating me. Of course many of her faults were the same as mine and not everything was bad. But it was also clear to me that the things I had hoped and believed she would grow out of were permanent character traits.

So I went, over the course of twenty-five or thirty years, from thinking of her as being her own person with infinite potential, but someone who was going to be largely influenced by me due to shared culture, to almost suddenly seeing her as a hostile stranger in our midst, who had traits that might or might not have come from the other parent, but which made it disadvantageous to live with her. I worry that she's bad to the people she has relationships with and that she's not a benefit to the social groups she is in. She's described a lot of things in her friends groups or at work that she's done that alarmed me because they were so cruel and so lacking in empathy. I wanted her to be a good person, empathetic, and useful, good at sharing, good at standing up for herself and I am not confident she is those things. She certainly has LOT of good traits, creative, imaginative, verbal, curious.. and her bad traits don't necessarily have to have anything to do with the other side of her genetics or any influence her other parent has had on her. God knows there are plenty of bad traits in MY side of the family, and I think many of her bad traits are as likely to have come from my mother through me, or directly from me than they are to have come from the other side.

But at the same time over the course of her life she has gone from me feeling like she is mine and that she belongs to me and my family and herself alone, to my feeling like she does not belonging to me and my family at all, and that she now belongs really only to herself, and to that other family that I haven't seen or spoken to for over thirty years. I think this change is good for all of us - she gets more support from that other family than she could get from my side. There has been economic support, clothing and fashion, and trips and other good things, paid for my her other grandparents and her other parent, and these are clearly extremely important to her. But on our side her absence has mainly removed a burden. This makes me feel lastingly, extremely sad. We have nothing to offer to her that she would value, and she has nothing to offer to us.

Did I raise a cuckoo, or would it have all ended up the same if she had been a clone of me? I would have long since forgotten everything about the other parent if she had never been born, or if she had never made contact with them, but now my feelings about her and them are inextricably bound. There were a lot of adverse circumstances, that would likely have affected any kid raised by me at the time I was raising her. I'm not going to put the debacle down to her personality being at fault - she puts it down to being entirely mine, and the result of my choices. For a time we shared social media, and the things she shared with her friends kept showing up in my feed. She was left with feelings of hatred and loathing and pain towards me. I like to think that if she had been raised by someone else, somewhere else she could have become a happy and empathetic person. But I am confounded if I try to picture what would have made a difference.
posted by Jane the Brown at 9:34 AM on June 10

Not a child of divorce but both of my parents would point out what they saw as flaws and attribute them to the other partner. If I forgot my lunch at home, I was "just like your mother" according to my dad. If I stubbornly refused help and needed to do something on my own, I was "just like your father" according to my mom. Decades of this not only let me see the flaws in my parents, but also made me super self-conscious of being anything like them. As much as I loved them, it was always my goal to not be like them and at 50 I'm only just now getting to the point that telling me I'm like my mother doesn't send me into a rage/depression.

Of course, finding out that the man the raised me wasn't my biological father makes all the comments about how I'm just like the man who raised me and apples not falling far from trees, just a bit bittersweet. On one hand, I kinda love the fact that even though we are related by blood, I picked up on a lot of his good traits, but I also kept some of his bad habits and I don't having any excuse other than I was raised like that.
posted by teleri025 at 12:23 PM on June 10

I see traits in both my children that remind me of their fathers. It is most marked in my son and it kind of blows me away, really, because his father has not had much to do with him. I was surprised that these behavior patterns could even BE inherited; I would have thought they were learned. But, in the long run, I love my son unconditionally. It doesn't matter that he occasionally does things that remind me unpleasantly of his father. I agree with the poster above who said it's actually kind of helpful because you sort of know how to handle things. Knowing his father's challenges made it slightly easier to work with his challenges.

Both my kids are grown. They both have some traits I'm not crazy about. I have many traits they are not crazy about! That is just the way people are and I love them both absolutely.
posted by mygothlaundry at 12:50 PM on June 10

While neither of my sons look alike, they each got parts of my ex and me; one looks like their dad but has my nose/the other looks like my brother but has their fathers nose, etc. Personality wise, they are, again, a nice mix of the two of us. The only trait one of them has that I dislike is their father's laziness in all things, especially work related. But I have never, ever, said to them, "You're a lazy person who wants everyone else to do for you, just like your father!!" This trait has been lifelong, no matter how I try to address it. So it is just them, being them.
posted by annieb at 4:52 PM on June 10

I have three bits of "wisdom" on this topic.

First: several of my kids are fantastic artists. Like "someone recently commissioned my daughter to do a drawing of his new granddaughter and is paying her $100 for it" good. I am terrible at art or anything visual, really. I'm great with words.

Their mom is a decent artist and my dad is a pretty good artist. So I assume they got that talent from those two family members and when I compliment their art I say things like "That reminds me of something your mom made for me once..." or similar. I try to keep the comparisons good so they don't feel like I dislike them because I (really really) dislike their mom.

Second: their mom has had body image issues ever since I met her. Pretty bad ones. So when I see those things crop up in my kids, I realize that it is likely a learned behavior and I try to steer them away from it. I never mention their mom in these instances - I just try to change their point of view.

Third: just last night my son called me upset. He's 21 and he had just been on the phone with his mom and she got mad at him and said "You sound just like your dad!" and hung up on him. She was basically trying to insult him by insulting me. And that's a crappy thing to do.

I told him that I like myself so he should take it as a compliment and it defused things a bit, but it's clear she was seeing something in him that she disliked about me.

So, yes, I definitely think we see traits in our kids from the other co-parent. It's how you react to it that matters, in my opinion.
posted by tacodave at 5:03 PM on June 11

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