Divorce attorney. Check. Custody Agreement. Check. Property Settlement. Check. Dating as a single parent. Checkmate.
Forget what you recall about dating as a younger, carefree adult whose concept of a playdate meant drinking shots, partying till dawn, and maybe waking up in someone else’s bed. Today you’re drinking juice boxes, throwing Disney-themed extravaganzas, and hosting seven 12-year-olds with sleeping bags.
Dating as a parent is a whole new experience. For one thing, your dad won’t be wondering where you are—your son will. The influence your parents had over your choice of a mate will seem tepid compared to the role your kids can play.
When you date now, your darling children may turn unrecognizable; they may kick your date under the table, call your cell phone at the most inopportune moments, or complain of a headache, chills, even malaria, as you get ready to go out. The entire dating process can become so stressful and labor intensive—what with arranging babysitting, planning clandestine meetings and finding private time for phone calls. It gives new meaning to the phrase “labor of love.”
A times, you may consider giving up your social rebirth—but don’t. As a single adult and a role model for your children, you should have an active social life. The trick is to know how and when to involve your kids—who, while you’ve been fantasizing about falling in love again, are still hoping Mom and Dad will reconcile. From the outset, be honest with them; tell them you’re planning to date and then reassure them that no woman or man will ever replace them in your heart.
Like many newly divorced parents, the prospect of having this conversation probably fills you with such dread that you’d rather sneak around than confess the fact that you’re dating. But that only delays the inevitable. No child wants Dad’s date to be introduced to them as “your future step-mom.”
The sooner you tell them, the sooner they’ll adjust. Eventually, they’ll understand that as much as you love being with your family and your friends, sometimes you wish to spend time with an adult of the opposite sex. So broach this subject before you find yourself in a serious relationship —because, mark my words, you won’t see one coming.
Once your kids are willing to accept your new social life, they may still be reluctant to meet your dates. They need time to process the dissolution of their parents’ marriage and the consequential revamping of their family. So rather than force them, ask only that they meet someone whom you decide to date exclusively.
Janet, a 40-year-old divorced Haverford physician, chose not to tell her son that she was going on her first date. “I met someone at the gym,” she says. “My husband moved out on a Friday, and I had this date on a Saturday. I didn’t think my son—who was 5 at the time—needed to know.”
But when her date later evolved into a romance, she knew she had to tell her son. “I just sort of said one day, ‘Joe is my new friend. I’ll be spending some time with him.’ My son was too young to understand what dating meant,” she says.
A word of caution: Naïve preschoolers inevitably sprout into know-it-alls who, in turn, seamlessly evolve into “but you did it” teenagers. As such, no age is too young to be informed.
Sex is the only area in which you should practice discretion—if not downright deceit. Passion (especially if it was lacking in your prior marriage) can render even the most responsible, mature adult reckless. No child wants to be privy to the intimate moments in Mom’s new life.
For single parents, sex is all about location, location, location. Like bomb-sniffing dogs, your children will detect any unfamiliar scent (e.g., strange perfume or aftershave)—and they’ll be unnerved by it. Don’t assume your date can slip out before your kids get up. That will be the night your son wakes from a bad dream and climbs into your bed looking for comfort. Guaranteed.
Initially, Janet sought intimacy only when her son was visiting his dad, but she eventually allowed her boyfriend to sleep on the sofa when her son was home. “One night, when his kids were staying over, too, he fell asleep in my room and never made it to the couch,” she says. “In the morning, all of our kids were outside my door, giggling. They knocked on the door and came in. I had no clothes on and stayed under the covers. They began talking as though we were fully dressed and sitting at the kitchen table.”
Even children who appear nonchalant in situations like this can be embarrassed and discomfited by the knowledge their parents are having sex. If you can remain respectful of their space, once they adjust to your long-term commitment to someone, they may actually suggest he or she spend the night. Until then, borrow a friend’s apartment—or use the backseat of your car. Just remember to first toss the car seat and muddy soccer cleats into the trunk.
The bottom line: Be respectful to—and considerate of—your children, but don’t let them run the show. This is your social life, after all. And the only one fooling around should be you.
Yardley-based relationship expert Ellie Slott Fisher is the author of Mom, There’s a Man in the Kitchen and He’s Wearing Your Robe and Dating for Dads. Her new Random House book, No Girl’s Good Enough, is due out in late 2009. To learn more, visit elliefisher.com.