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I meet most men that I date online. It’s very common for guys with kids to write in their OKCupid profiles: “My kids come first,” or “My daughter is the center of my world!”
I get where you’re coming from. You want a potential mate to know that your life includes the giant presence of a kid or four. You also want women to know you’re a devoted dad (it’s no secret chicks get hot for guys who are great with kids!). Got it. Roger!
But I bristle at those lines. When it comes to relationships, I’m fond of saying, You never really knows what goes on between people. But there are a few couples in my life who I look to as models of the kind of marriage I’d like one day. People who really enjoy each other. Respect and support one another. And in these families, the parents put their relationship before the kids. They are the dynamic centriforce around which the family’s life orbits. And everyone thrives as a result.
There is lots of research to suggest that a happy marriage is the cornerstone of well-adjusted kids. Celebrity sex therapist Laura Berman, Ph.D., writes in her relationship guide, The Book of Love: “No matter how sacrilegious it sounds, you need to put your relationship before your children. A strong relationship provides security for your children and demonstrates how a loving, respectful partnership should be. What could be more important?”
Listen to my Like a Mother episode on this topic:
That’s a tricky proposition for single parents. If you’re not in a committed relationship, it is very easy to make your kids the prominent one in your life. After all, they can be so demanding — not to mention fulfilling. Plus, if you’ve gone through divorce or another crisis that landed you as a single parent, you are no doubt concerned about giving your kids extra care and sense of security. It’s no surprise that so many blended families I know struggle with adjusting all parties to a home where everyone is suddenly expected to revolve around the new relationship. It can be so hard. Some find it impossible.
But it is even trickier if one or both of the parents put the kids before their partner. One dad I went out with nearly boasted when telling me about a four-month relationship that went sour because his girlfriend did not understand why he’d abruptly leave in the middle of dinner because his tween son would call, upset about some matter with his hockey coach. Another’s girlfriend eventually broke up with him after several years because he rarely made time to spend alone with her, instead expecting constant family time with his son.
Ultimately, failure to put their partner first was a sign these guys were not ready for a serious relationship, or at least not with those particular women, and that is totally normal. But it’s not cool to pay lip service to intentions of growing a serious, long-term relationship and from the onset demote your lover to second-rank — even before you message her on Match.com. Women are certainly guilty of putting their kids ahead of their partner — maybe even more so than men, especially since they are nearly always the primary care giver in the event of divorce. But in this moment when men are struggling to claim their place as equal parents while society expects divorced dads to be the lackadaisical weekend father, I get why you are compelled to go overboard with your expressed devotion.
But guys! If you are indeed ready for a real love, create a space for her. Imagine a relationship that centers on the two of you, and all the stability and care your kids will take from that. Accept that a truly wonderful relationship only multiplies the love available to your kids — not robs them of some of yours. Because in those families, there is all the more love to go around.
Great examples of couples who put their kids second in dating
A couple years ago, a guy I went out with read my blog before we went out, and mulled my opinions on putting your kids behind your romantic partner. Over cajun food he described what sounds like a remarkably happy suburban childhood headed by parents who enjoyed a 40-year marriage, five kids and two successful careers. My date has only the fondest memories of watching his dad court his mom on their weekly date nights and annual parent-only vacations — in addition to the family roadtrip. Staying home with the babysitter was tons of fun. “My dad made it clear that his relationship with my mom was the center of everything, while he was also the best dad ever,” he said.
What could be a better example of the benefits of putting your romantic partner first?
But what if you don’t have a romantic interest to start with?
This Modern Love column in the New York Times (which I read religiously and am only slightly bitter about the fact the editor Daniel Jones has rejected more than a dozen of my submissions over the years BUT NEVERMIND!) highlighted a 2005 essay by Aylete Waldman about the fact that she puts her husband and their fantastic sex life above their four kids. The most interesting thing about the essay was the resulting shitstorm of controversy which landed Waldman on a much-viewed Oprah episode during which a hostile audience nearly attacked her. Yes, that essay is a decade old, but it warrants a revisit because parents — mothers most especially — are still expected to make our children the center of our worlds. Waldman wrote:
I do love [my daughter]. But I’m not in love with her. Nor with her two brothers or sister. Yes, I have four children. Four children with whom I spend a good part of every day: bathing them, combing their hair, sitting with them while they do their homework, holding them while they weep their tragic tears. But I’m not in love with any of them. I am in love with my husband.
It is his face that inspires in me paroxysms of infatuated devotion. If a good mother is one who loves her child more than anyone else in the world, I am not a good mother. I am in fact a bad mother. I love my husband more than I love my children.
I love that Waldman challenges the institution that admonishes women for anything other than fulltime adoration of their kids. Waldman’s work includes many of the points I’ve made here on this blog:
- Many of you lapped up my essay about the fact that I don’t live for my kids — and that is my biggest gift to them. Putting kids before all else makes them neurotic and robs me of my potential to live the biggest, fullest life that I can — and model for my children that such a life is possible.
- I’ve urged parents — single moms in particular — to prioritize their health above all else, including family time. After all, you can’t be an energetic mom now if you are overweight, and you are even more likely than single moms overall to burden your children in your old age if you don’t care for your wellbeing now.
- That despite my attempts to live said full life, I’ve found myself hugging my kids too much because I’m lonely — and that is entirely unfair to my son and daughter. Alas, I am only human.
I plan to read Waldman’s essay collection, Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace, which promises to dig into the the societal pressure moms face to put their children into the laser-sharp focus of their universes. Liberating music to my ears!
But Waldman has a husband she is crazy about. I don’t.
So how does a single mom consistently put her kids second if you don’t have a man to focus on instead? In other words, how do you create space for for a potential relationship when kids can be so all-consuming? In the event you don’t seek a romantic partner, where do you focus that energy if not on your children?
Cliche as it may sound: You gotta put yourself first. That means taking care of your health. You must make it a top priority to hang out with other adults — girlfriends, dates, relatives and friends. It is not normal to spend all your time with children, nor make your offspring your primary emotional support. And while you’re at it, indulge in your instincts to have a fulfilling and profitable career — without any guilt whatsoever! — even though our culture tells you that stay-at-home mothers are better mothers.
In fact, that is the big takeaway: Stop feeling guilty. Want to date? Go for it — AND DON’T FEEL GUILTY! Need a sex life? NO GUILT FOR YOU – ONLY BOOTY! Need to hit the gym? HIRE A SITTER AND DON’T LOOK BACK! Looking forward to that business trip even though you have to leave the kids at home? KILL IT! I’m not worried you’ll neglect the kids. If you are like the professional moms I know, the pendulum swings way in the other direction — and you’re far more likely to neglect yourself.
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