Perfect family? Or clipart? Oh wait – the dad’s gay.
A couple weeks ago Helena and Lucas and I returned from a two-week road trip during which we stayed in no fewer than six homes of friends and families. Most of those were married couples with kids. While staying in the same house for a few days with people with whom you have so much in common — little kids, age, professional careers, progressive politics — it is easy to fall into the trap of comparing their lives to yours.
Which I did, of course.
And one of the differences between my life and these two-parent families that struck that it seemed — from the outside — that when you are a single parent who dates, you spend a lot of time focused on activity outside of the family, even if you mainly date when your kids are with their dad (like I do). Because the reality is that dating takes a lot of energy. Whether it is prowling dating sites or the local coffee house, riding the dopamine-high-wrist-slitting-agony rollercoaster that is romance, if you date you spend lots and lots of energy on people with whom you are not building a future.
Which, in my moments of envy, struck me as a real shame.
And for a minute I felt guilty. Like an inferior mom because:
a) I spend a lot of time and energy dating, and
b) I haven’t found a husband, which would then justify my dating efforts because the net sum would be an awesome step dad and pseudo-intact family.
But then I talked myself down from the edge. Because if there is one thing that I’ve learned in this lifetime is that families are never how they appear on the outside, humans are complex, and life is long.
For one, all kinds of distractions can pull parents’ energy and time away from the family unit: any number of addictions, illness (mental and otherwise), job loss and career challenges, horrible children, meddlesome in-laws, natural disaster, affairs, crushes and conflict within the couple’s relationship. Some of these challenges lead to the demise of the marriage, others survive and grow from them, and others remain intact but bitter.
Which is not to dismiss the tragedy that is divorce. Or the reality that kids from divorced families struggle in specific ways, or that single moms spend less time with their children than married moms. But increasingly research finds that long-term, only a small portion of children of divorce fare worse than the general population, and solid parenting in any family scenario has the biggest influence on how the kids turn out.
And that brings it back to the individual. If — like me — you enjoy dating and find that you are happiest if you are sexually fulfilled and enjoying the pursuit of your romantic goals, that makes you a better, more fulfilled mom. And if you aren’t enjoying single life (dating or not), that is not the end of the world, either. Because life is long and cyclical and you may be experiencing an unhappy spell while your married friends are struggling with his porn addiction or her chronic unemployment or any number of other, temporary challenges that people face.
And it is all OK.