Single mom and part-time lover?

How do you look for a lover when you don’t know what you want?

Last time I was dating more than 10 years ago, what I was looking for in a man was clear: the bazillion specifics and intangibles that would make a good husband and father.The list is roughly the same this time around, but the end game is not as obvious.

My kids and I have a great little thing going, and the thought of meshing my daily life with another adult seems potentially rife with disaster. After all, anyone who has been married can tell you that it’s the tiny travesties of dirty socks on the floor, improperly loaded dishwashers and wayward toothpaste caps that peck away at the majestic Redwood of romance. Before long all that is left is a wee toothpick of what may indeed be love, but one that could not prop up a tent made of Kleenex. Add to it the thought of various children, exes and emotional baggage and I come close to blacking out, closing out my OKCupid profile, and strapping on my chastity belt

If a new husband is on your agenda, I suggest avoiding statistics on divorce rates for second marriages, and if you stumble upon figures for unions involving kids from previous relationships, avert your eyes.  Sure, cohabitation is a natural step in a relationship, but could it ever work for me? What about co-parenting? Why not find something between miserable solitude and the Brady Bunch?

My most recent relationship was a big one for me, and my SMILF BFF can’t understand why it didn’t work out – especially when I share my reluctance to have a full-time, live-in lover. Larry and I had a great thing going. Like me, he’s divorced, a writer, and a smartass. He’s also a great dad, even though his kids are now college-age and he lives alone in a beautiful brownstone apartment in one of the city’s prettiest neighborhoods, about an hour away.

We had a routine that was made up of two distinct parts: once a week he’d spend an evening at my place with my kids. I’d cook dinner, and he’d toss them around the living room, read them Dr. Seuss and go along with the little projects kids often dream up. Once I found Helena and him – crayon in hand — drawing clothes on a piece of a paper, cutting them out with plastic scissors and taping them on her Barbie.

I loved seeing Larry with the kids – he clearly adored them, they him, and Larry and I were in love. Everyone loved everyone, but then it ended. Even though I never said it, I wanted more, and he couldn’t sign on to being a father figure to little kids again. But did I really want more? Or did I just want him to want more? Did I need him to beg to thrust himself into my life to prove his commitment? He was totally committed to me, he’d often say. And he was committed – this man loved and adored me in ways no one else ever has. If I made a list of all the things I’d hope someone would appreciate me, he had it covered – including my qualities as a mom.

But I think the parts of me that he appreciated most were those on display in the second part of our relationship – the weekends when my kids were with their dad and it was just the two of us. His brick-walled apartment was like our private getaway as we’d talk for hours over dinner at nearby bistros, spend long mornings in bed after which he’d make coffee and run out for fresh bagels. Things people do when they don’t have kids. And for 24 hours on the weekend, that is indeed who I was.

But the rest of the time I am a very fulltime mom to two tiny children who need a whole lot of me. This is my life. I am my life. And I love my life more than I ever imagined I would. To be with me means being part of this life – doesn’t it?

Or can it be something else?

I recently heard from a single mom who was feeling down and lonely and dismayed by her dating prospects. “I want something just for me,” she said. She couldn’t yet fathom incorporating a man into her family life. But she is a woman who needs to be with a man. So am I. How can I make that work?

Of course, this can’t be all about me. What Larry didn’t say but what I sensed was that he wanted more, too. He’s an adult with hobbies and friends but when we were dating he spent a lot of time watching cable and talking on the phone with me. He was welcome to spend more time at my home, but he didn’t come. Instead, he waited patiently for the times we could be alone. Those were times I waited for, too.

Over the past couple of years I’ve written about all the fun I’ve had dating. I also wrote about a heartbreak or two. And a couple times I’ve found myself in relationships. For me, dating is simple. Sex is a carefree frolic on a spring day in the Alps. Relationships? Another story (or six):

In bed I’m accepting. You’re nervous? Maybe worry you’re a little tubby around the waist? Quicker or slower or softer than you think things out to be? It’s all good. You’re human! I’m human! Let’s enjoy ourselves.  In relationships? I’m critical. If you have shitty table manners or talk too much about your years and years (and years and years) of therapy, your presence evokes impulses to shove the cloth napkin way, way, way down my own throat right there in the osteria, using the table knife to effectively lodge the linen in my esophagus and take me to the sweet release of the white light.

In bed I am patient. There is something — something delightful, wonderful, actually — about the process. Exploration and learning each other. The slow build and ever-promise of discovery. Out of the sack? I’m inpatient. What’s the rush, you ask? Not sure. I feel vulnerable — insecure, I admit  — if I am not confident in your feelings, like, yesterday

When it comes to sex I don’t judge your history. You and your ex never did it? More pent-up lovin’ for me! Things were rote in your last relationship? Just a poor match — let’s kick it. In dating, I revert to the maxim: people don’t change. Your behavior over the past 40 years is a great indicator of how you will moving forward. Fooled around on your wife — and every other woman you’ve dated? I accept that is who you are. All your girlfriends complained you weren’t romantic or attentive? I’m not going to be the exception.

In bed I have no issues asking for what I want. Or giving what you want, for that matter. The pleasure is really is all about the giving, and allowing to be given to. In relationships, I can be passive aggressive. I don’t try to be. It’s not that I set out to play games. No. It is just that when I’m annoyed or irritated or hurt or devastated I usually don’t trust those feelings. I tell myself that I am wrong and that my judgement is off. So I don’t express how I feel. But those feelings come out anyway, because that is what feelings do (that is what my therapist said, anyway).

Sex is fun and uncomplicated for me. Once in a while you stumble upon an outlier — someone really selfish or way too freaky for the general population. Otherwise, an occasional unilateral orgasm is totally fine. Sometimes a person is just exhausted and can’t keep up with the other tonight. I’ll get you next time — or trust you will get me. Relationship do a number on me. Here goes: I tend towards anxious when I’m dating someone seriously. Worried I’m committing to the wrong person. Worried I like him more than he likes me. Concerned that somehow this one, too, is barreling down the road towards yet another heartbreak. No matter how wrong I know it is, I’ll keep score. Have at the mental ready all the thoughtful things I’ve done for you in the past month, or ways I showed I cared — and a long, long list of the slights and inconsiderations you’ve inflicted on me.

I’m clear that I need sex. In the past couple of years I’ve come to accept regular sex as a basic human need — right up there with exercise and love. Relationships? I’m can be super-lonely when I’m not in one. But when I am, I start singing the same blues that everyone does about how hard they are. And then when I really start to sing the blues, I’ll call him. And initiate the not-so hard part.



About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour,, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.


  1. Traci on October 24, 2012 at 9:24 am

    I’m right there with ya, darlin’. As you already know, the whole package can be a “problem” for someone on their way out of the forest. They’ve gotta really WANT the chaos that comes along w/a blended family…Unfortunately, I dont know the answer.:-(

    • Emma on October 24, 2012 at 11:23 am

      Does anyone know of a family that made it work with, say separate homes — or other non-traditional arrangements? How do those play out?

  2. Jennifer Fink on October 24, 2012 at 10:37 am

    Single parents, I think, have to give themselves leeway to explore various relationship alternatives. We grow up in the culture that recognizes “married,” “dating” and “co-habitating,” and kind of assumes that one will progress to the next, with marriage being the end deal. But after you’ve been married and divorced, esp. if you have small kids, reality changes. Marriage or even co-habitating might not be the best next step, even if the guy is great, and that’s OK.

    And for the record, I think it’s kind of nice to have time and space to just be an adult, in a relationship, without kids. ;)

    • Emma on October 24, 2012 at 11:23 am

      Agree, agree and agree.

  3. Peter Bowerman on October 25, 2012 at 5:02 pm

    Great post, Emma…

    I second (or third…) Jennifer’s comment. Often, we tend, as a culture, to hew to old stereotypes about what a relationship should look like, and have a hard time creating the type of relationship that truly works for the two people involved, society’s opinion be damned.

    And that, of course, is what has to happen, IF happiness is the goal. Not that anything’s guaranteed when you’re dealing with inevitably flawed human beings, but it’d better start there.

    Yes, with out-of-the-norm scenarios becoming far less so, it’s often hard for two people, with their own sets of circumstances, needs, hopes and expectations to find common ground, but if they can at least find their way to thinking about it independently of society’s expectations, it’s a good start.


    • Emma on October 26, 2012 at 4:03 pm

      Peter: Like!

  4. Stacia on November 8, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    I feel the same way too. It is all around the kids but also love to have time to getaway and just be.

  5. Nicole on January 27, 2013 at 5:34 pm

    I love your site and I am super intrigued by this topic. I can’t visualize co-habitating again. When I have my kids it’s SO full-on, and when I don’t, I am busy with work, friends, my hobbies and SLEEP! If I met someone amazing, I am not sure when I would introduce. I think I’d probably keep “a dish on the side” until my heart indubitably screamed YES to weaving him into my kid’s lives.

  6. Emma on January 27, 2013 at 6:11 pm

    >>I think I’d probably keep “a dish on the side” until my heart indubitably screamed YES to weaving him into my kid’s lives.

    I’ve had side dishes, and there is indeed something to having a sweet something all for your own that you don’t have to share with your kids. But for the relationship to truly become deeply meaningful, it has to become part of your full life, IMO.

  7. Tracee Sioux on January 27, 2013 at 6:37 pm

    I’m hoping for part-time lover. I want a man in my life, but not so much a step-kid, especially if it’s a toddler, and I’m not into another man parenting my kids. Not now anyway.

    The relationship you describe with Larry sounds dreamy!

  8. Emma on January 27, 2013 at 6:39 pm

    Hi Tracee — It really was dreamy, until it wasn’t. And of course in hindsight (now six months after the fact), I can see all the ways it was dysfunctional. It was a great experience while it lasted.

  9. CJ Massa on March 24, 2013 at 6:56 pm

    I’m curious about how your kids handled the departure of this man they loved in their life? So often the conversation is about the adults but we don’t often hear about how the kids feel about having to unattach from someone they love…

  10. Emma on March 24, 2013 at 8:27 pm

    CJ, that is a good question … they still ask about him from time to time. It is rather matter-of-fact — not sad — but the answer is that I don’t really know how they handled it all-in-all. I think their young age may make it easier, but of course we never know.

  11. Vicki Marie on May 16, 2013 at 8:33 am

    Family is what you make—or where you land—and like many Americans, you already have a vibrant family: composed of one zestful adult and a couple of cool kid-lets. Your kids are covered; they have a father. They aren’t in the market for another dad, because there’s nothing missing for them.

    I think what you started with Larry, with those special brownstone weekends, is sweet and sexy, and hell; I’ll even call it sacred. Adult time. To charge your batteries, amp up your sexual spirit, and luxuriate in the incomparable oasis of desirability.

    What you actually have is this scenario is the best of both worlds; the incomparable nest of love and wonder that is you with your kids: and the irreplaceable pleasure of all your man’s attention and appetite.

    Why does cohabitation have to be a natural step in a relationship? I say, down with dirty socks and the other mundane insults that are destined to chip away at the romance of adult entertainment. Especially when you consider the truth; your family life is perfect, just the way it is now.

  12. MGTOW Man on February 27, 2015 at 9:07 am

    I’d never date a single mother, unless she were a sugar-momma. There are too many 18-27 year olds with less baggage, less drama, and less bitterness to project onto men. And as more and more men refuse to settle for damaged women–40 years + on dating sights, acting entitled to male attention, as if they are the greatest prize on earth and as hot as they were in their 20s–younger women will think twice before settling down with unwise choices, and expecting a white knight to save them from themselves once their wear and tear begins to show. The guy you were dating didn’t owe you a thing, and I’m glad he escaped.

  13. Idrathernotsay on January 8, 2018 at 9:25 pm

    Yes to this! I am a divorced 49 yo with kids. I’m not keen on dating and dealing with yet another relationship to juggle… however, not getting any younger, and would like a sex life of some sort without having to involve my kids.

    I met a man on a divorce forum online, 600 miles away from me. Mid 40s and very involved with his kids too… he and I connected easily, and have traveled to see each other for ‘adult weekends’ 12 times in the past year and a half… we talk/text daily, and are currently planning another trip after the holidays forced us to focus on our families for two months.

    This lovely gentleman is very different from my social circle, totally different classes, but amazingly fun to be with in and out of bed. We have an agreement to tell each other if someone local comes into our lives, so that we can give each other space to develop that relationship. So far, neither of us have, and imo, our connection will be difficult to match. So for now, it is the best set up (besides missing each other terribly) I could hope for. Living in the moment, loving someone like I never knew I was capable of, and having that special ‘us time’ away from kids freinds and family…

    It is special. Glad I found this well written piece, and encourage others to try the same, should the right trustworthy person appear.

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