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.
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, Oprah.com, 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.