I recently heard about a single mom who falls madly and deeply in love with every man she dates, convinced each is her next husband and introduces each guy to her daughter as such. Heartbreak ensues time and again for the kid.
This is an extreme version of what not to do. But the problem doesn’t start at the introduction. The problem is the mom’s expectations of dating.
I’ve said plenty about my stance that you should not hide your dating from your children. Furthermore it is perfectly healthy for your kids to meet someone you’re involved with before you commit for ever and ever — much less hit that supposed magical mark of six months that seems to be the socially acceptable moment that guarantees an emotional safe zone for your offspring to be in the same room with a man for whom you have romantic feelings. It is normal and healthy for you to date. Being ashamed of your sexuality and hiding it from your kids is not healthy.
My feelings were confirmed even more a couple months ago when, randomly, on three consecutive Saturdays we welcomed male visitors: one is Steve, a longtime friend who lives in another state and was passing through on work, joining us for breakfast and a tour of the local waterfront. The second is Marc, my single-dad bestie and his young daughter, with whom we spent the day at the beach. The third was a lover, someone I had gone out with, lives far away and made the long trip to see me, and by default, met my kids. He spent a day with me and my kids, who then left for the weekend with their dad.
And guess what? Just as when we hung out with Steve and Marc, my kids were totally cool about hanging out with my lover for an afternoon. They haven’t mentioned him since, and frankly I wonder if they even remember that afternoon.
But they probably would have had I introduced him as my boyfriend.
But I didn’t introduce him as my boyfriend (because he wasn’t), or as their future step-father (uh, not even), or even a friend (because parents use that lie to mask their shame about dating). I didn’t say anything at all, except to introduce everyone by first name, just as with our other guests. I wasn’t sure where that relationship was headed (which, turned out, was down in flames, if you must know), and that was mostly fine with me. Because that is how relationships often go.
And that, I think, is where my dating and parenting divert from the vast majority of people. I very rarely see women spending time with romantic interests for any other reason than to find a husband. And I don’t see much precedent for people in general dating for any other purpose than to hitch up as fulltime mates. Which is fine. But if that is your only goal, then things get confusing as a mom. Because for most people — crazy star-striking-love-at first-sights aside — it takes a long time to know if you want to commit. And when that happens it is very clear, and very different from other types of relationships that may come out of dating.
Here’s an abbreviated list of reasons I date:
Good times. Laughs with a fun, smart guy – why not? I mean, you spend a couple hours at a rom-com and aren’t disappointed that it fails to text the next morning.
Company. Life is lonely. Sometimes I hang out with friends who are annoying because I don’t have anything better to do. Sometimes I go out on dates with men who are annoying because I don’t have anything better to do.
Business. Once on OKCupid I was contacted by a gorgeous British plumber who lived in New Jersey at the exact same time I was trying to find a plumber to unclog my toilet. He thought I was joking when I shared the coincidence. The situation resolved itself before he could come to my rescue (but not without producing plenty of porn-quality fantasies between my ears), but had that worked out it would not have been the first or last professional contact I made through dating.
Friendship. You know Marc I mentioned above? We went on an OKCupid date when we decided to be friends.
In other words, I can find compatibility of all sorts with many different kinds of men. So when something really special comes along, it is easier to discern him from a guy who was valuable for a fun evening or replacing a flush valve. Which brings me to another reason I date:
Looking for love. Duh.
Looking for a husband. Absolutely.
In essence: Dating is life. Parenting is life. Stop making such a big deal out of the former, and the latter becomes far less complicated.
Related posts on single parent dating:
Single moms discuss dating, sex and kids
My single mom friend Morghan and I discussed this topic in detail, inspired because we both had a bad reaction to a recent Huffington Post article discouraging single parents from rushing into introducing a potential mate to the kids. She is a fellow single mom to two preschoolers, and a divorce lawyer and mediator.
Last night we IM'd about the article and when to introduce a boyfriend to the kids:
Me: So what was the one thing about that HuffPo article that really ticked you off?
Morghan: It bothered me that somehow mom isn’t allowed to have a sexual side because that might make her teenage kid uncomfortable. Like parents should hide the fact that they are full people, and that kids should be sheltered from that part of their lives. Which renders their personal lives as unseemly.
Me: I totally agree. It shames the whole idea of a parent as a sexual, dating person. Puts a negative spin on it for all parties, including – especially — the kids.
Morghan: We aren't afraid to give our kids Xbox360 and blast-your-head-off war games, but they’re not allowed to see mom date.
Me: Ha! Excellent point.
Related: Podcast episode answers the question:
Should I tell my ex I have a boyfriend?
Morghan: I'm not saying every Tom, Dick and Harry need to have dinner at the house, but seems like the kids may be better adjusted in the long run if they aren't kept in the dark.
Dating is a normal part of life — including for single moms
Me: Of course we are all concerned about hurting our kids. But I agree that that making dating a normal part of life — not some colossal deal just because our kids meet someone we're involved with — lessens the blow if and when those relationships should end.
Morghan: Well put.
Me: But what do we say to the status quo which says, “It’s normal for you to have several relationships after your divorce, and it hurts so much for the parent when those ends. It's not fair to subject your kids to that same pain”?
If and when the relationship ends …
Morghan: To them I’d say: Kids need to see how we recover from the blow of relationships ending. Why isn't that healthy? I tend to wonder if the people screaming the loudest about this aren’t shifting fire from their own overly bitter divorce that most like served to hurt their children more than some light dating ever could.
Me: We won't throw stones at those miserable assholes. But to your point – I think there is huge value in teaching our kids that life is about loving, then loosing, then picking ourselves up and forgiving and learning to love and trust again.
Morghan: I don't think it serves them well to shield them from that.
Me: I mean, love always ends. Always. Divorce, breakups, death, or love just dies in a regular, old unhappy marriage. Plus, by embracing dating — it embraces the fact that half of people have been divorcing for 40 YEARS! OUR CHILDREN WILL DIVORCE! They will have multiple long-term relationships! THAT IS LIFE TODAY!
Morghan: Call me a romantic but I still believe in marriage and love. Divorce is not akin to death and taxes. But I guess that is where we part ways.
Me: I’m also incredibly romantic. I totally believe in marriage and love. I also believe that we have no choice but to accept that they both end. They just do. That is why we're having this convo :)
Morghan: And honestly, I hope my children learn from my mistakes and don't have to suffer through a divorce. But they will most definitely suffer through break-ups, heart breaks and failure.
Me: There is another side of this. I’ll share a personal story. I was involved with this guy Larry for a year, and he definitely knew the kids and saw them regularly. But it was also clear that there were limits to how much he was willing to be involved. And one day the kids and I were in Brooklyn for some family event, and Helena asks where we are, and I tell her, and she says, “Larry lives in Brooklyn! Can we go to his house?!” They had never been to his house. And it was like a stab to the gut – it was clear that I was participating in a big party that they were not invited to.
Single mom with a lover on the side
Morghan: To a certain extent, isn't some of that party just for you?
Me: Well, yes. That was the extent of that particular relationship. But that is not how I want to raise my kids. Or the relationship I want with them – I don’t want that distance that having two separate lives creates.
Morghan: I think it is hard to just set a marker for everyone because every relationship is different.
Me: Of course.
Morghan: But I don't think that means we should be hiding anything. Plus, the fact that our kids are so young makes it easier. They seem so accepting of things.
Me: I totally agree (both our kids are almost 3 and 5). But what about people who say, “Determine the time to introduce depending on how your kid will react”? I say – fuck that. We are the parents and we decide. If we feel our partners should be part of the family in some way, that is what goes. We don’t cower to a kid’s tantrum!
Morghan: Yes, agreed. And as a parent you have to address however your kid reacts – because that is your job as a parent to help them work through it, not avoid it.
On one board, a mom pointed out that her ex's girlfriend broke up with him after meeting the kids (at the six month mark) and that was even harder because the kids felt guilty.
Me: That is too bad. It’s the parent's job to make sure they understand that it is NOT their fault (again, it's not all about the kids!) and here is how we face that adversity.
A lesson in adversity
Morghan: Agreed. I said this earlier: I’d rather know that I taught them to face adversity than to just be in constant search for happiness. Happiness changes. How you face the difficulties of life is a skill that is being ignored because it doesn't make kids happy.
Me: I more or less agree, but those things go hand-in-hand. You have to be strong to get through all the lousy stuff that happens in life and believe that happiness exists on the other side.
Morghan: I think happiness is within – not out there.
Me: OK, Yoda.
Morghan: I was being serious.
Me: On one board I heard a mom say something like, “If I want to actually build a relationship, I need to spend time with a man, and that means that he has to come and hang out at my house. We can't build something by seeing each other once every two weeks because we have kids.” It often comes down to schedules and practicality. Which is life.
Me: This was super-stupid in the article: However, remember that you have children now so it isn't quite the same as it was before. Children often become embarrassed and confused when seeing their parents act like adolescents.
Single moms are told to be ashamed of their sexualities
Morghan: That totally pissed me off. Like we shouldn't let our kids see us experience life. Whomever wrote that needs a bitch slap.
Me: Or get laid!
Morghan: Maybe that is why this experience of dating now is so much like middle school. That is how middle schoolers react – “Oh, don't let anyone know so and so is growing arm hair!”
Morghan: Parents falter, and kids need to see it.
Me: So true.
Morghan: So maybe if we’re open about our relationships our kids will have an easier time in middle school. LOL
Me: LOL. Also, it's about owning this as normal adult human behavior: People need companionship, and it is hard to find good mates, and we get our hearts broken and act foolish, but also find great love that can bleed into the rest of the family.
Morghan: Yes, I definitely agree. Great love that should bleed into the family. I say, there is no limit on how many people can or should love my kids.
Me: I so agree! Another thought:
Why are we so opposed to our kids becoming attached, and that person leaving? For example, Helena's BFF at school Eleanor is moving in the summer. Hopefully we’ll stay in touch, but let's get real- that likely won't happen, even though I'm very fond of her mom who is my friend.
That doesn't mean we hang out with them any less, or discourage the girls’ closeness. Truly caring for someone is a precious thing, and should not be avoided just because it might hurt one day.
Morghan: Right, people lose people and it fucking hurts. But it happens.
Me: Shit happens, kids!
Morghan: And we have to model for our kids to learn how to cope.
Me: Yes, coping. But I also think a lot about how I want my kids to see me in loving relationships with other people – men, friends, etc.
Me: Growing up, my mom dated a bunch at various times, and I loved that. But she never had any serious relationships, and that was way worse — I didn't have ANY model for relationships, good or bad. I saw that she never got over her divorce and saw that as a huge fail.
Single moms can teach their kids healthy dating attitudes
Me: I want my kids to see resilience, and to me resilience means loving again. Not just coping with loss. Which brings us again back to the when.
Morghan: Kids do have to be in the mix to see if the relationship is going to work. In my case, I thought I didn’t want anything serious, and so I brought my kids around my new boyfriend as a deterrent – and then watched in awe as this guy threw himself into the mix with them. Then I realized that was something worth exploring.
Me: You tried to sabotage the relationship with your kids, but they just sweetened the deal.
Morghan. Exactly! But I really don’t see why bringing a potential mate around the kids is shameful.
Me: Word to your mother! Or, Word to you, mother!
Me: LOL. One thing that I feel strongly about is people who (and this is you, sorry) say, “Oh we'll just tell the kids we're friends hanging out.” Kids know everything.
Morghan: They do – but I have a hard time finding where to draw the line between what is age appropriate information.
Don't lie to the kids — they understand everything anyway
Me: I think the general rule should be THEY ALL UNDERSTAND EVEYTHHING . Lucas was tiny — not even 2 — and we were reading the Dinosaurs Divorce book and he pointed out that, “Mommy kisses Larry.” It wasn't like we were making out in front of the kids! Just a hello peck. And even though he was 1, Lucas understood there was something different there.
Morghan: Right – so at what point are we to give them the tools to articulate dating?
Me: It depends on the kid, of course, but the same rules apply no matter what — we do what we think is right, address their concerns, keep things real.
Morghan: So my story ends with my “friend” playing with Ozzie at the dining table, while my ex has come over and is packing lunches. I’m furiously blow-drying my hair to get ready for work.
Me: That's a good story!
Morghan: Then it hit me: I'm in the Twilight Zone. I don't think most people experience that.
Me: And you also got sex and a homemade breakfast in the Twilight Zone, correct? Not to mention unpaid childcare. I think I just had an orgasm typing that.
I was pleased but also a little surprise by all the positive response bestowed upon my recent post, My boyfriend slept over for the first time and hilarity (and normalcy) ensued.
Clearly there is a whole lot of sentiment out there that you are a filthy whore if you are a mom and you seek out romantic companionship. Ty commented:
As a single mom, it is a social stigma for me to date. Many feel that my life as a woman should have stopped when I had children. Someone even suggested that it’s okay for men to move on but I should solely dedicate my life to my children.
That makes me want to bust out my nunchucks and beat the crap out of society. But you are safe here, and I’m here to tell you: Date! It’s normal — healthy! There will likely be heartbreak and missteps. You are human. But do not feel ashamed of your emotional, social or sexual needs. Embrace your womanhood in all its splendor. This is what a good mom does.
And when you are ready, bring around your family. Yes, consider how you do this. Respect your kids’ reactions. Talk about it with them. But do not feel guilty. Let go of any shame. You are normal and this is healthy.
That said, there are plenty of good reasons to take your time introducing your kids to your new amore. Maybe you don’t ever introduce him at all.
Here are some good reasons you may want to delay or forego integrating your new guy into your family:
1. You recently broke up with someone else.
Even though you may be ready to move on, you’re not sure your kids are.
2. You’re afraid your new guy will be really awesome with the kids.
Which will make you totally love him even way, way more. Maybe you’re not ready for that kind of emotional intensity. It scares you. That’s cool. Take it slow.
3. You’re afraid he might not be so great with your kids.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t date him — it means that he might not be part of your family life. Sometimes you just need a lover or someone to take you out to dinner now and again. Not all relationships are the giant, Brady Bunch, 24/7 kind. Maybe you’ll want that sort of partnership in another phase of your journey.
4. You want to prolong the courtship.
Face it: if he’s spending every Wednesday enjoying meatloaf and mashed potatoes with you and the kids, he’s not taking you out of wild-boar-and-crimini-mushroom meatloaf and truffle-laced heirloom purple potato mash at that cute place downtown on Wednesdays. Family life is wonderful. But that shit’s not glamorous.
5. You’re afraid your family life will make him run.
Truth? It might. Especially if he doesn’t love you (yet). It’s hard to imagine that a man who did not sire your kids might actually like them and also want to fuck you. But it happens all the time. Maybe you want feel more secure in the relationship before you bring him home to the circus that is your life. Take your time!
6. You don’t want to signal to him it’s serious (yet).
You may accept that introducing a guy to your kids does not indicate that he’s your forever boo. But he may not see it that way — which is understandable because most people in our culture wouldn’t, either. If you’re playing it cool and not ready to jump in with your heart and soul, but worry he will think you’re eager and commitment-ready if you invite him to join your clan for Disney on Ice, wait.
7. You want him all to yourself.
This is not selfish. See #3. Not every relationship is meant for marriage or family. Having a lover that is separate from your daily life can be a fabulous arrangement. If that suits you, embrace it.
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.