Growing up, my mom, who was divorced, dated a lot for a few years. I loved it. I loved watching her get dressed up to go out to dinner or dancing. I'd sit on her bed as she'd stand at the dresser and set her blond, permmed hair on rollers, apply makeup and a spritz of Norell, her signature fragrance. She was happy, looked like she felt pretty. Then the cool teenage babysitter arrived , and my brothers and I did everything we could do to contain our rambunctiousness before my mom left.
This was back in the 1980s, and the guys she dated grew up in the 50s and 60s, and they would come to the house and pick her up. They often brought flowers — even on (especially?) first dates. My mom used these interactions as opportunities to teach her kids manners, and we learned about shaking hands, introducing one's self and looking the other person in the eye when you spoke.
A few of these guys turned into relationships that lasted a few months, and in those cases, if they had kids, we'd all have outings. I remember a few times everyone sleeping over at our house.
The guys were nice, the kids were nice, my mom was happy around these men and it was all very normal.
Today, when I hear single parents talk about dating, the most common scenario is waiting until the magical six-month mark to introduce an amour to the kids. Divorced couples even mutually agree that the kids will not lay eyes on a romantic partner until half a year has passed. Some even go as far as engagement.
Most attitudes about single moms and dating are sexist
Making a giant deal out of introducing kids to a romantic partner suggests that dating — whatever that means to you — is shameful. That the only moral way to interact with a man who is more than a friend or relative is to be in a long-term, committed monogamous relationship. Moreover, this practice is based on the notion that mothers have zero business being sexual adult women with needs that include romance, companionship and emotional connection.
By keeping dating secret from your kids tells them:
- Mothers dating is shameful.
- Dating is shameful.
- Any future notions they have of a romantic life is shameful.
- Your kid is a moron. I've heard from countless children of divorce who say, “My mom would be all dressed up and acting funny and obviously going on a date, but insist that she was just meeting her friends for drinks.” Do you want your kid to believe you're an adult woman, or a liar?
I appreciate the counter-argument. Some of you will post comments about your sister-in-law, or mother, or cousin who paraded countless men through their children's lives. That the kids got attached, and when the relationships ended, the kids were devastated. To this I say:
- If you have a healthy dating life and don't expect every single date to lead to lifelong marriage — and don't promote each date as a future husband-slash-step-father to your kids, this isn't a risk.
- People cycle in and out of our kids lives all the time. That is the nature of life, as I wrote in this post. Neighborhood friends move away, kids graduate from one beloved teacher's class to the next. Grandparents die and new siblings steal parents' attention. Embracing this reality is far healthier than pretending it does not exist, and seeking out guarantees of permanence.
I've been thinking a lot about how our culture so damn mothers' sexuality. Yeah, we're all cool with women having casual sex and women owning their orgasms and women being as freaky as they want to be.
But for moms? Different rules entirely.
Women with children are expected to abide by an antiquated, prudish code that renders us chaste, “good” examples for our children. Which is bullshit, of course, because moms have just as many sexual needs and desires as other women. In fact, I believe motherhood is a massive gateway to unlocking your sexuality, if your experience is like my own. That experience includes evolving from a perfectly healthy sexual woman, to a woman who is now fully living in my body for the first time and enjoying my body and other people's bodies more than ever in my life. And I am now a mom.
FYI, just yesterday I ordered from Amazon The Neutered Mother, The Sexual Family and Other Twentieth Century Tragedies. Stay tuned for a review of this 1995 academic tome!
Then today a reader posted this awesome comment that even I was not bold enough to write myself. It is in response to this popular post:
Oh my goodness, thank you for writing this. I am overwhelmed with the amount of conservatism and self-sacrifice people expect of single moms.
I have a two and a half year old and am newly dating someone (about 3 months in). We've not had a sleepover yet, but we're serious about one another — given, we're as serious as you can get in a few months — and I don't think sleepovers are too far off for us.
Shocker — I believe in modeling healthy sexuality for my daughter. I read in some thread that if I don't want my kids having a parade of partners through their lives then don't show them how to do that. Well, I actually don't care if my daughter decides that she wants to have lots of casual sex… when she is capable of making that decision — near or at adulthood. I also don't care if she is gay, or decides polyamory is for her, or is into kinky sex. All I care about is that she feels respected and empowered and in control of her sexuality. I care that she doesn't hurt others or manipulate them, so I will make sure I don't date people who are hurtful and manipulative. I care that she can communicate her wants and needs to someone she cares about, so I will model that for her in my relationships. What I cannot protect her from is loss. We lose people we love. Sure, I don't want her to be heartbroken if I can prevent it, but I won't always be able to do that.
Sometimes we will make the wrong choice, and our kids will have to go through those consequences with us. This is true whether we are happily married forever or single parents and dating. We will cause pain to our kids. Hopefully rarely, but it is inevitable. How we help them heal is much more important than that it happens.
Anyway, thanks for bringing this refreshing perspective to the overwhelmingly conservative, prudish, and outdated conversations around this topic.
This note calls to mind meeting at a party a woman who casually recounted a conversation she had with her teenage daughter: “I told her, ‘You have so many great talents and strengths, I really want you to focus on school and activities and not date until your senior year in high school — or later.’ She burst into tears! But I think she got over it.”
I’m not sure why I was so repulsed — after all, it’s nothing new that parents are strict about their daughters and dating. It’s not just indicative of ancient ideas about girls and sexuality (we must protect our precious daughters’ precious virginity!), but current trends that push young women to career and financial success to the point of forsaking their emotional and maternal needs, as I explored in this post.
That recent incident led me to explore my own ideas about how I will manage my kids’ dating lives. My policy will be to allow them to explore dating as very soon as they want (if not sooner). Here’s why:
- Insisting my kids to focus on school (and by proxy, career and money) before dating establishes priorities for them. My job as a mom is to help my children form their own thoughts on these giant issues — not impose my own.
- Of course, my own feelings will influence that of my kids (one way or the other), and I want my belief on this topic to be clear: Love, relationship and family are the most important things in life. Dictating that our children consciously delay dating en lieu of building a competitive college application signals that college, career and coin trump all. I don’t believe that.
- Telling young people to ignore the biological, social and emotional urges to date represses their intuition, which diminishes self confidence.
- Instructing young people to ignore the biological, social and emotional urges until a specific date indicates we can fit biology into our lives when it’s convenient. Which is a lie. Just read this article about infertility.
- Forbidding romance deems love, sex, romance and passion shameful. It’s not shameful. It’s awesome – the best stuff of life. I want my kids to have it in spades!
- Denying young adults the right to date tells them, ‘It’s not OK to screw up.” It says: “You only have one chance to get accepted to a good college/get a great investment banking job/ save up for a home / start stockpiling retirement savings early. If you spend too much time fooling around behind the football field bleachers and don’t get a good SAT score, you will pay the price for the rest of eternity.” I don’t live like that, and I hope my kids never do, either.
- Telling them to start dating at a specific time suggests that relationships are instantly had and held. They are not. Successful relationships require tons of work, patience and practice. Early and positive learning experiences in love are at least as important as early and positive learning experiences had in school, sports and business.
- I can’t control them. No matter how great a relationship I hope to maintain with my children, they are their own people. As my wise friend Traci once said: Sex and teenagers are like monsoons and tornadoes: Not one thing you can do to stop ’em from happening.
It should go without saying that my kids will know alllllll about safe sex, and respecting their own and others’ bodies. It’ s my duty to help them seek balance and strive for success in every part of their lives. But starting now, at ages 3 and 5, I hope my children start to absorb the message that dating is positive. Their bodies’ signals are natural and beautiful. And that no matter what, there are few decisions that are perfect, or mistakes that are not ripe for learning. And that love trumps all.Question: What messages do you tell your kids about dating? Do you restrict when they can start?
What do you think? Do different sexual rules apply to women and moms? Post in the comments ….
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.
A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.