"There's a man in the house, and he's not my dad." Romance as a single parent is, indeed, a complicated sport. Here are tips and inspiration for making it work.
Illustration: Indiana Wong
There's a man in my house and he's not my dad,” an outraged five-year-old Kevin* tells me when I go to visit my friend Tara Jenkin* (who had recently split up with Kevin’s father). I watch as Kevin, grinning maniacally, jumps on Jenkin’s new boyfriend’s back and pulls down his pants. The boyfriend laughs: He’s being a good sport. He keeps saying it’s OK, they’re just playing. But they aren’t playing — or at least Kevin isn’t. It’s clear he’s angry.
Accept that dating is hard
“You never know what’s going on in kids’ minds,” says psychotherapist Naomi Galloway. “They may actually genuinely think they’re being replaced. Dating is hard, but with a kid in the picture, it’s much harder.”
How hard is it? First, you have to meet someone. Also, this someone needs to be really OK with you being a parent. Then you have to make all the elements gel — you and the kids and the new love interest. Finally, there’s the potential that the relationship may not work out, and both you and your kids have to say goodbye. Dating for single parents is an extreme act of orchestrating: time, your needs, your dates’ needs, and, most of all, the needs of your children.
Find a mature partner
“There’s no other time I can think of that you need to be an adult more than when you date as a single parent,” says Ottawa marriage and family therapist Kathryn Guthrie.
Troy Hutchison, 36, from London, Ont., had to be an adult early in life. He became a single dad with full custody of his then-four-year-old, Nivek, when he was 23.
Some girls found his situation cute — a guy with a baby being a step up from a guy with a puppy — but many of them weren’t mature enough to handle the reality. He thinks back to one episode. “It was Canada Day, and my girlfriend came over and we put the baby to bed and watched the fireworks going off in the park from the window. She said: ‘I feel like I’ve been grounded.’”
Hutchison couldn’t hang out at the bar on Fridays or go to parties on Saturdays. His parents lived in another town, and babysitters are expensive. As a result, Nivek was always with him. And the girls weren’t looking to hang out with kids — they were in their 20s, more interested in seeing bands than babies.
But after a string of unsuccessful relationships, Hutchison met Cherie Gibson at the record store he manages. “Cherie is five years older than me, and she just seemed ready to settle down when we met,” he says. He told her he was a single dad right away, and on their first date they took Nivek to a movie. “Cherie and Nivek hit it off, right out of the gate.”
Hutchison says that, in retrospect, it’s now clear that a serious relationship could only work with someone who was ready to be a de facto parent.
“You don’t pick who you fall in love with,” says Galloway, “but perhaps it’s better to date someone who understands that you have to cancel your romantic weekend because your kid had been throwing up in your bed the night before.”
So how do you find this understanding person? Many single parents mention online dating because they can say upfront in their profiles that they have children.
“I don’t have a lot of time to date,” says Edmonton mom of two boys Felicia Dewar. “Online dating allows me to weed people out.”
Sara Smith,* 41, also used Internet dating, but she did it because she lives in a small town. “There are only 300 people here so there aren’t a lot of options. When I split up with my ex, there was every single rumour about me — ‘I heard you were dating so and so’ — and that was hurtful.” Online, she met her new beau who lives 200 kilometres away. They meet in a town halfway between.
For now, the distance works, if only to keep Smith’s romantic life separate from her family life. She says she has thought of officially introducing her boyfriend to her seven-year-old son, but decided against it because she didn’t want her ex to know about the new man in her life just yet. “I was concerned it would cause problems as we negotiated our divorce.”
When to introduce the kids
It may be tempting to introduce your kids to your new love interest right away, but many parents choose to wait, often to avoid exposing kids to a series of ill-fated romances, or in case it would cause too much tension in unresolved co-parenting situations.
But then there’s Hutchison, who introduced his son to Gibson right away, and now, seven years later, it’s Gibson, Hutchison, Nivek and the couple’s one-and-a-half year old son, Nolan.
“Everybody is looking for a formula,” says Guthrie. “There isn’t one.”
What to tell the kids if you break up
So what happens if the kid grows attached to the new beau, but you’re calling it quits?
“Use it as a teaching moment,” says Guthrie. “For example, say, ‘this is like friends who move away.’ Be firm about the relationship ending, but provide an age-appropriate explanation for what happened.”
What to do if the kids are unhappy with your relationship
Guthrie says that even if there isn’t conflict with an ex, and even if the relationship is going well, there’s always the potential that not everyone is happy with the new arrangement. Kevin pulling my friend’s new boyfriend’s pants down couldn’t have been more obvious about his feelings regarding the situation.
“Often what kids see is not a relationship, but simply mom or dad not paying attention to them,” Guthrie says.
And this is the crux of the matter: Whether breaking up or getting together, once you’re a parent you’re no longer in the game alone, it’s a team sport.
“You need to include your child in your world always,” says Galloway. “They were the focus of your life before and they need to feel they’re the focus of it now."
*Names changed by request.
A version of this article appeared in our December 2012 issue with the headline "The Dating Games," pp. 50-2.
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