Dating while you're a single mother can be quite the balancing act. If you've never done it before and find yourself dipping toes into dating waters for the first time, you may wonder how anyone manages to juggle it. If dating is old hat, you know of which I speak. You may find yourself looking back with fondness to the days "when it was just you", but honey, those days are gone. And most likely, they're not coming back anytime soon.
So is it possible for single mothers to date with aplomb?
Granted, you may feel like a Chinese acrobat, spinning plates on each hand, one foot ,and the tip of your nose — but it IS possible. Let's jump into the pond and see if we can warm up in the water.
One thing that's totally different is the aspect of space.
No longer are you free to just s-t-r-e-t-c-h out into your days, soaking a new partner up. Instead of lolling around together during the week, you may instead be monitoring homework, rustling up dinner, wrestling laundry, solving a family crisis (sibling squabbling, anyone?), or just attempting to tidy up.
On the weekends, there are more fires to put out, family fun to plan, and schedules outside your control involving visits to Dad for the kids. A Saturday or Sunday in which to do a whole lot of nothing with your new honey pie might seem as scarce as a cluster of shrinking icebergs. You may even fear that your shortage of available time makes you a less-attractive potential mate, but honestly, what can you do about it? It is what it is….
There's also the element of physical space, which in this case, means: privacy. And face it, when you think of privacy, you're probably thinking… sex. And you're right! No matter when sex comes into the picture while you're dating (right off the bat/only after you're engaged — I make no judgments), it's probably going to happen at least ONCE more before you die, right? So how do you handle it? Where do you go? And what do you do when there are small people around, a few rooms over, hopefully sleeping or plugged into their ipods?! (This was probably the LAST thing on your mind while you were in labor. And I don't blame you.)
But privacy issues don't end at the boudoir door. There's also the phone.
You're probably craving the privacy to talk in intimate and hushed tones about grown-up and personal things, the privacy to talk without little ears straining for details. You may feel self-conscious mumbling like a total love-struck idiot on the phone in front of your kids (especially the teens). If you find yourself gabbing away while standing in your walk-in closet or outside in the cold, a soundproof phone booth is probably looking really good right now.
Conjuring up the image of all those cute little ears makes me think of one other really squirmy way you have even less space as a dating single mother: there's the suspended piano; the heavy anvil hanging over your head labeled "Commitment" (note the capital "C"). Commitment comes into play awfully early in a new relationship, which seems completely out of sequence. This can make everyone mighty uncomfortable, yourself included.
We're all familiar with the dreaded stereotype of the floozy single mom, a parade of new partners traipsing through her bed, and by proxy, her children's home. As a mother, you have to be careful about who you're letting into your kids' lives. If you're going to take the plunge, divvying up your free time and eventually having your wee ones meet the new guy, you have to know there's going to be some sort of constancy to this thing.
But how can you know if there's going to be anything to it, if there hasn't been an "it" long enough to tell?
Sometimes… things don't work out and the relationship ends up being more transitory than you had hoped. Unfortunately, either way, there's a lot more pressure on the relationship to BE something that's going to GO somewhere, but you need the luxury of space to suss this out. A true conundrum….
Then there's psychic space. Sure, we all enter relationships with an assortment of baggage (a fuchsia, snappy overnight tote; a gray wheel-y Samsonite; perhaps a banged-up wooden trunk that's been passed down for generations). No one expects otherwise. What your new partner probably wasn't counting on though was being stuck interacting with all these other people. Who are all these people! There's your ex-. Maybe he's remarried, so there's his wife, the stepmom. If they have kids, they're in the picture too. In addition to negotiating a new relationship with you, he's also got lots of other folks to process mentally; lots of stories to digest, events to take in; gossip to catch up on. Will this whole experience end up being antagonistic for him and everyone else? Uncharacteristically positive? No way to know from the get-go.
And then — there's the whole reason dating is such a different animal for you in the first place: the kids!
Like the happily working mother of a young infant you fiercely miss and adore, you may feel forever torn. You want to be there for your children, to love them and give them your time and attention, and yet, you may also your feel guilty about yearning to spend time with the one who makes you go hubba-hubba. Free time, an already limited and valuable commodity, is now being sliced thinner to serve even more people. Chow down!
How can you make sure to get enough moments of connection with your kids while your heart is scanning the horizon for your sweetheart?
I suggest you do at least a weekly check-in and see how everyone's doing: the kids, your new partner and don't forget - yourself. A little negligence where the kids are concerned isn't so bad over a few days' time, but if something stays "off" for more than that, or you find yourself consistently coming back to that same nagging feeling, do something about it!
This is another thing - trying to keep everyone happy. Forget it. Can't be done. Not that everyone can't end up just fine in the long run, but it's not your job to make sure everyone's always smiling and has a spring in their step. Sure, since you're the parent, you've got to ensure that you're making the right choices for your child's security and sense of emotional safety, but if you're envisioning endless evenings of peace and harmony, you might be taken aback by the children's sullen faces, the withdrawn behavior, the lack of interest in your mate (which is not to be confused with the kids' natural reaction if you made some truly lousy choices as a parent - confusing, isnt' it?).
You can't make him entirely comfortable either. It's not pleasant, feeling like the piece of string that's being pulled by both sides, but do your best to help the younger ones, not take on the caretaker role for your partner — and let the rest slide off your back.
(As far as guilt, think about how important it is to model what you want your child to embody or internalize for themselves later on, as adults. Everyone has the right to happiness, to partnership, companionship. While you may feel like crap on some level that you're divorced in the first place, it's still possible to teach your children something positive about relationships, stability and romantic love….)
You're also not in charge of the relationship between the children and (once they meet him) your beau. You can hope they get along, but the less you try to push here, the better. You can't make them like him, or vice-versa. You can't make them want to do things with him, or vice-versa. The best you can hope for is that both parties will take their own tentative steps towards connection, at their own comfortable pace, according to their own personalities, in their own time, and will start creating a foundation of trust and mutual acceptance. It's weird to have something so important be so out of your hands, but truly, it is.
Another unalterable fact: your life is not completely open and yielding like it was when you were a single woman. You've got fixed responsibilities that are not subject to negotiation and there are little people counting on you to do the right thing. I read somewhere that the emphasis shouldn't be on self-esteem these days, so much as self-respect. Are you parenting and managing your life in such a way that you can respect yourself and your actions?
This turns us back to you again and managing your own emotions. As we all know, dating can be some pretty tumultuous territory. Opening your heart wide to love and be loved by another adult is scary business at times — you may find yourself careening between despair and hope, exhilaration and intense insecurity. For your kids' sake, please, do your best to moderate the highs and lows of the rollercoaster ride. And for god's sake, spare them the gory details! Save as much of your calmness, strength and serenity for your home life and your family and you'll thank yourself later (so will their therapist). Plus, your relationship will likely be better off too.
Lots of plates to juggle, huh? If you're feeling overwhelmed, just remember how good women are at multitasking. We can keep a million things in our heads at once. We can dab at a little one's snotty nose while talking to a friend on the phone while stirring pasta and unloading the dishwasher. We can listen supportively to our partner while kissing the top of our child's head as they fidget in our lap while tuning into what's happening on the other side of the house and scratching the dog behind the ear with our foot.
I read somewhere once that mothers are constantly scanning for both love and danger in our families. We're constantly on the lookout for opportunities to love and enrich, to deepen our links to each other, the ties that bind. And conversely, we're scanning for possible threats to the health and well-being of our children and mates, both physical and emotional. By making an earnest, sincere, heartfelt effort to keep those two forces in balance — having them at both the forefront and back of your mind, you'll be just fine.
And so will your family….
© 2008 Jennifer Newcomb Marine All Rights Reserved