Single parent dating guide: When it's time to get back in the game

By Laura Pratt on January 31, 2012
The online profile had been intriguing enough: Dark-eyed stranger, at least as tall as me, a smattering of common musical tastes (I would forgive him Metallica), some hint of wit, a suggestion of creative energy, a fondness for the canine set, his own hair.

My requirements were few and he seemed to fulfill them, so we met at a bar. He came out without his wallet, he explained as he settled into his chair, in mock tones of lament. I bought him a beer. He told me he was an inventor, but when I inquired of his creations he grumbled that other people had gotten to all his best ideas first. He was “between jobs,” he eventually admitted. He told me how much he’d paid for his home, citing a vast number that made my eyes go big. But when I dropped him off later (he had no car), he admitted he was a renter, and that he’d paid that much toward his apartment over the years. He chuckled at his cleverness. I reached across and opened his door.

And so went my first foray into the universe of dating as a single parent. Awkward, expensive, enlightening. For all of the halting, inelegant dating when I was young and single, I could never have predicted how romance-seeking at this stage in life would play out. The rules defining the game were essentially the same, but the players might as well have been parachuted in from a different sport.

For as long as there have been relationships there have been bustups. “Human beings are sexual, emotional and relational,” says Stephen Giles, a couples counselor and social worker in Toronto. “To deny that part of ourselves is serious.”

Radha Rampersaud agrees. The 45-year-old massage therapist and acupuncturist from Hamilton, Ont., ended a seven-year marriage in 2007 when her daughter was three. “I’d love to be in a long-term relationship again. I miss the intimacy. I miss having the energy of a man. I have a lot of friends, which is wonderful, but to be with a man at that level is something else altogether. It would break my heart to imagine never having that in my life again.”

Some single parents find themselves lonely, especially when their children are with the other parent, says Desiree Blume, a registered clinical counsellor from Vancouver. “They want to share their lives with someone else. It’s a natural impulse.” More than that, a dating parent could provide a valuable role model for their children, particularly if they haven’t had an example of healthy pairings.

But dating at this life stage can be full of challenges we’d never imagined in our pre-child courting days. One such challenge is the guilt of dating, and the weight it brings to bear on our perception of our entitlement to a healthy relationship.

Moms vs. dads

“A lot of times women will feel badly about going out and having their own life and leaving their child at home,” Desiree says. When women surface from separation and divorce, we can feel we have to overcompensate for the loss of the other parent and the opportunity for our kids to grow up in a family. “Of course there are sacrifices for single mothers, but we needn’t give up everything. The happier and more balanced we are, the better we’re going to be for our child,” she says.

Which brings us to single dad Frank*, and his current status along the dating-parent trajectory. Frank was caught unawares when his 11-year marriage ended a year ago. He and his two children, aged 10 and 12, are still adjusting to the change. Part of that change was being plunged into the dating world, a world he’d long since forgotten how to navigate. This time he had to do so in the company of kids.

“I know I’m not looking for a new mother for my children,” says the Toronto teacher. “But I would like to find someone who could be with all of us together. I don’t want to have a split life; I want someone who is comfortable with me when I am with my children. I am not looking for just a lover.”

Through expanding circles of friends, Frank met several women, and found a connection with Andrea at a bonfire party hosted by a mutual pal. When he was at the stage to introduce her to his children, he was concerned about the effect this development might have on them. “I don’t want to bring any harm to them,” he says.

Because Andrea is a ceramic artist, Frank thinks a clay-working visit with his kids might be a good entrée for introducing his new friend. “Andrea is more than willing,” he says, “and I thought it would be a good way to ease her into the lives of the children. Either way, I knew I would know when they were ready to meet her.”

Frank was right. The meeting between Andrea and his kids went well and the pair are still together and doing great.

Desiree agrees, noting the same rules apply to both moms and dads. “As long as he is thoughtful of his children, takes time to introduce a new person and makes time to talk openly about how his children are feeling, then he will be able to work through it, painful as that could be at times.” One young client recently told her, “It would be OK if my dad dated. I just want him to be happy.”

Mixing with kids

Fiona Gulliver (a pseudonym) waited for two years after her husband left before entertaining the thought of connecting with another man. It was both for the sake of decorum and so as not to further disrupt the lives of her kids, then only 10 and five. After that, she went into the dating thing whole hog.

When Fiona brought home her first date to meet her children, her kids just stared across the table at him, chewing their hamburgers in silence. After he left, she said, “What do you think of him?”
“I don’t like him,” they both said.
“What don’t you like about him?” she asked.
“Nothing,” they replied.

Now 56, Fiona has been single for 13 years. She has speed-dated, joined organized dating clubs and visited any number of online dating sites. At first she restricted dating to nights when the children were visiting their dad. If she was going to have a guy stay over, it would only be when her kids weren’t around. But that was problematic, she says, “because sometimes my ex-husband would bring them back in the middle of the weekend because they’d forgotten something. My date and I were like, hey, we’ve got the whole house – let’s do something wild in the family room. That would be exactly when one of the kids would come home to get their homework. I took everyone’s keys away.”

The balancing act

The greatest challenge of dating as a single parent is keeping all the balls in the air, says Fiona. “Everybody wants all of mommy. You have to keep all things separate but still meet everybody’s needs. I always tell my kids that they come first, but that doesn’t mean that their demands will trump my personal life. It’s a real balancing act. When you’re dating without kids, you only have to worry about liking each other. Now there’s so much more to think about.”

If the kids don’t like the person (and most of them won’t, says Fiona), you have an added pressure. “A lot of times your kids will hate the guy simply because he’s dating you.”

It’s just as tricky if they like your new squeeze. Fiona’s son became quite attached to one man she dated for four months. He helped him with a school project, took them to an NHL game and paid a lot of attention to the entire family. She says it was hard for her son when she ended the relationship.

A matter of timing

The question of when to introduce a new love to the kids is one of the bugbears of parental dating. There are so many things to consider:
  • the length of the relationship
  • the age of the kids
  • the potential for a future
  • how to publicly address your new partner
  • how receptive you are to his or  her input on your parenting
  • the risk of presenting a revolving-door impression of mom or dad’s new loves.

It all adds up to potential chaos if not handled properly.

“There are no hard and fast rules on timing,” says Rebecca Murray, a marital and family therapist based in Montreal. “But get a sense that this is going to be a stable figure in your life prior to introducing the child.”  

Getting it right

Ruth Baxter’s 10-year marriage ended when her divorce was finalized in 2005. “I remember thinking that I don’t want to have a sexual relationship with someone else; I just want to have someone to hold my hand and lie under the stars so I can feel less alone.” Eventually, Ruth, a teacher in Toronto, wandered onto Yahoo Personals, and then match.com, where some electronic banter and a handful of dates – some good, some bad – made here feel that there were possibilities.

Then she met Bill and pledged to take it slow with this gentle fellow educator whose kids were grown. They met for dinner and talked for hours over margaritas. “I remember looking at his forearms and thinking how nice it would be to touch them,” she says. When they were taking their leave, Ruth told Bill she’d had a good time and then mumbled something like, “I don’t know what you’ve got going on, but I have a really good feeling about this.” Ruth and Bill moved in together in 2010.

“I was never very good at dating when I was young and single,” Ruth says. “But the biggest difference between dating at 20 and dating at 45 is intention. Bill and I had the best time, but we put off having sex for three or four months because we wanted to be conscious and clear about what we were doing.

“When you date as a grown-up parent, everything is by choice. By this stage in your life, you’re in the driver’s seat, and you’re pointing your vehicle in a direction you’ve really thought about. After all those years of blowing across the lanes and letting someone else steer the course, it’s a pretty wonderful thing.”


*last names withheld
Laura Pratt is a freelance writer in Toronto and a mother of four. Her dating experiences were much more successful after Mr. Forgot-his-wallet

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, February/March 2012.

By Laura Pratt| January 31, 2012

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