Dating after divorce or a spouse’s death can be challenging. Add children to the mix and there are bound to be conflicting and uncomfortable moments. Growing up in a blended family with a stepfather beginning in my mid-teens, I remember like it was yesterday how uncomfortable I felt when my mother first began dating after my father died, and later as she integrated her new husband into our family.
Today as a divorced single mother who is back in the dating pool, I know firsthand the challenges of looking for love and companionship while raising children, as well as how it feels to be a romantic interest to the single fathers I date as they try and do the same. Feelings of jealousy, mistrust, and displacement from both children and the person we are seeing are common as single parents like myself adjust and struggle to include and assimilate all those we care about into our lives, while waiting for that effort to be similarly reciprocated. Devoting enough attention to and spending meaningful time with both someone new and our children from a previous relationship requires finding and keeping a delicate balance of understanding and tolerance, as well as carefully defining realistic boundaries to protect our needs as relevant and vital adults.
Ensuring our children feel loved, safe and secure while doing the same for a potential long-term partner is not always easy. In fact, it is often downright difficult. However, it stands to reason that the more time and effort we devote, the more likely we will be rewarded with healthy relationships all around. But before such harmony can be wholeheartedly enjoyed, certain safeguards must first be in place. Here are eight measures I recommend taking in order to facilitate one day attaining the fulfilling and sustainable relationships we want and deserve in our lives.
1. Be cautious. Making the decision to introduce someone we are dating to our children requires careful contemplation and serious consideration. One of the primary responsibilities we as parents are charged with is the creation of a stable environment in which children can live and thrive. Our home and, accordingly, children’s home is our sanctuary. It is a place of warmth and protection for the entire family. To preserve that sense of security means not inviting people into our lives we do not envision being with us for a long period of time. Though there are no guarantees in any relationship, even marriage, in order to prevent children from unnecessarily feeling disappointed or rejected when a short-term relationship ends or, alternatively, subjecting children to a person whose values we are not altogether familiar with yet, it is best to adopt a wait-and-see approach before welcoming someone new into our family life.
2. Be honest. It is important to be honest with children about our dating habits. No, that does not mean going into graphic detail about adult matters. What it does mean is letting our children know we are, in fact, dating. Children will undoubtedly feel deceived not if but when they discover a parent has been untruthful with them and may be hesitant about trusting what that parent says in the future. Better to advise children of the facts from the outset so they can gradually grow comfortable with the idea of our dating and our reasons for doing so. That way, if and when we do become serious with someone, our children will not be blindsided.
3. Be prepared. But be prepared, children learning a parent is with someone other than Mom or Dad may not be all smiles at first. It may be that merely thinking of that parent with someone else, even before meeting that person, is enough to incite a wide range of emotions, not all of them positive. We as parents need to be aware of and accept that likelihood.
4. Be reassuring. Telling our children we will not welcome someone into their lives they do not like or is not good to them is a first step toward putting our children’s minds at ease. That children understand they maintain an element of control in deciding who comes into their lives will reassure them they are and remain active participants in the family dynamic. However, it is equally important to vocalize the value a new romantic interest brings to our lives. Explain why the person we are seeing is important and how we care for that person, as well as he or she for us. Though we are first and foremost parents, we should be allowed to live life to its fullest. If having a new partner is what will contribute to that, we must remember we, too, are entitled to happiness and will likely be better parents for pursuing it.
5. Be understanding. Let children know feeling uneasy or afraid to meet someone we have been dating is completely natural. There is no right or wrong way to feel in such situations and we want to be sure our children are comfortable enough to voice their concerns and fears now and in the future. By listening with an open mind and heart and without putting pressure on children to respond in a certain manner, we can help pave the way for a smoother introduction and possible integration later.
6. Be patient. Children, even siblings, may require varying amounts of time to acclimate seeing a new person in a parent’s life. Whatever the amount of time it takes for children to get used to the idea is the right amount of time. Placing children on a rigid timetable or forcing acceptance before they are ready will only serve to alienate them from our romantic interest and possibly from us.
7. Be realistic. Understand that no matter what we do or say, our children may never accept, let alone love, a significant other the way we do. Blending a family takes a lot of time and effort and perhaps a little bit of magic to one day grow into the cohesive unit we envision. It is important to remember that no matter how harmonious any blended family is, there will inevitably be rough patches and bumps along the way that will need to addressed and overcome.
8. Be pleasantly surprised. Though integrating a significant other may be a daunting and arduous task, one laden with emotion, guilt and inevitably our share of mistakes along the way, it is important we as single parents remain optimistic there will come a day, with or without note, when that one special person will emerge and we will suddenly look around at all of the love in our lives and realize those darkest of hours somehow led to the brightest of days.