By Melissa Chianta
Their first date was amazing. They talked for hours and the chemistry was sizzling. Before long there was a wedding, then a new son, and, after a few years, another boy. Some 20 Christmases and birthdays had passed when one day there was a knock on the door. The man outside delivered some shocking news. “My wife has been having an affair with your husband for the last seven years.”
Cynthia was devastated. Overnight, the then 40-year-old Sonoma County stay-at-home mom joined the ranks of the nation’s 13.7 million single parents.
Even though she didn’t think she would recover, she did, and eventually found herself ready to date again. But it wasn’t easy.
Any single parent will tell you that dating is full of obstacles. It’s hard to find free time, let alone the courage to open up again. Being able to sneak away for a few hours of fun is largely dependent on custody arrangements and finding a good sitter.
Money is also usually tight. Grace, a 40-year-old Sonoma County resident, rents out a room in her house, currently to an exchange student, to make ends meet. Meanwhile, Todd, a middle-aged Sonoma County dad, works one night a week driving for Lyft to fill in the holes in his budget.
In addition to a dearth of time and cash, it can be hard to find someone who understands a parent’s priorities and lifestyle.
“Whomever you date is going to have to share you. When you are dating [without children], it’s all about the two of you. When you have kids, [they] come first,” says Cynthia.
Parents also require flexibility; they may need to reschedule at the last minute due to a sick child or a tantrum—or because they are just plain exhausted. And they don’t have a ton of extra cash for expensive restaurants or overnight trips.
What a single parent wants out of dating varies from person to person. Some are looking for potential partners and others just a night of interesting adult conversation or even a sexual liaison. For a while after their breakups, Cynthia and Grace just wanted to make new friends. They both saw a wide variety of men of various ages and walks of life in an effort to figure out what they wanted—and didn’t want—in a partner.
For Cynthia, finally taking the step out into the dating world was an act of self-nurturance. She had felt guilty about making any time for herself, but once she did, it had a surprisingly positive impact, not only on herself, but also her kids, who were “a mess” post-divorce.
“In a period of 30 days they went from being unhappy all the time to smiling all the time, and stayed that way. They were so connected to me that…it didn’t matter what I was doing for them because they could feel my sadness. It took me being selfish—getting a sitter or making sure their dad took them more—and suddenly they were fine,” she says.
Cynthia and Grace eventually both met potential long-term partners whom they’ve been with for about a year. Todd and Pam, a 47-year-old Lake County mom, are still looking. Both want a partner, but meeting people is a struggle. Neither has had much success with Internet dating, though Todd keeps trying. Pam gave up, after too many encounters with people she found dishonest and lacking self-awareness. Both seem to have better luck meeting people through friends.
Once a single parent does find someone he or she likes enough to date regularly, the issue then becomes when to introduce the new love interest to the children. Dr. Judith Phillips Sill, a Mendocino County psychologist with decades of experience working with children of divorce, recommends agreeing on a time frame with your co-parent—say six months to a year—and sticking to it.
Sill is quick to point out that it’s not a good idea to introduce kids to a new partner right after a divorce, when children are acutely grieving the loss of their family unit and clinging to the hope that their parents will reconcile. Already in a vulnerable state, they may become afraid of losing their parent to a new partner or the partner’s children, she says.
Cynthia knows that her kids attach easily and that “they would just fall apart if they had another loss,” so she’s been extremely cautious about introducing her children to anyone new. She’s waited as long as a year and a half.
Louisa Gluck, a former Sonoma County psychotherapist, says that the six-months-to-one-year rule is a great guideline, but also admits that everyone’s situation is different. Grace, for instance, had planned to wait six months before any meet-and-greets happened with her kids. But then she fell for someone they already knew.
Regardless of how it happens, introducing a child to a new partner is a time of profound risk and vulnerability, says Gluck. But it’s a necessary step. There are some things that you aren’t going to know—like how your new partner and kids get along—until everyone spends time together.
It doesn’t always go smoothly. Both kids and new partners are prone to jealousy. Cynthia’s first serious post-divorce partner responded with such resentment toward her kids when he first met them, she never let him see them again. Meanwhile, Pam’s nine-year-old boy was known to say with exasperation, “Are you going to be around later, or are you going home?” to her last serious boyfriend.
Pam reassured her son that she would always love him and that she had plenty of warm fuzzies to share. “It’s like the sun. There’s lots to go around,” she told him. Grace similarly comforted her eight-year-old son after he told her he thought she loved her partner more than him.
What if, even after being cautious and diligent, your child ends up attaching to someone who leaves? How can you help mitigate your kid’s sense of loss?
“It depends on each individual case,” says Sill. “If your new relationship has lasted say more than six months, and the kids have spent a great deal of time in the company of that person, then I think, depending on how old the children are, there needs to be a lot of attention [on]…honoring the relationship between the partner who is no longer around and the children.”
This may mean working with a counselor, she says, to make sure everyone’s feelings are heard and needs are met.
In some situations, a child may continue to hang out with a former partner for a while, until distance naturally grows between them. Or the former love may take on the role of a friend of the family—someone who is occasionally encountered but isn’t seen regularly.
On the flip side, Gluck says sometimes children end up relating to the old boyfriend or girlfriend longer than a parent does. She knows of one instance where the former partner maintained a lifelong relationship with, and became an important mentor to, a child.
Whether or not your relationship with a new interest works out, it’s essential, says Sill, to establish and maintain a positive and respectful relationship with your child’s other parent. Don’t talk about your ex in poor terms in front of your child or “hide” if you see him or her in public.
After a difficult divorce, this may seem like a tall order, but for Cynthia it was the only way. After her own parents’ divorce, her mom and dad couldn’t be in the same room together for 20 years. She didn’t want to put her kids through that. So she gave herself time to recover and then eventually forgave her ex-husband, who is now a good friend and co-parent.
“I never wanted anything so bad as those kids. And I did not have them to make them all messed up,” she says. “Those first couple of years I had to have some pretty big boundaries so I could heal. But I knew that the goal was to be able to be friends and raise our kids together, which we are actually very good at. I loved my kids more than I hated him.”
In order to get to the place of balance Cynthia feels she has achieved, single parents need support. Groups like North Bay Single Parents provide healthy ways to socialize. However, Sill says, it’s not enough. She thinks that most communities ignore single-parent families, despite the fact that 34 percent of California’s children live in one, and wishes that churches and civic organizations did more for them.
In the meantime, people like Cynthia, Pam, Grace, and Todd are making do with the resources they have. Whatever happens on the bumpy road of raising kids and opening their hearts, one thing is clear: The love they have for their children will always shine as brightly as the sun.
Melissa Chianta is the features editor at Sonoma Family Life Magazine.