Like plain old "being single", being a single parent is, for most, a temporary thing — that is, the majority of folks who are currently single and raising a child would like to date and eventually settle into a stable relationship. Over 80 percent of divorced parents marries again. It's exciting when you find that someone special, someone you could see yourself spending your future with, but you'll also want to keep your child or children safe and happy in this situation.
Dating as a single parent can raise many questions that childless daters don't have to grapple with, like:
- What if my child doesn't like my new partner?
- What if my partner doesn't like my child?
- How will the fact that I have a new partner impact my child's relationship with their other parent?
- What kind of relationship will work for your child and your partner? Should your partner be a parental figure, or have more of a friend or aunt/uncle role?
Have a 'prep talk' first: Talk to your child about dating and relationships in general
Children — of pretty much any age — thrive in stable circumstances where no big and potentially-unpleasant surprises are jumped on them. So, whether you're looking to date soon after breaking up from their other parent (in which case they may still be hoping you'll get back together) or you've been single for a very long time and that's pretty much all your children know, talking about your hopes to date or be in a relationship can help your children prepare for the idea.
It's definitely time to mention your hopes for the future if you're already dating, but you can also have this discussion if you're not seeing anyone at the moment. Try to ask general questions, probing your kids about how they'd feel if you met someone, and even, for instance, how they think they'd cope if that person also had children, if they didn't like the person, or what their attitudes are toward the idea of a new partner moving in with you guys. When this stuff is on your kids' radar, you give them the opportunity to process the idea and to ask you questions or share concerns.
Is your relationship stable enough? What if you break up with your new partner?
Once you're smack-dab in the middle of a budding relationship that you're pretty excited about, you may wonder how much time should pass before you introduce your kids to your new partner, and your new partner to your kids. In some cases, your children will already know your new partner since before you started dating; if they're a neighbor, coworker, or someone in your long-term circle of friends, for instance. Then, you'll instead wonder about how to tell your child you're dating, rather than making initial introductions.
Research shows that single mothers tend to introduce their kids to their new partner sooner than single fathers, perhaps because they often see their family units as being a "package deal", a close-knit mother-kids set that can't be separated. Rather than doing fun things like hiking or going to the cinema with your partner and kids separately, it may make sense to merge the two sooner. Mothers may also feel weird about "hiding" their relationship from their children, leading to quicker introductions. This has advantages, but also potential setbacks, so think about how you want to handle this in a conscious, meta-cognitive, kind of way.
OK, now, how do you make the introduction? A friend who has a young child and recently started dating simply introduced her new boyfriend as a friend. He doesn't stay over, but they do some fun things, like going to the park and playing some games, together occasionally. This kind of approach has something to say for itself if you have young kids who may latch onto a potential parental figure quite intensely and experience heartbreak if it doesn't work out, but who will accept that there are friends you see often and those you don't see that much at all more easily.
Teens are more likely to notice all, and complete honesty may be the best approach if you have them. Maybe have a meal together, go see a movie, or do something active that allows for physical movement and doesn't look like an awkward "talk on the couch" kind of situation. This way, your children and partner alike can get the space they need if they're overwhelmed.
Listen to your child's feelings and opinions
Some single parents will have the opinion that a new partner comes into a fully-formed family, and everyone needs to be OK with that person for the relationship to move forward. Others will hold that their choice in partner is theirs alone, and they're just there to help their children adjust.
Your child might find the thought of "sharing you" hard, particularly if they're very young, or they may have a strong dislike for your partner. They may be fine with you dating but prefer it if you keep any kissing private and well away from their eyes. Whatever their feelings, you won't necessarily know unless you create an environment in which it's clear to your children that you welcome their input and are there to support them emotionally.
There's also a safety concern I'd like to bring up, and that is the nasty possibility that the person you fell in love with is a sexual predator. Children who live with one biological and one step parent are, research shows, 40 times (!!!) more likely to fall victim to sexual abuse than those who live with two biological parents. Some child predators will purposely select single mothers as dating partners so they can victimize their children. Not nice to think about, I know, but you need to consider the possibility of it happening to be able to spot the signs.
Why is this here, in the bit about listening to your child's thoughts and feelings? Because I (as a person who had this happen to me as a child) want to emphasize the importance of bringing this up with your kids. You can do so in a general context — tell your children that nobody should touch their private parts, ask them to touch theirs, or take pictures of private parts. Tell your children that if anyone makes them feel uncomfortable, or if anyone sexually abuses them or tries, they can and should tell you and you will support them and take them seriously. Really. This can make all the difference in the world.
(On a similar note, while I'm not paranoid, I am realistic. I would be creeped out by any man who was a bit too keen on spending time with my children, especially one who pushed for alone time with them, and I wouldn't leave my children alone with a partner for, well, a very long time.)
Spend time with your children
New relationships are particularly intense and exciting, and it's natural to want to spend as much time together as possible. You can make this transition in your children's lives easier by making sure not to alter your usual routine too much, too quickly. Continue spending plenty of quality time alone with your kids, without your partner, and make sure they know you love and appreciate them.