by Lisa M. Schab, LCSW
Photo: Josh Hawkins
If you are a single parent, chances are you've got more on your mind than Valentine's Day.
And when you do get around to romance or a relationship, you have to have more on your mind than the other adult.
Single parents must balance their own needs and desires with their responsibility to their dependent children.
This means that when you plan the when's, where's and what's of your Valentine's Day date, or your dating life in general, you need to plan them with your children in mind. It may be frustrating and irritating. And it will make dating more complicated, from handling the practicalities of finding time and a babysitter, to the often emotional process of introducing your dates to your children.
It can help to see your dating life through the eyes of your child. A child's sense of security in the world comes from his parents and his family. When his parents are loving, healthy and reliable, and his family life is stable, he learns to trust the world, is able to grow, and is able to take healthy risks.
When his family relationships or home environment are unstable or frightening-or rocked by a divorce-his security can be shaken and he becomes more fearful of expanding his world through the relationships and activities of the normal growing process. His defenses become higher, because he feels a greater need to protect himself.
Even in ideal situations, with loving and mature parents who work together for the sake of the children, the divorce will affect children to some degree. The child's parents-whom she has always perceived as one whole unit of strength, her armor against all the dangers of the outside world-are no longer together. The armor has cracked. This is frightening for her. In the best of situations, both parents will assure her that she still is loved by each of them. In time, she will become convinced that she is still protected by them, but she will continue to feel the repercussions of that cracked armor. She still will harbor some fears about her parents specifically (Could they stop loving me, too? Could they move away?), and the world in general (What else could happen to hurt me? Who else can't I trust?). To help her manage this fear, she may, as most children do, create a fantasy about her parents getting back together.
Children of split families hold this fantasy in the back of their head all of the time, regardless of how often their parents tell them it won't happen. When times are rough, or he is feeling insecure, he thinks, "Someday they'll get back together and we'll be a family again." He may conjure up an entire fantasy life that includes envisioning the wedding and his part in it, the house they will live in as a family, the image of his parents holding hands or kissing or smiling at each other with love in their eyes. Some children may even try to make their fantasy a reality by manipulating their parents into conditions where they have to be together. This fantasy gives him strength when reality is too painful. It is a way for him to repair the crack in that all-protective armor. He clings to the idea that the crack will be repaired by his parents reuniting in the future.
Discovering that one of her parents is dating can be devastating as the child realizes the fantasy may not come true. Children will respond in a variety of ways all aimed at protecting themselves. Some may rationalize the relationship, thinking, "This is nothing. He doesn't really like her; he really still loves Mom." Some may attempt to sabotage the relationship-by being outwardly rude to the date, "forgetting" to deliver phone messages or by becoming ill so the parent can't leave and go out on the date. Others may express their anxiety through crying spells, sadness or trouble with concentration.
While bringing a date into your child's life may cause him additional stress, it does not mean you should forego your social life altogether. You must go on with your life and your child must eventually adjust to the situation. It does mean, however, that you should be careful about introducing this new person into your children's life. It means that you should understand what this may feel like to your child, how it will affect him, and take steps to make the experience as positive as possible.
How to do it If you are a single parent and currently dating, or planning to do so, keep the following suggestions in mind to make the situation as easy as possible for your child:
• Have a general conversation about dating before you actually begin to date again. If your children broach the subject first, by all means discuss it with them in a general manner. They may ask if you are ever going to get married again, if you are ever going to kiss someone besides Daddy, or if you are going to "get a weird boyfriend like Janna's mom did." Begin by asking them how they feel about the idea of you dating. Kids generally need to know two things: That you would not try to force a "new parent" on them, and that your date would not take you away from them. Let them know that it is normal for divorced adults to start dating again at some time. Assure them you will talk with them before you start dating and that no one you date would ever replace their other parent or take you away from them.
• Your children don't need to know about every date if it doesn't affect their life directly. It is necessary to discuss dating with them only if they ask, if they will be meeting the date or if the date will take you away at a time when you would normally be together. Under those rules, there is no need to discuss casual dates that occur between custody visits. In the best of situations, you can arrange your dating life so that it does not interfere with their visits.
• Give your kids some lead time. When a dating relationship becomes serious, give your kids some time to get used to the idea. Begin at least a week ahead of time. Explain that you have a new friend you would like them to meet. Give your kids a chance to digest the information, and then assure them they can ask questions and talk about it with you if they'd like.
• Allow some time for them to get to know your date. Depending on your children's ages and how they respond to your initial announcement, you may decide to let them talk with your date for 10 or 15 minutes before you go out, or you may want to make it a "family date" and bring your kids along on a trip to the zoo or some other place they enjoy. For the initial outing, it's best to choose a place close to home so you can cut the trip short if things aren't going well.
• Lay some ground rules-for everyone. Let your date know that no physical displays of affection between the two of you-not even holding hands or a peck on the cheek-is acceptable the first time he meets your children. (This chaste behavior should continue until you are confident your kids feel safe around your date and are comfortable with your relationship.) At the same time, let your children know you expect them to use the same good manners with your date as they would with any friend or acquaintance you might introduce them to.
• Don't be discouraged if the first meeting is rocky. Your children and your date may get along beautifully, or they may clash. If your date is someone you are serious about and hope to have in your life for a while, you can continue to expose your children to her a little at a time. Try to keep communications open with your children so they can let you know what they don't like about your date. Older kids may be able to articulate these things; younger ones will just complain generally. Remember that with most kids, their dislike of your love interest stems from their insecurity and hurt around the divorce in general. Continue to reassure them of your love for them, and prove it by your actions.
• Respect your children's feelings, but set appropriate limits of your own. If the meeting goes poorly, talk to your kids about what happened. Especially, ask them about their feelings. Accept their fear, anger or whatever else they bring to you. Listen carefully to what they share and let them know that they are important to you and you will do whatever you can to make this relationship easier for them to get used to. Let them also know, however, that you will make the final decisions about whether you date and whom you date. It is important for you to take your children into consideration as you move on with your single adult life, but it is still your right to have a romantic life. Instead of deciding that you just can't date because it upsets your kids, concentrate on giving them the necessary love and security that will help them handle and adjust to your new activities.
• Remind your kids repeatedly of the bottom line. No matter what happens in your future, no matter whom you date or don't date, where you live or work, how old they get or how many disagreements you have, the bottom line is that you love them. You have loved them from the minute you knew they existed, and no matter what happens, you will continue to love them with your whole heart. They are the most important people in the world to you, and nothing can ever change that.Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville, the author of, "My Dad Is Getting Married Again" (Childswork/Childsplay, 1996), and the stepmother of two, ages 19 and 23.
Keeping love alive