How do I deal with not wanting to date someone with children, for fear that my now semi-adult children will react poorly if they see me interacting better with her children than I did with them?
*Semi-adult could imply a wide range of age, but for this particular question, I imagined the children to be 14-17 years of age.
This is such a good question, and so typical of what we face as a “dating parent.” I’m moved by your care, your awareness, and your concern over your children’s emotional well-being. Many single parents, overwhelmed by their own loneliness and need for intimacy, allow those needs to distract from those of their children. Your question indicated to me that you are genuinely concerned with how your children feel, and in my book, that makes you a really good dad.
You asked me how to deal with not wanting to date a woman who has children, and my initial response was actually a question: why do you have to deal with it? If you don’t want to date a woman who has children, then don’t. No one is more of an expert on your children than you, and if you think they really need to be the “only children in the room,” at least for now, why not trust that? Date women who are both available, and who would feel blessed to have your children in their life.
And yet, perhaps it’s not that simple. Perhaps you already have some interest in a woman who has children. Or perhaps you realize that you will narrow your dating pool significantly if moms are cast out, for as you may have already discovered, it’s a tiny pool to begin with! So I’m going to presume that you’d like to tackle this fear, this roadblock, in the most caring of ways, so that both you and your children can be happy.
Question: Why might you interact better with someone else’s children than you did with your own? Were you unavailable to them when they were growing up? Did your personality clash with their personalities? Were you blamed for the separation from their other parent? Were you to blame? How is your relationship with your children today?
Your priority right now is your children, which doesn’t mean at the exclusion of dating, but if you sense the tender nature of blending “yours with hers,” why not go extra, extra, slow? Can you date privately? Can you date when you are not with your children? If you have your children full time, that does make it much more difficult, but given their age, are sleepovers or a few hours at home alone a possibility? I know the logistics of dating and adult intimacy as a single parent are super tricky—I’ve been there—but you can get creative, and in the end, by treading lightly while you sort out this new space, the end result is likely to be happy kids and a wonderful new partner (any person unwilling to move slow and respect the concerns you have regarding your children is probably not the right person for you).
Steps to take:
I think the first priority is beginning to do the work to make your relationship with your children as strong as possible, for their sake and for your sake (it is never, ever, too late to be the parent you child wants you to be). This necessarily means that some very honest and perhaps even painful conversations might be in your future. But here’s the bottom line—if children feel 100% secure with the love of their parent (and by love I mean your steadfast presence, your respect, your consistency with boundaries, your affection, and your genuine enjoyment of who they are) then it is only a matter of time before they will adjust to seeing you engage with someone else’s children. Love is not a finite resource, and while you can enjoy and like and love the children of another, no other child could replace the love you have for your own, nor diminish it. But your children need to feel this in their heart, and for that to happen, yours is a love that’s got to be led by humility and openness.
You can blend your family—and you can blend into a joyful, thriving, bigger entity than you already are. But for it to work, you need to be super tight with your kids in the open communication and trust department. Their feelings need to be named, heard, respected, and any past issues need to be resolved.
The hard, cold, truth is that we lose a lot when we become a fractured family/single person once again, and in large part what we lose is the freedom to have our wants/needs come first. Of course becoming a parent does this to us already, but the difference is that when we have a partner sharing that journey with us, when both are putting themselves second for the sake of the kids, that shared devotion is the prize (not to mention there is someone to say “go take a break” and someone to hold at the end of a long day). But as a single parent, we’re members of a lonely club—the prize is simply the reward we get from loving our kids and putting them first, even when no one, including them, takes notice.
Moving forward into a potential blended family:
You want to get things right with your children, so you can move past your fear. I would encourage you to ask your children the following:
As you were growing up, what did you really, really, need from me? What do you need now? What can I do to be a better dad to you? I may not have been all you needed in the past, but what I want more than anything is to be all that you need now.
If you think a direct conversation may not go so great, you can leave a card for each child you have, making each as personal as possible, and then ask the kids to come up with a good time for a family meeting–pizza at the table with phones turned off is a good way to go about such a meeting (and make sure no one has plans to rush off that evening).
If you pass the “dad” test at the family meeting, I’d move into sharing your concerns with them regarding your future dating. Let them have a voice, if only because they should have a voice. They’re not in control of your life, but to a great extent, their life is in your control, and as a result, you want to understand their interior life as deeply as possible, so that you can parent as lovingly and respectfully as they deserve to be parented.
And one more tip: don’t be afraid of their anger. Anger is another word for pain, and if you can hear their pain through the bravado of any anger they might dump in your lap, and if you nurture them through that pain, your connection with your children will be stronger than ever.
You’ve got your work cut out for you, but if you stay grounded in your patient, open heart, you’re going to move forward in the direction of creating a happy, secure, blended space for you and your children. Go easy on yourself—this is hard work.