For five years, I was a single mother with two boys. And even though I was lucky enough to have a steady guy (a single dad) in the picture, questions came up all the time. Was it okay for all of us to sleep over at one of our houses? Should we take vacations together? When this relationship ended and another one began a few months later, I was in uncharted waters again.
Based on these experiences and the advice of JoAnn Magdoff, a psychotherapist in private practice in New York, I came up with ten rules for single moms. If you're dating—or want to be but feel nervous about it—keep these tips in mind.
1. You make the rules. Many people seem to have an opinion about single mothers, and their advice when it comes to your private life is: Take up needlepoint. Forget them. A single mother can date, seriously or casually. A single mother can be seen out dancing on a Saturday night. A single mother can even have sex!
2. Nobody loves a parade. It's not necessary to introduce your kids to every guy who takes you to a movie. Wait until you're secure in the relationship before you let your kids perceive someone as "Mommy's boyfriend." Have a reliable sitter lined up, suggests Magdoff, so you don't end up bringing children along before you're ready.
3. Don't lean too hard too soon. Resist the temptation to make the new guy a parenting helper right away, adds Magdoff. Until you've actually decided that the time is right, don't ask him to pick up your daughter from ballet just because it's on his way over for dinner. "Hold back," Magdoff says. "Don't have him take on parenting roles until it feels stupid not to. When all three of you are saying, 'But ballet class is right by his office,' then it's time."
4. Nothing but the truth. While discretion is recommended, lying and sneaking are not. If you think extramarital sex is okay, when questions arise you should be able to explain to your children (in an age-appropriate manner) why and under what conditions. If you can't, then don't do it. Behave as you want your kids to when they reach early adulthood.
5. Have your priorities straight. Keep your hormones in check when making decisions. Maybe it's more important for you to be at the school basketball playoffs than away for the weekend with your beau. But on the other hand:
6. Don't be a martyr. Magdoff warns against using your kids as an excuse to avoid intimacy—putting them between you and your social life. In other words, sometimes the weekend away is more important than the basketball game.
7. When you're out, be out. One way single mothers sabotage relationships and act out their guilty feelings, Magdoff adds, is by talking about their children constantly while on a date. "Five minutes max," she says.
8. Don't succumb to pressure. My long-term relationship was a lot more than dating and a lot less than marriage—and was sometimes a little difficult to explain to outsiders. But it was right for me and my kids at the time. I did what I thought best, and that's why I have no regrets.
9. Leave when it's time. One of the more trying moments in a single mother's life is splitting up with someone her kids care about. I know women who have stayed in iffy relationships "for the kids." This makes even less sense when you're not married. Change and loss are part of life, things everyone has to deal with. If a particular bond is really strong, perhaps there's a way for that adult and child to maintain a connection.
10. Expect resistance. Magdoff says, "Lots of times women are dating perfectly nice guys and their kids are horrible to them, especially if it's the first guy after the divorce or the first one you get serious about." One articulate ten-year-old Magdoff knows admitted to his mother: "It's not Bill who's the problem—I like him. It's you. I used to have you all to myself, and now I have to share you." Acknowledge and accept kids' feelings. Say, "I love you as much as ever, but sometimes I'm not here when you want me to be. I like to spend time with my friends, just like you do." Don't let your kids control you—or try and force them to like the guy, either.
Marion Winik is a writer and a commentator on NPR. Her latest book is The Lunch-Box Chronicles (Vintage).
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