Imagine: You’re seated at a table, sipping water, your palms sweaty. You keep a nervous eye on the door — is that him? — even as you try desperately to look nonchalant. Should you have ordered wine? How long before he’s late? Why did you wear that stupid top? You tamp down your inner turmoil: deep breath; you look great! You spent ages on your outfit — hot, without trying too hard, definitely slimming. After weeks of online flirtation and, let’s face it, investigation, there’s no escaping this awful, exciting, unnerving event: your first date.
Your first first date in 20 years.
Every day, hundreds of newly single parents reenter the dating scene after a long (to put it mildly) hiatus. Fresh from the wracking wounds of divorce — and burdened with grown-up worries and logistics and kids — this virtual armada of single parents is suddenly rudderless at sea and battening down to weather a storm. They do not want to be alone. But they don’t know how they will ever have the time, energy or plain good luck to find someone new. And they are acutely, often bitterly, aware of the horrible cost of getting it wrong.
Whether you’re pushing 30, 40 or 50 — with a baby or with a couple of slouchy teens — that “suddenly single” status can feel like a gift. Until it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty of dating.
The single-parent armada
If you’re a single parent, take comfort: You are far from alone. In 1990, there were more than 7 million single-parent families in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census. That’s 23 percent of all families. In the same year, in Seattle, there were nearly a quarter-million single-parent households, and you can bet that number has grown. That’s an awful lot of single parents — sad, to be sure — but also an awful lot of like-minded potential friends, allies and — dare we hope? — romantic partners.
And we do dare hope: Census figures show that more than half of men (52 percent) and 44 percent of women over the age of 25 who are divorced end up getting remarried. The average time between divorce and remarriage? Just three and a half years! That’s plenty of time to bail out lingering bad divorce feelings, steer the kids back on track, get your sea legs and go.
But are you ready to date? Experts say the answer lies in this irony: You’re really ready to date when you don’t really need to date. “A lot of my single friends are just dying to get remarried,” says Mia*, a Mercer Island mother of three. “I feel like if you’re that desperate, you just end up settling.
“The minute I realized, ‘I can live by myself for the rest of my life,’ I swear, from that moment on, I could not stop getting dates! Because I had this different attitude about me.”
After four years of single parenting and dating, Mia got remarried last year to a man she met on the online dating site Match.com. Dating wasn’t a slam-dunk for Mia — she went out on about 10 failed first dates — but found that even with a job and three kids underfoot, the dating process was interesting, and even fun. “I met a lot of people I would never have met otherwise,” Mia says of her Match.com experience. “I got to meet a guy who is a federal marshal, and a lot of other interesting people. A lot of my married girlfriends love listening to my stories,” Mia says.
An ‘emotional divorce’
Mia’s happy ending could be a direct result of her very centered, self-affirming attitude. Easier for some than for others, sure. So how can you get one of those ’tudes? Try doing what local family and sex therapist Diana Wiley, Ph.D., calls an “emotional divorce.” It’s a way of preparing yourself for dating, Wiley says, by taking a good hard look at yourself and your life. “Figure out how you contributed to the divorce,” Wiley says, “what you would take into a new relationship, and what you would not.”
Take your time, says Wiley, to give your divorce its due. “Divorce is the death of a relationship, and the death of dreams and expectations; you have to start over. I think one needs to be separated and divorced for the better part of a year and do this work. This is a major life transition.” A lot of women don’t do this, Wiley says. “They’re so busy and they’re always putting themselves last. But I say taking care of yourself shows self-respect, and if you don’t even have time to take care of yourself, how can you think of adding another person to the mix?”
“Life challenges, like a divorce, are not supposed to paralyze you; they’re supposed to help you discover who you are,” says Wiley. “I like to say to my clients, ‘Get out of your head and pay attention to the sensual side of life.’” Savor meals while sitting down with your kids, suggests Wiley, not standing up; don’t wait for a special occasion to buy flowers; listen to music you love instead of the news; play with your kids. All of this self-affirming stuff helps get you ready for that next step: sticking a toe into that great chilly ocean of single-parent dating.
Where do you start?
If you’re like most people, you’ll begin with a survey of your friends. Do they know anyone interesting? Know anything about online dating? But one local mom offers a word of caution about consulting married friends. “Some of the craziest advice I got right out of the gate was from my married friends,” says Veronica, a Mercer Island mother of one. “They don’t have the same perspective. Your life has become dramatically different, and most married friends can’t understand how it’s changed. Your fiscal backbone has utterly changed.” Veronica says she felt pressure to just choose someone and settle down. “My friends would say, ‘Maybe you’re being too picky!’ It made all of my married friends so much happier when I was settled with someone rather than dating.”
Finding someone to settle down with is a bigger trick than ever these days; between job and kids and all they entail, most of us are multitasking ourselves right out of a social life. How are you going to meet someone if you’re sitting in the drive-through with a cell phone stuck to your ear? If your daily life exhausts you so much that a night on the town sounds like torture?
That’s why many single parents join the ranks of the millions who meet people from the comfort of their own computer. “I think online dating is a much better way to meet someone than we have had in the past,” says therapist Wiley, who likes the dating site eHarmony best because of its extensive personality tests and matching process. With all online dating, Wiley says, you get the chance to get to know someone on paper first; find out about values, see a photo and weed out those deal killers.
Mia has a list of online dating “rules” she shares with her friends. Among them, never date someone who lives in your immediate community (“I don’t want to see them at the QFC!”); don’t date someone who lives too far away (“a big issue when you have kids!”); don’t date anyone who shows their bare chest in their profile photo (“or who is leaning against a motorcycle or sports car”); and avoid people who list off the many countries they’ve visited (“It’s like they’re just marketing themselves!”). On the serious side, Mia would only date people who have college degrees, because she greatly values education.
When writing your profile, include specifics that give a snapshot of who you are, says Seattle family therapist Laura Kastner, Ph.D. “Instead of ‘I like to read,’ name the books. Like to have fun with your kids? Name some signature activities you uniquely do,” Kastner says. But don’t make yourself too appealing in that profile, especially with references to sensuousness, or you could be creating a lot of work for yourself. “Most people who start the ‘part-time job’ of this process think it’s a good thing to get a lot of interested parties,” Kastner says. “Actually, this may mean that you have allowed yourself to be too attractive, which will yield a lot of winks and bids, but also means you have to do a lot of screening.”
Once you’ve screened and selected a couple of promising candidates, plan to meet in a public place for just an hour — “and have back-up plans,” says Wiley. “Even if you don’t, say that you do!” Coffee or a glass of wine is enough for a first date, Wiley says. Don’t get trapped into a big “dinner and a movie” thing, in case there is no chemistry whatsoever. And never, ever give out your personal phone number, address or place of work to anyone until you’ve gotten to know them first. For a single parent, safety is a major concern, and most online dating sites and services provide extensive advice on how to protect your privacy and security throughout the dating process.
Weirdos and liars
Even with every precaution, prepare to meet a few weirdos. Like the guy Mia dated for months before finding out he lied about his age — by 12 years! (Plastic surgery.) Actually, about 24 percent of men in one study lied about their age in their dating profiles (compared to 19 percent of women); in fact, the lying is rampant. A 2007 Michigan State University study found that profiles are “rife with deception,” with 55 percent of men and 41 percent of women lying about their height, and 60 percent of men and 59 percent of women lying about their weight. In total, 81 percent of all men and women in the study lied about at least one thing.
That’s no surprise to anyone who’s gone on a few dating-site dates; in fact, most have at least one “horror story,” everything from the self-obsessed bore to the poetry-writing romantic who had Sharon, a Woodinville mom of two, running for the hills. “It was awful,” she says. “After about three dates, he just got so serious about me and started emailing these cheesy love poems. I could not get rid of him fast enough.”
Veronica’s stories stem from two years as a member of the singles group Events & Adventures. “I liked the events — sailboating at midnight on Lake Union, night tubing at Snoqualmie, going to Whistler,” she says, but ended up meeting more good male friends than romantic partners. In the end, Veronica married someone she met through work, a seemingly outdated love story in this age of e-romance.
If you’re not lucky enough to work with Prince (or Princess) Charming and don’t feel up to weeding out the online weirdos yourself, consider using a dating service. It’s Just Lunch essentially is a modern-day matchmaking service. Seattle mom Debbie met her second husband through the service. “I thought it seemed safer because they do background checks.
“I was petrified of doing the online dating thing,” she says, partly because, six years ago when she was single, there weren’t as many online-dating success stories around. Though It’s Just Lunch is expensive (as much as $1,500), Debbie liked having her match chosen for her. She was interviewed extensively, and then a man was selected for her to meet. She was given a first name, and a time and place — and took it from there. She met her second husband on her third try.
Though her process was simple, Debbie says that dating as a newly single parent wasn’t easy. “It makes you feel like you’re leading a double life. Especially when you’re very close to your child and you can’t let him know what’s going on. You’re basically denying yourself that focus in your life, compartmentalizing in a pretty extreme way.”
Mommy’s ‘special friend’
That “double life” feeling can lend a tinge of the forbidden to many a divorcee’s romance, as both halves of the couple try to keep their dating separate from their kids. It isn’t easy. But experts say it’s important that parents practice extreme restraint about if and when their children meet mommy or daddy’s “special friend.”
So, when do you introduce your kids to your dates? “Only when you are extremely serious,” says therapist Kastner. “Kids don’t need to be ‘litmus tests.’ They have seen love come and go. They may bond — whether you do or not — and then experience loss when you don’t. Then you are answering questions that are not appropriate for children and parents with firm boundaries. People without discipline introduce kids way too soon.”
“Consider how quickly your kids get attached to other adults,” says therapist Wiley. “Their family has broken up, and they’re suffering for it. If they get attached to mom’s new boyfriend and then they break up, that’s devastating for some kids.”
Mia believes the “right” time to bring a boyfriend home to the children depends on the children. “I know a lot of people say you should wait a full year, but I really think it depends on the age and maturity of your kids,” she says. “My 11-year-old is like an old soul. Since he was 5, he’s been asking ‘Are you dating? Do you have a boyfriend? When am I going to meet him?’” Mia says she has always taken care to explain any new man’s role in the kids’ lives. “I tell them, ‘I’m not trying to replace your father. He’s more like a male role model, like a friend.’”
“You’ve got to respect them if you’re going to put them in front of your child,” agrees Debbie, who waited six months before introducing her second husband to her 8-year-old son. “I was looking for someone who would be a good role model for my child. That speaks to what’s really important to you: How do you envision this person as a role model?”
Sharon, who’s twice divorced, says this time around, she’s taking things more slowly with her kids. “I’m making sure that I don’t introduce my child to the person before I’ve really gotten to know him. I want to make sure they’re worthy of being around my kids.”
But that restraint comes at a cost, says Sharon. “You’ve got to put your kids first all the time, and that makes it difficult to even find somebody, let alone spend the time to get to know them. You have to be so strategic and so careful.”
Whether remarriage success stories inspire or frustrate you probably depends on how long you’ve been single. Putting yourself out there as a single working parent is exhausting, terrifying, defeating. It can also be exciting, if you play your cards right.
“My best advice to a newly dating parent: Take your time and enjoy your newly single status,” says Debbie. “You are a different person; you come with a different set of circumstances than when you were in your 20s. It’s trite, but be true to yourself. Don’t edit who you are.”
Don’t look for someone to rescue you, says Teresa. “Is it ‘I love you because I need you’ or ‘I need you because I love you’?”
And be persistent, says Kastner. “Don’t lose heart, because the more you throw in your lot, the more discriminating and efficient you are in the process, the more likely you are to get a match. And there are more potential matches coming online all the time — after their divorces.”
*Dating moms’ names have all been changed to protect their privacy.
Kristen Russell is ParentMap’s managing editor.
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Early ‘deal killers’ for women
Should you meet that guy in person? Should you progress beyond that first date? We asked psychologist Laura Kastner, Ph.D., for a few “red flags” a woman can look for early on.
1. Ask about friendships. Many men have none, and that’s unacceptable. A lack of good friends implies that this man has not invested in one of the most important things on the planet. It’s about values, health and priorities.
2. Ask about family relationships and how the man maintains them now. Grudges and feuds are highly suspect. Even the worst family member deserves loyalty and connection of some sort, so they’d better have awfully good reasons for a total rupture.
3. If a man openly criticizes his children or former spouse in a one-dimensional way (like “writing them off”) or idealizes them, it’s a bad sign. Everyone is a mixed bag, and idealizing is as bad a sign as demonizing.
4. Don’t miss obvious things, like a rude attitude, talking only about himself, or even overt depression.
5. Watch for bad manners. Is he curt with a bad waitress or a parking attendant? Rudeness toward anyone is unacceptable.
6. Expect and require follow-through. If he says he’ll call you Thursday and then doesn’t, it’s a red flag. High-functioning people virtually never do this.
7. Irritability is a bad sign. Again, bad moods might be normal, but any high-functioning person keeps moodiness in check. Sassy, cynical and sad when appropriate is fine. But if someone is snippy early on, it’s a “no go.” It may mean something deeper is off.
8. Ask him: When do you introduce your kids to dates? Answer: Only when you are extremely serious. If your guy doesn’t know this answer, he gets a lower grade.
9. Ask him: What is your dream vacation with your kids? (It’s telling if he doesn’t ever think about this!) Are the vacations kid-centric or all about him? How much do money and lavishness play a part as opposed to “experience” (camping at Yellowstone, for instance)?
10. Don’t be afraid to ask personal questions about work, money, values, what was he like in high school, how did he morph once in college, what did he learn from each failed long-term relationship, etc. You are a “consumer” and you need to examine the product, so mutual interviewing is the best way to go.
Online dating services
Plenty of Fish plentyoffish.com
JDate (Jewish Dating Service) jdate.com
Seattle Christian Dating Network seattle.christiandatingnetwork.com
Date My Pet (for pet lovers) datemypet.com
Mature Singles Only (over 40) maturesinglesonly.com
Other dating services and social clubs
It’s Just Lunch itsjustlunch.com
Events & Adventures eventsandadventures.com
Seattle Singles Yacht Club seattlesinglesyachtclub.com
Space City Mixer spacecitymixer.com