A relaxed spontaneous love life is usually not the domain of a single parent. Nothing takes the fire out of a passionate goodnight kiss faster than the sudden appearance of a sleepy six year old asking for water. Few things feel more cringe-worthy than having a boyfriend walk in the door only to hear your fifteen year old snap, "Is he here again?." And it's certainly unnerving to introduce Bob, a new date to your 10 year old son, who while playing X Box absentmindedly intones, "What happened to JIM?"
So what do you do? During the early stages of dating, as noted in a book I co-authored, SEX AND THE SINGLE PARENT, it's safer to keep your love life separate from your home life.
Why? Because your kids are probably both fearful or confused. They are afraid of losing their "numero uno "position with you. They may still be dreaming that mom and dad will get back together even though you've explained countless time this won't happen; and new faces introduced too soon can read like flashing neon signs that parents are moving forward... and maybe leaving kids behind.
Of course kids cannot be allowed to set the rules on an adult's love life but they do have the right (and often the need) to not have to live with it immediately. It is important that kids see their parents enjoy new healthy relationships...just not too soon. In my practice I've seen many kids coping with new divorces and instantaneous dating. On the surface the kids are annoyed (why does he have to be around so much), or disgusted (what does he see in her) or hurt ( I never see Dad alone anymore without his girlfriend.) Adolescents can become confused about the difference between their own dating rules and those of mom. "Why doesn't mom have a curfew?" one 17 year old asked. And if there is a revolving door of men visiting mom, or women visiting dad, these older kids may begin to see dating a bit like playing cards. Put down one, pick up another. This is hardly a lesson you want your adolescents to learn. But beneath it all, the one thing all these kids share is the subtle feeling of being replaceable, unimportant and forgotten.
Obviously you will want to date in a way that won't destabilize your kids. Here are a few tips. I can't cover every situation of course and please note I am talking to women here only because most often children live primarily with their moms. Obviously this applies to dads as well whether or not they are custodial parents.
o If you are anxious to date wait at least six months, preferably longer before letting your kids know you are doing so. They need to get used to the other parent's absence. People are not replaceable but relationships are. If you bring someone home too fast it will look like dad never mattered to you.
o Whether you are dating one or a few men (or women), meet them somewhere away from home. If for some reason that isn't feasible than have him wait in the car or lobby. Tell your children you are meeting a friend and the hour you will be home. It's uncomplicated. They have play dates too.
o If one guy in particular begins to call, and the name is floating around the house you can certainly have him in to just say hi. If your younger child asks if you are going to marry him (one date is enough for that question) say, "No. We're just friends right now". If your older child snorts, respond with, "I'm dating. That's all." Keep it light. You'll have removed the mystery. He's neither A-ROD or Quasimodo.
o If you think a relationship may actually stick (past the three month mark) you can let Bob pick you up and hang around a bit. He can do a puzzle with your youngest, answer a homework question for your middle schooler, and withstand the evil eye of your teenager. Then get on your way. He can bring you home. A kiss at the door is fine, as long as you're okay with an invisible audience.
o Next you might invite him over for dinner with the family and spend a few hours eating and watching a movie together. You can also plan an afternoon out doing something the KIDS like. Bob's ideas count too, but only after the kids see they come first. Warning: If your ex lives far away or is troublesome in some way, your kids could form a premature attachment to your boyfriend. If you break up that would be two losses. So unless you are quite confident, keep the get togethers spaced apart.
o And finally the big Kahuna. Can Bob sleep over? There are lots of things to consider here. How old are your kids? Will you turn in before they do? Will you make breakfast in the morning with everyone or have him leave early? These are complicated questions I cover in great detail in my book. But do keep this in mind. Sneaking doesn't usually work. Kids might pretend they don't know, but usually they do. And for kids anything that's a secret could be bad.
It's best to talk. Younger kids who sometimes climb into your bed in the middle of the night might be told, " Bob is going to be spending the night. If you need me knock on the door and I'll come right out." For older kids try, " I would like Bob to stay over tonight. Is that okay with you guys?" If they no, talk about it. What are they afraid of? What would make them more comfortable? If anyone is really upset, put it off a little bit and then try again later. And as a general rule, once he does sleep over be up and dressed before the kids... otherwise the closed bedroom door could feel both forbidding and intoxicating. Either way it's not a dynamic you want in your home.
Of course kids can really be surprised packages when it comes to this issue. One client fretted over telling her 14 year old son Jake that the guy she'd been seeing for about eight months might sleep over. So with great trepidation she asked, "Honey, would you mind if Richard slept over on Saturday night?" The boy thought for a long moment (he was fond of Richard) and then said, "Well, as long as you don't make a lot of noise."
"Sleepovers" are big deals. So is dating. Go slow, and try and strike a balance between your needs and those of your family.
Jake sure did.
Follow Meg F. Schneider, MA, LCSW on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MegFSchneider