10/13/2011 11:46 am ET Updated Dec 13, 2011

Single Mother Dating: Following Your Gut

By Jennifer Mattern

I'm not dating anyone right now.

More often than not in my life, there's been someone. And I'm grateful for that.

I don't buy the concept that being in a relationship subtracts from one's development as an individual. I bristle at the self-help variety of suggestion that serial monogamy is pathological, a clear sign of someone who can't stand on his or her own two feet. Much of who I am comes from the wisdom -- often painful, but just as often beautiful -- gleaned from my relationships. I've learned what I can handle and what I can't. I've learned about boundaries, about drawing lines in the sand. The lessons have frequently been brutal, but they've also been necessary.

"Maybe you just need time on your own right now," a couple of married-for-years acquaintances suggested recently -- as if their status of "married" rendered them exempt from scrutiny, as if "married" means they've gotten it "right." I try to steer clear of the smug marrieds, who believe they've found the perfect balance of self and other, which authorizes them to assess the unfortunate singles of the world and their relationship choices.

I like down-to-earth married folks, the ones who 'fess up to the hard work of union. It's no picnic. I know. I've been there. And because of it, I know better what I have to offer, and what I need in another person.

I was dating someone until just very recently. It was a serious relationship, as serious as I'd allowed myself to get since my marriage. He's a good man, but I had fears that would not subside. My gut refused to let my brain run circles around it this time. My concerns were valid, my gut insisted. My concerns were growing, not lessening, over time. Although my brain came up with no less than 50 different reasons why I should stick with the relationship, my intuition finally sat down with a big red flag and refused to budge.

If there's one thing I've learned from my relationships, it's that ignoring my intuition is a slippery slope. It becomes a bad, bad habit. Intuition doesn't suffer fools lightly. When I turn away from what I know and try to talk myself into a different reality -- one that would be "easier" for others, one that I persuade myself I could figure out how to accept, if only I tried "harder" -- it only prolongs the inevitable. It makes for a nasty, snarled mess in the long run, hurting everyone involved all the more.

There is something to be said for dating as a single mother of two young daughters. In the B.C. (Before Children) era, I could skirt my intuition more easily -- give it the slip, for a while. "I can make this work." "This isn't so bad." "I'm sure he didn't mean it." "We're all flawed."

It's not that these statements aren't true. The question is merely this: Proceed in this relationship at what cost?

Before kids, my cost-and-risk-assessment process for any relationship was murkier, colored in shades of gray. After all, I would be the only one paying the price, I figured. I could cheat intuition, if I needed to. There was wiggle room.

That's no longer the case. Anyone I invite into my life, I'm inviting into my daughters' lives as well.

The other week, as I was wrestling with my intuition over concerns about this relationship -- one I had invested in quite dearly with a man I still care about, very much -- my younger daughter asked for help with her math homework.

I sat down with her at the dining room table, grateful for the distraction. She was laboring over a worksheet with familiar symbols: greater than or less than.


I realized at that instant that if I ignored my gut, kept swallowing my fears, trying to explain them away, I would be Less Than. Less of a woman. Less of a mother. Less of everything I wanted to teach my daughters about self-worth, and always trusting their instincts.

Less than.

Finally, it was simple. Not easy, but simple.

Jennifer Mattern is the creator and author of the award-winning blog Breed 'Em and Weep. She writes the weekly column Single Mom at Work at Work It, Mom. A Pushcart Prize nominee for her work at Brain, Child Magazine. Mattern is a freelance writer, playwright and single mama of two daughters.