I was still married at the time, but my girlfriend wasn't. At thirty-something, she was a veritable man magnet -- smart, sassy and gorgeous. She was also divorced with two bright kids, an ex she couldn't abide and a socializing style that gave new meaning to the phrase, "don't get mad, get even."
But her post-divorce dating habits? They caused me to raise an eyebrow.
What bothered me was the speed with which men moved in and out of her heart (and bedroom) and how that impacted her children. She did not hide her love life from her kids.
In fact, she fell hard and frequently. She would introduce the latest Mr. Right to her family right away and typically progressed from dating to engagement to cohabitation over the course of a few months. When she grew disenchanted, Mr. Not Right Enough was voted off the island -- and booted out of their lives.
There was generally another suitor in the wings to take his place -- one more affair in which pacing herself in love wasn't a consideration; even promising relationships were doomed to fizzle. She repeated this pattern for years.
I'd like to think I had no issue with her dating life per se. If anything, I was impressed -- even more so when I found myself divorced and alone with my own young kids. I began to understand the pain of doing it solo and the desire for a sex life, a partner and someone to share the responsibilities of family. Yet looking back, I know what I felt was disapproval. And I ask myself if my opinion wasn't unduly harsh. After all, women can be hyper-critical of other women, and we often make excuses for that all-too-common tendency.
So what was my problem? The number of her sexual liaisons, their brief shelf-life, or genuine concern that her kids were caught up in her revolving door of emotional attachments? Would I have found it more acceptable if my friend was simply sleeping around, without the pretense of turning a hook-up into a household presence?
Had she been a divorced man, would I have been equally judgmental? What about a widow or widower?
In my own post-divorce dating days, I almost exclusively went out with single fathers. To my surprise, I found myself introduced to young sons and daughters as early as second or third dates. It struck me as odd. Was it a Litmus test before things progressed further? Was it nonchalance about the extent to which a child knew of his dad's private life? But I went out with them all the same, judgment free.
My socializing was sporadic, given that my children lived under my roof about 95 percent of the time. But there were no casual sleepovers with my kids present, and when a relationship emerged with the potential for becoming serious, I discussed it with my boys and introductions were made in what I considered an appropriate time frame.
I sound judgmental. Perhaps I am.
This leads me to the following questions:
• How are children of divorce affected by a revolving door of single parent relationships? How do we define that revolving door?
• If we're bringing casual sexual partners home, how do we know we're keeping our children safe, much less ourselves?
• If our social lives are private, is the revolving door a non-issue?
• If we are judging, do we factor in the additional constraints of a parent who has his or her children all the time?
• Are we in fact applying a double standard when it comes to single parent sex? Do we cut the single dads a break, but hold single moms to a different standard of conduct?
• Do we cut widowers even more slack?
It's worth mentioning that when co-parents share custody, each has some flexibility to schedule dating or sex. The woman I describe did indeed have some "adult time," but nothing close to a 50-50 split. As for me, I wondered if my near solo parenting status would condemn me to no social life whatsoever. I could manage a lunchtime coffee date, but babysitters weren't in the budget, and there were no family members to take the kids so I could go out. The challenges were many.
When I did bring someone home to meet my boys, I was keenly observant of their reactions. I still am. When it comes to potential partners, kids have excellent instincts and we should pay attention.
My sons are in college now, and remarkably, I find myself in a committed, monogamous relationship with a man I love. Perhaps because of that fact, I don't regret the way I handled my personal life and in particular, my sex life -- racking up some lonely years, and others requiring "creative scheduling."
As I consider this issue of single parent sex and the impact on kids, I also revisit my experience with single and solo dads who more openly conducted their dating lives around their children. Why are we more likely to raise that critical eyebrow when a single mother does the same? Should we be raising the eyebrow in both instances, or is the issue more complex than that?
If adults are discreet and practicing safe sex, should any of this matter?
As for my girlfriend whose flame burned brightly and died out quickly, I realize I was judging her choices, and yes, primarily because of her children. But I suspect that I carry remnants of a double standard all the same -- not when it comes to women and sexuality, but expectations of single mothers and what I view as their priorities. I have held single fathers to a different and lesser standard.
This is a realization I'm not proud to admit.