10/24/2012 01:25 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2016

My Daughter, My Girlfriend

When I was young, I met a beautiful girl. We married and had our own beautiful girl. We grew apart and divorced, and I'm now a still-young father and single. While not a novel path by any means, one particular aspect has proven to be much more complicated than I'd have thought and feels like the direct result of both my age and the gender of my child.

First, the math: I'm 37, my daughter is 15.

As any father knows, having a teenaged daughter is a bumpy ride, filled with drama, confusion and lots of clothing. My own daughter is a great girl in every way, and we've always enjoyed a very close relationship; it's taken some getting used to the notion that several topics are now off limits to me, conversations to be had only with her mother. It's all fine and natural, and made easier by the fact that I trust my ex implicitly.

No teenage girl wants to talk about boys with her dad.

When she developed in unexpected ways -- given her mother's genes -- her 15th year brought about physical changes that made it easy for anyone to see that she was becoming a young woman. Her mother's and my schedules are fluid, so certain activities don't always fall into logical parenting categories -- which is how I came to spend a recent Saturday at our local Victoria's Secret. Under the gaze of giant posters of young-looking models, in a store oozing with sexuality, my daughter and I went bra shopping. It felt a bit like our earlier times at the playground, when the mothers would stare uncomfortably at the lone male in their midst, until they finally deemed me harmless. I kept my eyes glued to the floor the entire time, looking up only to pay for my daughter's purchases. We barely exchanged a word, an unusual occurrence for both of us.

I've recently started dating a woman who is younger than me -- normally not my preference -- but she's smart and mature and I don't want to make any assumptions about who would or wouldn't make me happy. She's 26, sitting poetically and chronologically in between my daughter and me. There's now a different kind of mating ritual than when I was dating my ex, with its own rhythms and signals and acceptable activities. I find myself doing things this time around that I typically wouldn't do at this stage of a relationship.

Which is how I came to be at the exact same store the next day lingerie shopping with my young girlfriend. Same posters, same salespeople, different eye line. The experience, of course, was the complete opposite of the day before. There was no awkwardness or strange looks, and the charge in the atmosphere was now a welcome one.

It's been hard to switch from a loving, overprotective father to a loving, sexually active boyfriend -- often in the same day or week. I can't help feeling a bit, well, icky about the whole thing. It's left me thinking about how things would be different if my circumstances were changed -- if I was 50 and dating in my age group, or if my daughter was 8 and there were more years between us. Or even if I had a son instead.

I suppose we all play roles in one way or another. Child, parent, spouse, employee -- all a facet of who we are and we change imperceptibly with each hat we wear. I must learn to shift seamlessly without losing who I am, being the best father I can be and as significant an other as possible. We all have our paths -- this is mine as a divorced dad.