You've been through a hard divorce and recovery. You've met someone and want to start dating. You want desperately to have a social life again that isn't centered on parents and children. And yes, you wouldn't mind a little love and intimacy after what seems like forever. But then there's the effect on the kids. You feel torn between your own wants and needs and your concerns about how the kids will react to a new person in your life. What's the best way to bring them all together?
There are no hard and fast rules, of course, but some approaches do work better than others. Parents who manage the transition well often follow these basic guidelines.
1) First, remember that children don't recover from change with the same timing that you do. Unless things were so bad that there was regular discussion of divorce, the kids have had less time than you did to adjust to the idea. You and your ex probably spent months making a decision before you told the children. Even if they thought something might be up, the announcement was new to them the day you made it. In addition, their relationship with their other parent or parent-figure is different from yours. There are many people who are lousy partners but still decent parents. You can't expect your kids to be ready for someone new just because you are.
2) Slow down. You can and should take the time to really get to know someone before involving the children. It's simply not fair to ask them to fold someone into their lives, only to have him or her disappear a few months later when you discover it's not going to work out.
3) Shared custody can make things easier. While you get to know your new love, schedule your dates when your kids are with the other parent. This gives you the privacy you need to develop a relationship and to become more intimate without getting the kids involved. If your ex has dropped out of the picture, schedule your dates when the kids are at an after school program or a Saturday event. Another option is to trade off "play dates" with another parent to give yourself social time.
4) Once you've decided that the person you are dating is "the one", by all means do the introductions. But do take it slow. Don't make the first encounter happen over breakfast after a sleep-over. Take the time to include kids and your new love on outings the kids will enjoy. A few trips to the playground, a hike or two, visits to the children's museum, a library or a local kid attraction will give both parties a low-key way to get to know each other. Make sure you give your children the attention they are accustomed to getting from you even while you are all together and that your date puts the kids' needs first. This isn't the adults' "date". It's the kids' time to warm up to this new person in your life.
5) Only bring someone home overnight if you are pretty certain this relationship is going to stick. Evidence of your sexual involvement can be confusing to young kids and embarrassing to older ones. The need to respect your closed door is a new level of intimacy for everyone, not just the adults. Once that line is crossed, it will be much harder for the children to understand and adjust if you call the relationship off. Further, it's very important to be clear about your values about sex outside marriage. Children do learn what they live.
It's difficult to be so measured and thoughtful about children's needs if you are excited about a new person, especially if you've been lonely for adult company for some time. But taking the time is worth it. When the children have had the opportunity to develop their own relationship with your new love, there will be far less conflict later on.