10/07/2013 04:57 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Maternal Me Vs. Sexual Sue

In the second half of my fourth decade, I became a single mom. For a year it was more than enough and I threw myself into a world of sippie-cups and story-times. But one spring day, as the cherry trees blossomed, a longing bloomed in me -- I wanted something else, someone else. So I dusted off the Goldfish crumbs and decided to date. It would be very different this time: the last time I'd dated, 19 years before, I took a childlike glee in it, drinking too much beer and staying up until 3 a.m. Of course, then I was a child. This time I had one -- and I was a responsible mom.

Before I went on a date, I needed a few things: a sassy haircut, a cute new outfit and a man. I found the first two in my Brooklyn neighborhood and the third online. Among the pixels and profiles of an internet dating site, Jeff and I found each other, and quickly became close through email and phone calls. When we met for the first time, stealing time between preschool drop-off and pick-up (how I now told time) we knew we had something -- what, we weren't yet entirely sure, but we wanted to find out. Too soon, though, I had to catch a homeward-bound train to Lizzie's school. We needed time to get to know each other in person rather than remotely -- and I wanted lingering caresses rather than rushed kisses. But I was a mother first and had to be conscientious about my dating. I had to have a firewall between the two very separate people I was now: Maternal Me and Sexual Sue. But how long could I, a seven-day-a-week, 24-hour-a-day mother, keep the man I was dating out of my "real" life, the one that involved being responsible for a three-foot high person?

I'd already pored through a library's worth of parenting books and the advice was so similar it could be condensed to one word: wait. Single mom friends encouraged the same. So I'd postpone any introductions until I was sure where my relationship with Jeff was heading -- three months seemed reasonable. But then I couldn't get a sitter for our fourth date. That's when I, always a careful and fastidious adult, threw caution to the wind -- our relationship was moving at gale force anyway -- and decided that introducing Jeff and Lizzie would be okay. A library's worth of experts silently fumed in my head.

The designated night I nervously gnawed on a fingernail, waiting for the doorbell to ring, convinced I was making a horrible mistake. When it did, Lizzie raced to the door, flung it open and then hid. Jeff, in a magician-like move, pulled a stuffed rabbit from behind his back. Lizzie grabbed it and ran into her room, emerging dressed in a pink tulle skirt. She started dancing to a Tschaikovsky CD and, as she whirled and twirled, I studied Jeff's profile. He was enthralled -- and extremely patient, as the dance went on and on.

After dinner at a neighborhood pizzeria/de facto indoor playground (Jeff's trial by coal-fired pizza), we returned to my apartment. While I helped Lizzie into her footed-pajamas, Jeff busied himself with the CD player. She padded into the living room, demanding a story and Jeff volunteered. I hovered nearby as he read. Funny voices flew out of his mouth, shrieks of delight out of hers. I relaxed a bit, but watched intently. I couldn't help but notice that she seemed so happy. She had not seen her father since we separated, but even when he was living with us, he'd never been playful the way Jeff was. Still, it was impossibly early and I was scared I'd done the wrong thing, putting my wants before her needs. After story-time I tucked her in, kissing her. She snuggled under her comforter and quickly fell asleep, contentedly, arms akimbo, one hand clutching her new rabbit's ears.

The original plan was that Jeff would meet Lizzie, have dinner and go home. But that's not what happened. I wanted him to stay. It was like we'd spontaneously combust if he left. We stayed up late, whispering quietly about his past, my past and our future. Exhausted, it was early morning before we fell asleep, entwined.

"Mommy?" a high-pitched voice asked as a small hand tugged at my arm. Uh oh. Jeff was supposed to have left, but he was still next to me --I'd forgotten to set the alarm. I felt my stomach contract. I was a bad mom.

"Morning, sweetie pie," I said, crawling out of bed and pulling a robe over my nightgown.

"Daddy used to sleep there," she said, pointing to where Jeff was sitting up, suddenly very wide awake. She said it simply, a fact like the sun is yellow or snow is cold. There was no judgment in her voice although the jury in my mind had already condemned me as Irresponsible Mom.

"Yes, he did," I said.

"I want to come up!" she squealed, hoisting herself onto the bed.

"In a minute -- first I need your help in the kitchen," I told her, giving Jeff a chance to get completely dressed. After she helped me pour orange juice into ceramic mugs, we returned. Jeff was sitting, fully dressed, on the comforter. We crawled on top of it and told stories.

The experts in my head scowled and then slowly dissolved as Jeff, Lizzie and I nestled together and giggled over our silly invented tales. The whole thing -- meeting a person online and introducing him to my daughter -- may have seemed foolishly risky, but it just felt so right. It was a bit like I was climbing up onto the high diving board, trembling, unsure whether the end result would be a graceful swan dive or a painful belly flop, but somehow knowing deep inside that everything would be okay. Sometimes you just have to trust your instincts. Two years later Lizzie wore tulle and sneakers to our wedding. And ten years after we met, we still giggle together over silly invented tales.