Dating is hard, but it can be whatever the two of you make it — unless, of course, one (or both!) of you have kids prior to the relationship. In that case, there are at least a few other people whose experiences you need to take into account, as well as a lot of other factors. Dating for single parents (and dating single parents for people without families) can be complicated. Many are worried it’s a dealbreaker and sometimes it is; on the other hand, especially for those of us who are gay or queer, dating parents offers a way to have a family and children when we’re often shut out of the ways straight people build theirs.
Dating someone with kids isn’t at all difficult or a red flag; it’s a normal and healthy practice, and very common in an era where we celebrate various family configurations. It just takes a little extra thoughtfulness; here are my tips for what to keep in mind when dating a single parent.
Examine where you’re coming from
Every relationship is a two-way street; that doesn’t change when it comes to kids. Even if only your partner came into the relationship with children, you’re bringing some of your own baggage, too – and it can cause problems if you don’t acknowledge it.
You may not have your own kids, but you certainly have thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and previous experiences related to children and family. Did you ever want children of your own, but couldn’t have them? Did you decide you definitely didn’t? How might that impact the way you show up to your partner’s family and your decision to be a parent? What were your own experiences with childhood, and what were the values about parenting in your house? What buttons might it press to watch your date parent their kids?
It’s not your job to totally resolve all of these open questions before you enter into this relationship, but being actively aware of them and being able to explain them to your partner can help make sure they don’t turn into resentments or fights out of nowhere.
Follow the family’s lead; bring your own boundaries
Hopefully, you’re dating someone who has already come to the table with their own ideas about how they want their dating life to work relative to their family life – ideas about when a date should meet their kids, how involved they want you to be in their children’s lives, etc. Signs of a healthy, thoughtful person showing up with intentionality!
If someone is helpfully providing you with these cues, it’s in the best interests of your relationship to follow them. Even if it seems crazy that you’ve been dating for nine months and she hasn’t told her kids about you, or that you aren’t allowed to discipline them even when they interrupt your work calls, the long-term trust that’s built by respecting their family dynamics is worth it. Parenting is hard, and your partner needs to know that you’re on the same team.
At the same time, it’s not that you have no say in your shared life! It’s important for you to think carefully about what your own boundaries, triggers, and limitations are around kids and parenting and for your partner to respect those as well. Maybe feeling left out during family holidays is a big emotional trigger for you, and so you want to make sure you’re a part of important holiday celebrations; maybe you aren’t comfortable being in charge of driving the kids to and from school if you aren’t going to get parenting privileges. The kids will have to come first for your partner, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed your own boundaries.
Of course, this can and will change over time — the relationship you have with your partner’s kids after ten years is very different than it will be after six months. Make sure that you and your partner are both ready to speak up and check in about how this aspect of your relationship is going as time progresses; you can name that you feel like, for instance, the degree to which you’ve been helping her daughter with college applications feels like a parenting role to you, and you’d like to revisit your shared understanding of how you fit into the kids’ lives.
Understand what’s best for the kids might not be best for your relationship