I’ve talked so much about dating as a widow that it’s strange that I haven’t written much about dating and kids. When I have written on this topic, it’s usually about how to date with small kids. Here’s an excerpt from a piece I wrote that’s titled, “Could My Date Be a Father to My Kids?“
Once I started dating, I found that I would very quickly move from “do I want to kiss this guy?” to “could he be a father to my children?”
That made dating really difficult. I’m not a total idiot, so I didn’t say these sorts of things out loud on a first or second date. I didn’t want to scare everyone away. But damn if I wasn’t thinking them.
I learned how to talk less about my kids when I met men without children. I didn’t hide their existence, but I didn’t make them my focus of any discussion. I learned how to temper my stories about my kids even when I was chatting with someone who did have kids, because usually the men I met didn’t have their kids all the time. (Young widowhood is decently rare and most of the fathers I met were divorced.)
But here’s the clincher: unless a man showed some interest in my children, I never really found him attractive. I couldn’t. My kids aren’t some lawn ornament that I have hanging around the house. They are a part of what makes me who I am. So if someone didn’t like that I had kids, well….they honestly weren’t someone that I wanted to get to know.
In this post and in my life, I assumed that the biggest hurdle to dating with kids would be the men I met. What I didn’t ever write about, because my children were small, was how it might make my kids feel when they found out I was dating.
Because here’s the thing – they never knew. They know now (or at least they know that I was dating, even if we don’t talk much about it) but the first man that I ever dated that they actually met was Chris. I didn’t specifically hide my dating from my kids, but I just never talked to them about it. My dad knew I was dating and when I went out at night, I’d say I was meeting a friend. On the rare occasions when my kids asked which friend, my dad (bless him) always said, “that’s your mother’s business! Time for bed!” Even when I had a few different men I dated somewhat steadily, I never had them come to my house. I was pretty certain that a man had to be very serious with me before I’d let that happen.
So I didn’t have to deal with my kids’ feelings about me dating, because they simply didn’t know. The idea that their mom (or anyone’s mom) would date was pretty inconceivable for them. Dating was for teenagers!
But not everyone has my widowed experience. Sometimes, people write to me about dating, and how hard it is with kids, though for an entirely different reason. They don’t mean how hard it is to find a babysitter or to get up in the morning with a toddler after a night out. No, these notes are about older kids (who are sometimes already adults) who don’t like the idea of their remaining parent dating.
And some of them make their thoughts known. Here’s an edited excerpt from a recent note I got from a widow:
I never wanted to date again after my husband died, but a few years passed and I met a nice man named James at work. He and I were just friends at first, but we finally started going out a bit for coffee and then to dinner. We live in a small town, and one night my young adult daughters ran into us on our date! It was a bit embarrassing and I was worried but everyone got along fine and we had a nice dessert together. When we got home, I had a long talk with my kids and they made it clear that while they know it doesn’t make sense logically, they don’t want me to date. In retrospect, I should have been more forceful with them about my feelings but they were so upset I just wanted to stop their hurting. I said I understood and I haven’t been returning James’s calls. But I feel a real connection with him! What should I do?
Whew! That’s a doozy. I mean, first, let’s acknowledge that this is a tough situation. And everyone’s feelings are valid. It’s hard to watch your parent date again and it’s hard to be the widow doing the dating!
But while everyone’s feelings are valid, that doesn’t mean that they are all equal.
Here’s my 2 cents. First, I think the age of the kids matters. Teenagers in the house would be much more affected by a new partner, so their feelings should be weighted more heavily, and I think you have to tread more carefully. Adult children (even those who’ve just left home) are adults, and that’s important. They might have feelings but they should have much less of an ability to stop you from doing something that makes you happy. Personally, I think it’s pretty selfish for adult children to ban their parent from ever dating again. Who wins in that situation?
That said, just telling an older child/young adult that they shouldn’t feel a certain way is not helpful. Instead, you have to create a dialogue. I sound like a therapist, but it’s true! I think sometimes we assume that we know why kids (even adult children) are reacting a certain way, when we actually don’t know their full and true emotions. What are their fears? What do they think will happen if you find love again? Do they fear that you’ve forgotten about their parent that died?
Also, you will want to communicate your dating goals to your kids. Yes, “dating goals” is a funny term, but I think the not-knowing about why you are dating is pretty scary for kids, including adult kids. Maybe you want to get remarried. But maybe you just want someone to talk to! Or maybe you want something in between. Maybe you don’t totally know, but having a vague outline of what you want is something you should know for a lot of reasons, and something that can be really helpful to communicate to your kids.
Third, your kids don’t need to know everything about your dating life. They probably don’t want to know about most of it! I’m not saying you need to lie to them, but like everything in life, sometimes you can edit your stories carefully. We all deserve a degree of privacy.
After I read this email, I was talking with Chris in the kitchen about how to respond, and Claire walked in. She asked what we were talking about and I told her a synopsis of the email. Chris asked Claire what it had been like for her when he first arrived. He remembered that the boys had immediately leapt into his arms, but Claire was more cautious.
“I remember we were going to have pasta that night you showed up,” she said to Chris “but then Mom made something special for you. I remember asking mom if you were going to be her boyfriend.”
We both laughed at that. She had only just turned 11 at the time.
“I remember that you were super concerned about how I made your mom feel,” Chris said. “You were really tuned into if mom was smiling or laughing.”
“I was,” Claire said. “I was nervous, I think. I wanted her to be happy.”
We talked more about that time, and how Claire grew to first trust, and then love, Chris. I asked her what she would think if she had been 13 when I started dating. Would she have cared more?
Claire chose her words carefully. As she stood there, I was imagining that she wouldn’t have wanted me to date, because that would feel “weird” or something like that. But her answer surprised me.
“I would be a little bit nervous,” she said, and then looked right at me, “because I wouldn’t want you to get hurt again.”
And that was not what I expected to hear at all.