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Dating Games : In the movies, single parents fall in love. In real life, it' s tough for them to get out of the house, much less have a relationship.


Sex and the single parent? You bet.

They want it. They need it. They intend to find it. But the truth is that millions of America's single parents can't even engineer a carefree evening away from home, let alone a whole night out, a romantic weekend or a long-term relationship.

Their problem: how to deal with the children while trying to live a single life.

It's a topic on which few courses are taught or books written, according to those who live the life and study the subject. And for the roughly 30% of American households consisting of single adults with kids (says the Census), it's an unmapped road that can lead right off an emotional cliff.

Persuaded by sitcoms and films into thinking it should be possible (if not downright easy) to hunt for love--while simultaneously raising children, running a household and holding a full-time job--about 10 million Americans fumble their way each year through feelings of guilt, ambivalence and inadequacy as they juggle schedules and crises that drain the fun from a search for marriage and sexual fulfillment.

People were told they could have it all and they've found it's not true, says Alexandra Penney, editor of Self magazine and author of "How To Make Love To a Man (Safely)."

"You can't have it all. Something's got to give. If it's a choice between children, career and social life, the social life is first to suffer. Maybe that's the way it has to be, if children are the first priority."

But most people don't make the choice easily.

As one Inglewood single father of two puts it: "I am so busy and so tired--and so utterly without options--that I can't bother to think about the least important item on my priority list: my social life. My children come first, and they always will."

This in no way prevents him from searching.

When he meets a woman he likes, he invites her out. Then he invites his daughters, ages 9 and 16. "The 16-year-old usually declines. The 9-year-old always says yes."

Sure, it puts a crimp on conversation and on the places the trio can go, he admits. "A typical date includes dinner somewhere like Denny's and a G-rated film."

John (who like others in this story asked that his name not be used), says he doesn't want his daughters to feel "excluded" from any part of his life. He has invented "rules" to protect them from emotional grief when he dates, he says, but has no way of checking the effectiveness.

His most recent relationship lasted six months. "I never slept anywhere but home," the 39-year-old technical writer says, proudly. "I am there mornings to fix breakfast, feed the rabbit and have quality time with my kids."

A typical evening: "When we come home from a date, my older daughter is watching TV in her room. My youngest gets ready for bed, as does my girlfriend. She wears proper flannel PJs and climbs into a sleeping bag on the couch. When the kids are asleep, she comes into my bed. She gets up early and leaves--or goes out on the sofa again."

John says he ended the relationship because his 9-year-old seemed troubled: she started asking to sleep in her father's bed and offered the girlfriend her own bed. Also, his ex-wife was angry about his new girlfriend and refused to send child support. And his girlfriend, who'd never been married, said she wanted children of her own. "I would not want to have another baby," John says.

Home Alone

Some parents go to opposite extremes.

One mother routinely leaves her 15-year-old son home alone all night in their West Los Angeles apartment. She did not date for years while the boy was growing up, she says. Now she's trying to find happiness with a man she met through Parents Without Partners.

Because the man has sole custody of two girls under 10, who can't be left alone, and her son is "a good boy who doesn't get into trouble," the mother feels she's made an acceptable choice.

"My son watches TV in his room and probably doesn't even know I'm gone all night," says the bank administrator. She carries overnight things in her attache case, "so if my son sees me, he thinks I'm going to or coming from work."

What if he awakens and looks for her? "I haven't dealt with that. If there was an emergency, he could call one of our neighbors."

Kids Are No Fools

Dr. Steven S. Schenkel, a Los Angeles psychiatrist, says he doubts most children are fooled by the games single parents play.

"Children pick up on what you're doing, even if you don't tell them. The more straightforward a parent is, the more smoothly things turn out. Parents should convey that they must go away sometimes to have fun. But they should not give a child too much detail."

Schenkel and others familiar with the lives of single parents, say their problems are vast and complex--and differ widely, depending on the age of the children, the family's economic and social bracket, and the psychological damage caused by divorce or the death of the missing parent.

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