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Some dating advice for single parents

After losing a partner to death or divorce, they need to be sensitive to children's needs and emotions, but firm too.

September 30, 2007|Kathleen Megan | Hartford Courant

hartford, conn. -- The cellphone calls started a few hours after she left the house. "Mom, it's 10 o'clock, when are you coming home?"

And again, "Mom, where are you now, Mom?"

When Anita Garvey started dating some years after her divorce, her teenage daughters said they were happy for her, but even so, it wasn't easy on them -- or her.

"It was almost like I was a teenager. It was like a role reversal," said Garvey, who divorced four years ago. It was perhaps harder, she said, because she had been an at-home mom for most of her children's lives, leaving the house to work only six years ago.

"They were used to having me 24/7," Garvey said. "Working was a little hard for them to digest, and then divorce was hard for them, and then when I started dating, I could sense they felt me pulling away."

Finally, one of her daughters said, "Mom, you know, I'm not liking this too much."

For parents navigating the dating scene, balancing it with parenting is a delicate task at best.

The challenges for a single parent range from the practical -- finding the time, a sitter and a date -- to the complex: gauging whether you are ready for a relationship, what your child's emotional reaction will be, whether the date has long-term potential. All of this may make it seem easier to wait until the children are out of the house.

But even then there can be problems -- twentysomethings have been known to dislike mom's boyfriend as much as 12-year-olds -- so experts say parents might as well date whenever they're ready.

Here's some advice from experts and parents who have been there.

First, make sure you're ready to date, said Donna Ferber, a licensed professional counselor in Farmington, Conn., with a specialty in life transitions and author of "From Ex-Wife to Exceptional Life: A Woman's Journey through Divorce." If a marriage ended in divorce, Ferber said, "It's good to take the time to learn what went wrong before anesthetizing with a new relationship."

Priscilla Dunstan, an Australia-based specialist on communication with children and a single mother herself, suggests setting up social and recreational times with friends at the start. This gives you social support, while also getting your children used to the idea that you need time for a social life too. This way, Dunstan wrote, in an e-mail, "when you start dating . . . your children won't feel that your date is taking up their time with you; it's just a regular night out."

If there's one common mistake, Ferber said, it's introducing children to a partner before the child is ready or before the parent knows whether the person has much potential for a stable relationship.

"The child may not be through grieving," said Ferber. "The parent may feel like this is something new and exciting, but their child may not be on the same page. . . .

"Secondly, if you do connect and then break up, the child experiences a loss all over again. Children may ask, "Did I do something wrong?"

Dale Macken, who was divorced 14 years ago when his children were 4 and 1, said that over the years he never introduced a girlfriend to them until he was fairly certain the relationship would be long-term.

And when he did introduce a date, he'd call them simply a "friend," with the hope of having his kids treat them more casually.

"But, Dad, they are 'girls,' and they are 'friends,' so they are your 'girlfriends?' " he recalls his daughter saying.

"No, honey," he told her, "they are friends who are girls."

Macken joined a singles group at church. He liked it because he could get to know a woman as a friend in a group before thinking about romantic involvement.

Macken and Garvey are now dating each other.

Jeff Palitz, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Diego, said he knew of some parents who didn't introduce their children to a love interest until the relationship was at least six months or even a year old. "I'm not sure that extreme is really necessary," he said.

And therapists advise against inviting a date to sleep over when the kids are home. "This is their house and they shouldn't be intruded upon," Garvey said. "I try to put myself in their shoes. I don't think I'd like it."

But what if, after all the conversations, your child still doesn't want you to date or doesn't like the person you are dating?

Usually this is less about the person and more about the child's grief about the divorce or a parent's death.

Palitz encourages parents to keep talking to children. It's natural for a child to act out or regress during a difficult time, he said. Consider getting therapy for the child.

There are some parents who say, "If my kid doesn't like you, you're out," Palitz said. In general, most experts say, this gives the child too much power.

Palitz said some parents talked about waiting until their child was "healed" from a divorce or a death before dating.

"They could be waiting forever," Palitz said. "So they may need to make a decision that they are going to start dating and that may actually help the child move forward."

If a child continues to hate the boyfriend or girlfriend, Palitz said, "parents have to be very careful to be respectful of children's feelings, to hear them and acknowledge them, but the child is also expected to treat the significant other with respect.."

And, Palitz said, it's worth looking closely at the relationship to make sure the child isn't picking up on something that you've overlooked.

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