Many years ago when I was a newly single parent and decided to brave dating again, the look on his face at the spilled food on my dress and a screaming toddler refusing to detach himself from a sudden iron grip on my leg made me want to cry, too.
Many Valentine’s Days later, more single parents are out there, and more today are navigating the world of online dating in search of romance. But it’s still challenging for singles with kids.
Donna Watson, a South Texas divorced mother of a teenager, finds dating more challenging than when she was childless.
“The hard part is, do you introduce them to your child, especially a teenager? Will they feel this person is replacing their parent who’s no longer your spouse?” Watson says being a parent has made her steer clear of potential dates with problems. “You have so much involvement with your child and what’s going on with their life, you don’t want to deal with anybody else’s issues.”
With four young children, single South Texas mom Crystal Meraz says she’s not thinking about dating anyone.
“I have four kids and I work, so there’s no time. I’m too busy,” she says. But Meraz does carve out time to occasionally hire a babysitter and go out with friends “to de-stress and to know that you can still have fun.”
The share of U.S. families led by single mothers more than tripled from 1960 to 2011, from 7 percent to 25 percent, according to a 2013 U.S. Census Bureau report. The share of families led by single fathers, while much smaller, more than quadrupled during the same period, from less than 300,000 to more than 2.6 million, or about 8 percent, according to a 2013 report by the Pew Research Center, based on Census Bureau data.
It’s not just divorce that’s growing the single-parent numbers. The Pew Research Center reports that today’s single mothers are more likely to have never been married. The share of never-married mothers among all single mothers increased from 4 percent in 1960 to 44 percent in 2011.
The Internet has made it easier for single parents to compare notes on forums and read dating tips at dozens of parenting and dating websites. More single parents also are turning to online dating sites. A survey released in early 2013 by Match.com reports a 180 percent increase in single parents joining the dating service over the last four years. More than one-third of Match.com members between the ages of 23 and 50 are single parents, the Dallas-based company reports.
Apparently, some kids are not opposed to the idea of mom or dad finding their new Valentine. The survey finds that 17 percent of single parents were encouraged by their kids to start dating.
Older single parents are turning to online dating, too. OurTime.com, an online dating website targeting 50-plus singles, reported last May that more than half of its members are single parents.
Online dating means adding Internet security tips to traditional offline advice such as when to introduce a date to kids. OurTime’s website tips for online daters includes protecting website access codes and refusing to divulge any financial or personal information such as your full name, phone number and address. When online participants build up enough trust over time to arrange a real date, OurTime recommends arranging your own transportation, meeting in a public place and telling someone else about the location.
When it comes to offline dating advice, Loreen Button, a San Antonio licensed professional counselor, says single parents should not be quick to involve their kids in a date or bring a date home to introduce to their kids. Parents can tell their kids over 5 that they are spending time with a friend, “and if he becomes a valuable friend, they can move to the next step,” Button says.
Button says she urges clients with kids who are single because of a breakup to try waiting a year before dating to “make sure they’re through the healing process first.” If you aren’t sure whether you’re over a breakup, outside counseling can be helpful, she suggests. Kids of divorce also might need more time or help to adjust before a parent begins dating, she says. “A lot of kids become angry because they think you’re trying to replace daddy or mommy.”
Unlike singles without kids, single parents, whether they are divorced or have never been married, can risk potential legal landmines if they don’t proceed carefully when dating, says lawyer Ami J. Decker, head of The Decker Law Firm, a Fort Worth-based family law practice.
The goal is to date in a way that “puts your children first” to avoid custody challenges, she says. In cases in which custody already has been determined, Texas courts retain what she calls “continuing exclusive jurisdiction” over the children until they turn 18 or graduate from high school. “Until that happens, a parent can bring a suit to modify that order,” she says.
“You never know when an angry ex is going to file something,” she says. “Even if you are a mother who never married, the father can bring a suit to change custody as the parent of your child.”
Decker has published a list of suggested do’s and don’ts, not just as a reminder to divorcing and divorced parents, “but also for the sanity of these kids who didn’t ask to be placed in these situations. They didn’t ask for their parents to get divorced or start dating people.”
For example, Decker advises against sleepover dates when children are present, living with someone you are dating, or introducing a date to your kids too soon. Decker knows personally how challenging it is to be so cautious because she dated a single father with two kids.
“I dated my husband for nine months before I ever met his kids. On the weekends when he didn’t have his children, that’s when we saw each other. We dated for four years before we ever got married. That had to do in part with the kids,” Decker says. “It was not easy.
“I greatly respected and still do respect my husband for how he handled that situation,” Decker says. “I’ve been married to him for 17 years. It was worth it.”
Renee Haines is a San Antonio freelance writer.