Here's the truth: dating while divorcing with young kids is complicated.
And when I say complicated, I don't mean the setting-up-IKEA-furniture definition.
I mean like if IKEA suddenly started selling whole DIY houses, and provided you with their typical cartoon instructions and an Allen key for assembly. It's complicated, and messy, and full of panicky meltdowns where you turn the manual sideways and wonder if you're actually doing it all wrong.
But surprisingly, despite the enormous amount of people in this position, my recent Google searches on dating with kids post-divorce have turned up next to nothing on the subject. There are lots of lists, of course, indicating the appropriate time to introduce your new partner to your children and how to do so smoothly.
But I couldn't find any brutally honest testimonials describing the way to be both a single mom and a girlfriend without screwing everything (and everyone) up in the process.
So this is mine.
I should probably start by saying I believe whole-heartedly that there is nothing wrong with dating when you have kids. The best mom is a happy one, and if you meet someone who can contribute to your life and bring joy to it, then have at it.
Practicing self-care is one of the best ways to become a better caretaker, and dating should be on that list, alongside bubble baths and good friends.
I have (almost) 4-year-old twin girls. They're very loud, very messy, and big on the overshare; they love to announce to people entering my house, “I did a poop on the potty!" So naturally when I started seeing my boyfriend, I wanted to keep a firm wall of separation between my mom life, and my dating life.
I didn't want to freak him out. Especially because my new partner is a bachelor in the full sense of the word; he owns his own house, and (with the exception of his dog) is entirely without dependents who'll clutter it up. When he's not working he can hit the gym, go out with friends, or even take spontaneous vacations, all without having to first find a babysitter and hurriedly vacuum Kraft Dinner off the couch.
There's also the physical element of dating when you're a mom. I might only be 26, but hello! I've had twins and my body likes to exclaim it. My hips are painted with faded stretch marks, a C-section scar that (while I absolutely love it) forever reveals my status, and I have lines forming around my mouth and brows which deepen every time my kids smile and say, “Mama we made a BIIIG mess!"
On an average day I feel like more of a disaster than my house is, and that's saying something. Initially when I compared my life (and my appearance) to my boyfriend's, I saw myself beside him as some wrinkled old mom, hunched over and using my last breath to order another time-out; I was sure there was no way he could really love me if he was introduced to that bipolar love-my-kids-to-death-but-sometimes-want-to-kill-them persona that goes with parenting.
Because it's not cute; there's legitimately nothing endearing about my greasy messy bun, eye bags, and frequent hoarse yelling at my girls to “Share!" while I shove toast in my gob so I don't have to.
So in the beginning, I made a choice: I decided I would slice myself down the middle into two versions—the one I am during the week with my kids, and another on the weekend when I went out on a date. The latter could be young, vibrant, with clean hair and boundless, youthful energy, while the former would be unwashed, unshaved, and falling asleep under piles of laundry by nine PM.
But one day I realized that even though I'd tried to convince myself I could separate the two identities, it's impossible; like winter and spring, they can't exist without each other. At the end of the day they're both me, one is just a little bit cleaner and has pruned more recently than November.
I decided that if my boyfriend was worth my time, if he really cared about me, he'd care about all of me, the whole package.
It turned out to be a gamble worth taking; after his first day with the three of us, my boyfriend turned to me and said, “Syd, those girls are amazing and the fact that you're a mom is one of my favorite things about you."
But it hasn't all been so easy; there's still the ex-factor. I am lucky in the way that my former husband and I have a good relationship, talk regularly about our kids, and he comes to my place almost every weekend to pick them up. But that doesn't mean our dating lives don't bring some weirdness.
While I'm a positive girl who likes to put an optimistic spin on things, I'll admit that the first few encounters between my boyfriend and my ex were, understandably, a little awkward.
There was definitely some chest-puffing on both sides, and the conversation was about as strategic and subtle as navigating a minefield (while blindfolded). But eventually both men started to breathe normally, and one day they got together and had a conversation agreeing on a mutual desire to bring the girls and myself nothing but happiness.
I'm not going to claim that's a typical situation, but it was one that I demanded; my kids deserve peace, and that doesn't arise from two sides pointing canons at each other. Ultimately, I wasn't going to have anyone in my life who didn't understand or support that.
And I think that's probably what I've learned the most about dating with children: In the midst of that uncertain whirlwind, figure out what your priorities are, and stick to them.
Let them anchor you to the soil, and hold fast when it feels like you might get swept away. Despite my wish for a personal life, my children have always remained my number one priority, and I refuse to loosen my grip on that, to compromise their emotional security so I can meet my own (or someone else's) selfish needs.
Still, I do want my girls to believe in real, transcendental love.
I want them to know that we all have the power to bring what we want into our lives and remove what we don't. To see that it's feasible for a mother and father to separate while still supporting each other, and to find new relationships without obliterating what they once had.
I want them to experience firsthand that despite what TV shows and movies tell us, a boyfriend and an ex-husband, or a girlfriend and an ex-wife can actually get along with each other because above all they want peace for the children caught in the middle.
I need them to know that it's possible to find love again when it seems like your entire world has fallen apart. Because one day they're going to get their hearts broken too; a time will come when they're disillusioned by love, and I need them to know that they can rise from those ashes, shake it off, and live again like I did.
Obviously, everything isn't perfect. My kids don't need a new dad, my boyfriend worries about stepping on toes, and it's still important for the girls to have the majority of their time spent either just with me, or with me and their father together.
Our original family unit needs respecting, as does my own single parent relationship with my daughters; it's necessary for them to know that I'm theirs first, and for them to see that being single is empowering.
They also have to learn through me that relationships do not complete you, and that we are all the engineers of our own happiness.
But with lots of honest communication, teamwork and a real craving for calm waters, dating while divorcing with young kids is something that I'm fairly successfully doing.
It's been a lot of trial and error of course, and my romantic life is definitely not the same as it would be if I were childless; I have serious limits on the time and energy (mental, emotional, and physical) that I'll devote to it. But despite that, it's worth it.
Not because I need to be in a relationship, or get married again, or press 'reset' on the last several years of my life, but because I'm entirely human, and at the end of the day it's nice to choose who you want to be sharing a blanket and a glass of wine with.
There's just something that feels right about honoring my truth, and embracing that imperfect, colorful, kaleidoscopic version of myself with all her unique, contradictory angles.
While I'm haunted daily by all the what-ifs, the endless potential ways my children could be further hurt or disappointed by my choice to date, I can't live in fear. Those worries might always shadow me, regardless of the position of the sun; the most I can do is show the girls that progress isn't made by pretending you're not afraid.
Rather, it's found through striding out your door and facing those fears, and then moving forward despite them.