You’re separated or divorced, you’re a parent, and you’re taking the plunge back into dating. That’s a lot of different identities to juggle, the kinds of life experiences that make you stronger but also leave you with the possibility of single parent baggage: unresolved tensions with your ex-partner and the parent of your children; confusion about where you and your children stand with your ex’s family; and having to reconcile being a caretaker while meeting your own needs for companionship and support. Zoosk spoke with relationship experts who shared four key tips for managing these complications while strengthening your relationships with your children, your ex, and potential new partners.
Make sure you’re ready. “First and foremost, I always urge single parent clients to self-evaluate,” says Christie LeBlanc, a dating and relationships communications expert, as well as a single mom herself. “It’s a natural urge to want to get on with your life and find a special someone new, but dealing with the hurt and pain of a divorce, adjusting to single parenting, and the process of rediscovering who you are and what you want, takes time. It’s not simply an adjustment. It’s a transformation. You need to feel good about you before you can be good for someone else.”
Divorce and parenting coach Rosalind Sedacca advises the same for her clients, and suggests several questions they should ask themselves: “It’s always better to take some time to prepare yourself before starting to date—legally divorced or not. Are you feeling clear and complete regarding your divorce? Are you emotionally comfortable and ready to move on? Did you learn the lessons you need to learn so you don’t repeat past mistakes? Dating won’t resolve anger, conflicts and insecurities, so do the inner work first before getting out into the dating world—regardless of how long it takes.”
Keep the family together. Regardless of your relationship with your ex-spouse, a key way to avoid baggage is to keep your child(ren) feeling secure that they still have a family. “In most cases,” Sedacca says, “the more time Mom and Dad spend ‘family style’ with the children, the happier the kids are. If you can include your former spouse in holiday activities—even if for only a period of time—your children will appreciate that.”
Sedacca stresses the long-term benefits of such amicable behavior: “You are modeling behavior your kids will emulate in their own lives. Special events, graduations, birthdays and holidays can be so much more enjoyable when the kids don’t have to choose between the parents they love—and those parents behave like mature adults in their presence.”
Depending on how long you were married, there are the added ties to extended family: “You are only divorcing your former spouse, not your children’s grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. The more you can continue life routines as close to normal, the easier the transition for your children. Make every effort to maintain relationships with extended family on both sides. Your children will appreciate it and thank you! So will Grandma and Granddad.”
Transition in your new partner. Now, to talk about the new people you’ll be bringing into your and your children’s lives. “Take your time and get to know your new partner very well before introducing them to your child of any age,” Sedacca advises. “Children are emotionally vulnerable when new adults enter their lives, especially when they’re dating Mom or Dad. Don’t create a revolving door of ‘new friends’ for your children to meet. Wait until you know this is a very special friend worthy of their attention. And then take it very slowly.”
She adds, “Make sure you remind your children that no one will ever replace their ‘real’ mom or dad (unless you are justified in doing so). The transitions are a lot smoother when the new ‘friend’ doesn’t come across as a new ‘parent.'”
Don’t confuse “baggage” with “kids.” When you’re just starting to get to know someone new, how should you talk about your kids? “Of course you mention them,” LeBlanc says. “They are not baggage. They are part of your life. And if your date has kids, maybe you can bond over crazy soccer practice schedules or how many times you’ve heard that damn Frozen song.” However, LeBlanc counsels against letting kids completely define your identity: “As a single parent, your kids are your life, so it’s easy to fall into the trap of talking about them a lot! The point of dating is to expand your life and experiences, and if your new date is the one, there will be plenty of time for kid talk later.”
The same goes in the opposite situation, Sedacca says: “Anyone who considers their date’s children as baggage should never date anyone with children. Children deserve better than to be considered an annoyance to put up with. If you’re a parent, don’t ever date someone who does not love and enjoy your children. The relationship will only deteriorate, and you never want to have to choose between your children and your love partner. If you feel burdened by your children, seek counseling to help work through this challenge. Children are sensitive. When they pick up on your feelings it will create emotional pain and insecurity that no child deserves.”
Everyone is carrying baggage, but by addressing your issues head-on and thinking about what’s best for your kids, you stand the best chance of lightening your load.