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.
From the shop
Products to bring the 🔥
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.
A few weeks back, I found myself with a lot of anxiety unsure about what to do about school. I had my own fears of my children falling behind—my future first grader has very little interest in reading and my preschooler cannot identify the letters in the alphabet. I know this is not a huge concern but at that moment, it was paralyzing.
One night as I was doing homework with my son, my fear came through in the tone of my words and I was less patient than I’d like to be. He paused and said, “Mom, you are not being kind. You are mean right now and I need you to apologize. I don’t think I want to do homework with you.”
Wow. I had a surge of emotions but I paused and apologized. I thanked him for sharing his feelings and expressing his needs. That was my first nudge that I was not showing up as the parent I wanted to be.
After having many conversations with friends (and even some strangers at the park) around school, academic learning and what to expect from my children during these unprecedented times, I came to the decision I had been tiptoeing around in my head: Our kids are not going back to school this year.
By keeping both our children home, I will be focusing on creating a space of physical and emotional safety for all of us. I wanted to show up from a place of love, abundance and support and ensure we inspire a love of learning, curiosity, kindness and community. I learned that my well-being and space for reflection and growth was critical to be the parent I want to be and that means some balls will need to drop—in our house, that will mean a rigorous academic schedule with uncertainty around COVID-19 will not be a priority.
My children are watching me almost 24/7 and that means how I show up as a leader in my life has a huge bearing on their beliefs and choices.
The risks around coronavirus have felt heavy, and as much as I love the idea of pods and micro schools, we couldn’t come around the risks of exposure.I am hopeful that we will make up for the losses our children are incurring with minimal social interaction in their lives at this moment.
This means both my kids—almost 7 and 4 years old— will be home this fall.
We’re not quitting our full-time jobs.
I know this will be hard, but we can do it.
The first grader will have distance learning at his local public school that I know will be challenging given my husband and I will have our own Zoom meetings to navigate. There will be a lot of, independent play as the boys are obsessed with Legos and can play for a good chunk of time with minimal supervision.
I just ordered a homeschooling reading and math curriculum—more for me to have some support—so that we can encourage their academic learning at our own pace and not stress about attending all Zoom sessions. We will read a lot of books, learn from Khan Academy Kids and Epic, listen to podcasts and work on our Big Life Journal. We will learn coding on Scratch junior to foster their interest in building things. We will spend a lot of time outdoors, cook together, make art, play board games, do chores and create memories.
My highest priority is that our core family values of joy, growth mindset, kindness and learning are honored. This is an incredibly hard season of our life and I will not let my children’s academic success be a major source of stress in our lives. We want to savor this time we have as a family and ensure we look back and feel proud of how we supported each other and chose love when things were hard.
I have made peace that my kids may likely be behind academically but that it is okay. We are in the midst of a pandemic and my goals are different compared to a month ago. There is a lot more that my children will learn around life skills and that will be enough for now. There are days I fail and give in to the noises around me, but this is my North Star that I will keep pulling myself back to.
It was not easy to come to this decision and I am giving myself permission to change my mind as the days and weeks go by. What is working for us today may not work a month from now. I came to this place after a few rough days and finally some insights from my favorite teachers—my children. As I look ahead, I know some days will be harder, especially as I let my inner critic take over and I start comparing myself and my children to others but, hopefully, writing this will remind me of what matters most.
If you are in the same position, I sincerely hope you find a decision that feels right for you. There is no easy choice around but I hope you put your values at the forefront and make a plan that aligns with that so you have as much joy, ease and purpose as is possible in this season of our lives.
You are working incredibly hard, mama and I hope you see that for yourself and love yourself for all that you are doing.
Everything about school this year feels like a trap designed to snare parents in contradictions.
We never wanted to go back to remote school. But since our leadership squandered its chance to lower national virus transmission rates in time to open schools safely, a lot of parents are choosing remote-only education for their kids this fall.
We never wanted our teachers to have to teach in masks. Now, we’re just hoping the PTA has enough money to buy masks with the built-in transparent panels, so kids can see their teachers’ faces—and that the school has enough money to put safety measures in place to keep teachers safe while they work.
We never wanted our kids to be stuck in desks lined up in rows, with no small group work or face-to-face socialization. Now, we’re lucky if that’s what the classroom looks like, because at least that means the school is taking public health recommendations seriously.
We never wanted any of this.
When it comes to deciding whether or not to send children to school this fall, we’re all making decisions from a menu of terrible choices.
For parents facing this difficult choice, the CDC recently published a “school decision-making tool” that breaks down the many factors that could influence our decision. The really big questions are these:
- Does your child have an underlying health condition that could make them especially vulnerable to the virus?
- Do you live with (or is your child’s caregiver) someone who has an underlying health condition that could make them especially vulnerable to the virus?
- Is the level of community spread in your area high?
- Is your school unable to follow the safety recommendations made by public health experts to help prevent kids, teachers and staff from getting sick?
If your answer to ANY of these questions is “yes,” I would be the last person on Earth to say you should send your child to school—just taking my lead from the many scientists and public health experts who are saying the exact same thing.
But in my particular case, because of the makeup of my family, my hometown and my school community, the answer to each of those critical questions is “no.” We live in New York City, where state governor Andrew Cuomo just announced schools could reopen this fall, if positive virus test rates in each school’s community remain lower than 5%.
If our school opens, I will send my daughter for in-person instruction.
Reason 1: We’re not high-risk, and neither is anyone in our caregiving circle or workplace.
We do not have health conditions that put us at risk, and while we miss our daughter’s grandparents, no one in our immediate household or caregiving circle is high-risk either. Our daughter is fine with wearing a mask if it means she can attend school, and is old enough to understand its importance. My husband and I both work from home, which further minimizes our risk of potentially infecting others outside our family.
I am painfully aware that most families are not this fortunate. We don’t have to choose between sending our child to school and seeing our child’s grandparents, and all too many families are faced with exactly that terrible choice right now.
Reason 2: We live in a community with fewer than 10 new cases per day per 100,000 people, and a test positivity rate under 5%.
I live in New York City, where my daughter attends a large, public elementary school in Brooklyn. In my city, 1 in 370 people died this spring.
New York City was the epicenter of the epicenter a few months ago. But as of this writing, New York City’s positive test rate has been hovering around 1% for weeks, even with thousands of tests administered each day. The virus transmission rate is fewer than 10 new daily cases per 100,000 people—in fact yesterday, it was 3.4.
That ratio—10 new cases per 100,000 people per day—is as close to a magic number as we have right now. It’s the ratio that public health experts have been urging communities to meet before even thinking about reopening schools—and then only with all the recommended precautions in place, including masks, staggered starts, small cohorts of students, intense sanitization and on-site health screenings.
The fact that New York City is even able to consider opening schools this fall is a testament to the city’s collective determination. Many, many people made sacrifices and changes so that our kids could face a lower risk in returning to school. Our local and state leaders came up with a super-granular, data-obsessed, 7-point and 4-phase plan for reopening, and then stuck to it, even when it hurt. And in large part, the good people of New York City wore the masks, stayed inside, skipped the party, got the takeout, worked from home, and did all the things we know help to slow the spread of this disease—the proof is in the pudding. Yes, we all miss eating out, and bars, and parties and people. But there’s something big at stake here. (Side note to all our childless friends: On behalf of parents with school-age kids, thank you. YOU helped make it so kids could maybe possibly go to school this fall. Thank you.)
In 40 out of 50 states right now, the numbers do not reflect this possibility. In all too many communities, the case ratio is way above the threshold experts recommend. And in all too many areas, local leaders are pretending it’s safe to open schools despite high levels of community spread.
If I lived in a community where there were more than 10 new cases per 100,000 people per day, I would not send my daughter to in-person school—my choice would be different. I am humbly, profoundly grateful to the many people who made painful sacrifices so that I—and other New York City parents—could have this choice.
Reason 3: My school has a detailed plan in place.
My daughter’s school is attended by a diverse mix of students from almost every background. It’s a Title 1 school, which means enough low-income students make up the student body that the school qualifies for additional federal funding, as well as free breakfast and lunch service. Our principal is a 30+ year veteran administrator and educator who works magic on behalf of our kids—although I know it is not, in fact, magic but hard work and dedication.
For our school, there’s no miraculous pot of gold that’s going to pay for the extra cleaning, the extra staff, the extra supplies, the extra curriculum and technology needs. Schools like ours desperately need our federal government to finally pass the second round of coronavirus relief legislation that’s been sitting half-baked in Congress all summer, with funds earmarked for schools to enact the many (costly) changes that reopening safely will require.
All the same, leaders at my daughter’s school have spent the spring and summer coming up with detailed plans for social-emotional learning, curriculum updates, schedule changes, building upgrades and safety measures, and they’ve communicated these plans to parents.
I support my school. I am committed to helping my school however I can do it. And while I am as worried about my daughter’s education (and my own ability to work) as anybody else, I personally don’t want to pull my daughter out of public school to enroll her in a private pandemic pod, which would put our school’s funding at risk. I know these learning pods are important to many people and I totally get the appeal. But for myself, I want to try to work with my school community to solve this enormous problem as best we can.
Again, in our case, we’re lucky to have a dedicated school community of parents, administrators, teachers and staff. I know not everyone is so fortunate, and I’m grateful.
Reason 4: My sister is a teacher.
My final reason for sending my daughter back to in-person school is a deeply personal one. My sister teaches Special Education at a middle school in an underserved community, in a state where new cases are rising every day and where school leaders and local officials have not been consistent about communicating with teachers or parents. Her school faces all the same funding and resourcing problems as mine—and more. And she’s going back. She felt that not going back would have meant abandoning her students and leaving her co-teachers short-handed.
I’m scared for her. Her situation is so different from ours. She faces all the risks we as a country should have been working nonstop all spring and summer to fight, with all of our strength.
Poor leadership, entrenched inequality and a baffling lack of support for basic public health regulations have all combined to put way, way too many teachers and kids in serious danger of getting sick when school reopens. My sister is one of them. My daughter is not.
I’ve known for a long time that my sister is an incredible person—a talented and committed educator, a dedicated citizen, a giver. I never really realized before now, though, how brave she is. We’ve asked teachers to be brave this year in ways that I don’t think we should be able to forgive ourselves for, as a country. We should have done better to protect them. In more parts of the country, we should have shut down non-essential services for adults so that kids and teachers could face fewer risks. But we didn’t. And now it’s come down to this—a menu of terrible choices, for way too many parents, and unfair risks for way too many teachers and schools.
I’m sending my daughter to in-person school because I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m a parent without high-risk family members, at a well-prepared school, in a city that fought hard against coronavirus and is winning (right now).
There should be a lot more people who are as lucky as I am. A lot more.
“People who say ‘enjoy every moment’ have never sat next to my kids eating chips.”