Your young child depends on you completely. His fear of a new person coming into the family is real and deserves your sympathy, even though you might also feel impatient. Your child is wondering, "How will this affect me?" You need to give constant reassurance. One mother started dating, and after her fourth date with the same man her 7-year-old son asked, "Why are you going out with him again? Last night I dreamed you got married and had a new baby and forgot about me."
While your children are your first and foremost priority, that doesn't mean you can't enjoy a personal life. It's understandable to want the company of another adult to whom you are attracted. Keep in mind that dating is a time of exploration and fun for you—not a daddy-or mommy-shopping venture. Make sure you're ready.
"So this guy Marvin . . . asks if I'd like to 'pop out' for a cocktail. I almost laugh out loud. 'Pop out,' what's that? I don't 'pop' anywhere anymore . . ."
—Patrice Karst, The Single Mother's Survival Guide
• Broach the topic of dating with your child before you actually start seeing someone. For example, you can say that you met a new friend with whom you are planning to have dinner.
• Don't introduce this person to your child right away, particularly if you're in a casual relationship. It's perfectly OK to keep this part of your life private.
• When you are ready to introduce your new friend to your child, don't expect your son or daughter to bond right away. Relationships take time to develop, and your child may very well be jealous of this newcomer. It's best to make introductions on neutral territory, such as a park, playground, or zoo, so your child doesn't feel invaded.
• Be up front with the person you're interested in dating that you are a single parent and that your children are still your first priority. You'll avoid conflicts later on if you are clear from the start that you are committed to good parenting.
• Be careful not to let your new friend cut into time with your children. If you fall in love, you'll probably want to spend a lot of time with the person. Try to pace yourself. Otherwise your child is likely to feel pushed aside by your new friend. Be sure to schedule special time with your child, not allowing your new relationship to take over all of your free time.
• Go slowly. Ease the new person into your life. After introducing your children to your friend, gradually include him or her in your children's lives. Also, go slowly in showing physical affection toward your friend in front of your children. After a while, a simple touch on the arm would be a good place to start. Your children may be shocked by even this minor physical contact with your friend, so build slowly, and be conservative about what you let your child witness.
• Don't push your child to be physically affectionate with your new friend. Allowing children to express affection spontaneously is much better than pushing them into uncomfortable situations.
• Maintain your traditions. Don't include your friend in the most special separate things you do with your child.
• Don't have your child refer to your friend as a relative. Calling your date "Uncle" or "Aunt" is confusing to young children and will seem phony to older kids. Instead, ask your child to address your friend by name, such as Joe or Jen, or Mr. Smith or Ms. White.
• Give careful consideration before inviting your friend to spend the night. It's best not to have a date sleep over while your children are home unless you have been together a long time, your children are comfortable with the person, and you expect the relationship to last. Most children are extremely uncomfortable with the notion that their parent is a sexual being, so it's best to save overnights for times when your children won't be home, for example, when they're visiting their other parent or relatives or sleeping over at a friend's house.
• Expect some jealousy, and help your child deal with it. Allow your child to have negative feelings about this new relationship. At the same time, expect your child to be respectful to your new friend, even if he doesn't like the person at first.
• Don't expect your child to become instant friends with your significant other's children. The children may get along well, or they may clash. Give each child time to adjust to this new chapter in your family's life.
• Recognize that long-term commitments are family commitments. If you decide to make the relationship a long-term one, you need to make sure this is in the best interests of everyone in the family. Go slowly. Involve a family therapist if issues come up, especially with respect to feelings that your child has toward others in the new family.
• Reassure your child that he or she comes first. You might say, "I will always be your parent, and nobody can change that."
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