By Alisa Rivera
When Jessica V. began dating after separating from her husband, she was very careful about introducing men to her son and daughter. "I don't think it's healthy to bring men in and out of their lives," she says. When she eventually became seriously involved with one man, Jessica tried to slowly involve him in family activities in order to give her children time to adjust. But despite her best efforts, Jessica's 7-year-old daughter, Lily, began to tell her that she hated her and wanted to live with her father. "She became this demon child," Jessica says.
When after several fights Jessica asked Lily why she was being so mean, her daughter confessed her worst fear: "What if you met someone you want to marry and he doesn't want kids? I'll have to leave home."
Jessica reassured her daughter that she would always be more important to her than any man, and Lily's behavioral problems subsided. But this story illustrates the many challenges that women with children face while dating after divorce.
"It's a big deal for a child to take in someone new after daddy leaves," says Maria Lechich, Ph.D., a psychotherapist with a private practice in New York City. "Kids can feel like second class citizens when a new person enters your life."
Divorced mothers who date must learn to care for their children's emotional needs while not neglecting their own. "You don't want a parade of strangers in a child's life," says Lechich, "but you also have to live your life as fully as you can."
Meeting Mr. Right
One of the biggest challenges for divorced women is simply meeting a man willing to date someone with children. "I told some guys I had kids and they would just disappear," Jessica says. "I lost a lot of potential dates, but I would never consider seeing someone who doesn't like kids."
It's important for divorced mothers to choose men who are sensitive and patient with children. "Men can be alienated by antagonistic behavior," Lechich says. "The kid throws temper tantrum and that can be a real turn off."
Dating moms should not introduce dates to their children until they know the relationship is serious. "Kids don't need to be part of your dating life or attached to someone unless it's a real commitment," Jessica says.
Lechich advises women to carefully observe the men they date and evaluate the relationship's long-term potential. Some questions to ask: How does he feel about children? Does he have kids of his own? Is he involved with them? What are his long-term plans? "These questions can scare a guy away, so you don't want to ask them the first month!" says Lechich. "But it's important to know where he stands because sometimes women are reluctant to acknowledge red flags early in the relationship."
Tara M. experienced this when she broke off an engagement with a man she became involved with a year after her divorce. "He was an actor and lived a real hand-to-mouth existence," says Tara, whose children were 10, 8 and 4 at the time. "He wasn't responsible about bills and creditors were calling all the time. He was the nicest guy but lived in absolute chaos. I realized that my children and I couldn't live like that. We needed more stability."
Coping With Your Child's Reaction
Once a safe and trusting relationship has been established, a dating mom can introduce her kids to the new man in her life. But be prepared: children will likely have strong-and sometimes surprising-reactions. "Some kids can feel very resentful towards the mother and partner," Lechich says. "A child can also feel disloyal to his or her father if they embrace the new person in their mom's life."
"I thought my son didn't like my boyfriend because he would get very quiet and not communicate at all around him," Jessica says, "but when I asked him he said that wasn't it. He just didn't want to do anything that would upset his father."
Tara's eldest son got along fine with her boyfriend-until they became engaged. "When I told him he burst into sobs," Tara says. "I was totally unprepared because he had always said he loved Jerry. But with the engagement he had to face up to his parents not getting back together. It floored me."
It's important for mothers to deal directly with their children's emotions. "Give your child words to talk about his or her feelings," Lechich says, "such as, 'You get angry when mommy goes out.' Reassure your child that she's not forgotten when you go out."
While mothers can sometimes feel overwhelming guilt when their children react badly to a new relationship, one thing they should not do is allow their children to derail their dating life. "The child can't dictate," Lechich says. "The child can't have that much power. Remember that these are all normal feelings. You will make mistakes, but if you help your children to feel secure and loved, it can work out."
Tara can attest to that. After several post-divorce relationships, she is now remarried to a man who loves and respects both her and her children. "It's a wonderful marriage and gets better all the time," she says. "We had to deal with some problems but it doesn't shake the foundations of what we've got."
Alisa Rivera is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. She focuses on health, consumer and career issues. Her website is located at: www.alisarivera.com
Her articles have been published in the Oregonian newspaper and McCall's and Latina magazines, and her short stories have appeared in the Berkeley Fiction Review, Iris: a journal about women, and the UCLA Beat.