Dad Is Dating!
In all likelihood, fifteen or so years ago when you dreamily said "I do," you didn't imagine being single again one day. Yet here you are, unmarried . . . with children. First you need to refamiliarize yourself with the concept of dating, and then you need to prepare your kids.
How does that well-known adage "See no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil" apply to the children of a dating dad?
They see everything.
They hear everything.
They speak when the mood strikes them.
Your job as a single father is to raise them, nurture them, support them, and defend them while also reading their minds.
Children often act ambivalent, fooling even the most perceptive father into thinking they just don't care. But one of the consequences of your decision to date again is that their hopes of Mom and Dad reconciling are dashed, which is a tough concept for them to confront head-on. So instead, they conceal their feelings, feigning disinterest if you even hint about going on a date. They are not prepared to witness Dad with another woman, let alone his embarrassing love-struck antics as he falls under the spell of what's-her-name.
The other reason they may hide their true feelings is that they think you'd rather not know what's on their minds. Clinical psychologist Dr. Paul Halpern says children often believe they have no choice but to resign themselves to their father's new social life. "They know that Dad thinks 'toughing it out' is the mature response. You don't whine. You don't complain. Just get over it." Because of this, it can be difficult for your kids to discuss their feelings with you directly. And if you don't broach the subject, neither will they.
Yet while they may be mum about your dating prospects, your family and friends probably have a lot to say. When a death or divorce occurs, those who are closest to you usually are of the opinion (even if they are tiptoeing around the suggestion) that you need a mate. After all, you're a man-you can't possibly raise the kids alone, they think. Though you might have some new tricks to learn-such as telling your kids to sign you up for paper goods rather than cupcakes for the class party-you're sharp enough, loving enough and, ahem, man enough to do just fine. You should date because you want to, but take it slowly so that your children have time to process this new development in your life.
Keep in mind, too, that while you are not a mind reader, neither are your kids. You will be considering the possibility of dating again long before they know anything about it, and the news will probably come as a shock to them. If possible, ease them into the idea by talking about it before you actually begin. Let them hear from you, "At some point I'd like to start dating. I'm not sure when that will be, but I don't want you to be surprised." Dr. Halpern warns dads that after a divorce or death of a parent, children need at least six months to a year to process the loss and the change in their family. If one parent is gone they need to solidify their relationship with the remaining parent. After they've had some time to adjust and heal, they will be more open to the possibility that Dad might meet someone new.
Regardless of whether your children's mother remains in their lives, your role as a parent has changed drastically. You've taken on additional responsibilities that may feel foreign if you've always assumed comforting a crying child was Mom's work while disciplining an unruly son was better left to Dad. As a single father, you will do both. You will bring an openness and honesty to your relationship with your children that perhaps didn't exist before. You will do something with your kids you might normally avoid: you will talk about your feelings, and you will listen to theirs.
And that will encourage your kids to do the same.
Parenting Solo: The Widowed Dad
It's difficult for any man to suddenly find himself alone, running a household, and raising the children. Your day-to-day existence is, of course, further complicated by the grief you and your children both suffer. Be patient with yourself and your kids as you go through the stages of loss, including denial, guilt, and anger. It's a long, arduous process. Many of the widowers I interviewed had been accustomed to traditional roles at home-they worked while their wives, even when they held jobs, ran the home and acted as primary caregiver for the kids. When their wives died, they not only lost their mates but also suddenly assumed sole responsibility for everything.
So while you are grieving over the loss of your wife, you're also facing an increased workload. This puts an unfamiliar stress on your whole family. "I found myself very angry for a long time because I didn't like the role I had to play," says Dwight, a fifty-year-old school principal with three daughters.
"Before, when my wife was alive, I would help out with the wash but didn't have to do it every day. I wasn't much of a cook. I became a cook. I wasn't into meal planning, but I had to do that. You come home from work and you're tired. I was angry at my deceased wife for leaving me with so much to do. I had to be mad at someone."
Unlike Dwight, who had gradually taken over the household duties during his wife's illness, Conrad had been so entrenched in his time-consuming job as a physician that his wife's unexpected death completely derailed him. Raising his three kids by himself was perplexing, to say the least. Like a lot of fathers who abruptly find themselves in that role, Conrad admitted he wasn't always sure how to handle all aspects of parenting. When his oldest daughter asked permission to pierce the top of her ear, he was nonplussed. "I said, 'I'll ask your mother.' Then I looked up, asked, and replied, 'Your mother says no.' I answer to a higher authority."
Like all men whose marriages end, either because of divorce or death, fifty-four-year-old Conrad feels that he's been unfairly robbed of a future. Everything he and his wife planned together vanished with her premature death. I feel that way, too, sometimes, but self-pity only compounds my loss, punishing me over and over again. I've come to realize that losing a spouse doesn't rob me of a future as much as it creates different experiences and opportunities. In your case, your future may include a new wife, an extended family, or a different home. It's the unpredictability and the hope that lie in the unknown that help you emerge from grief.
Jason dreaded his role as a single father. When his wife, Cynthia, died, he suffered a physical pain so crippling, he says it felt "like someone reached in my chest and ripped out my heart." Deeply in love, they had an equal marriage, sharing all the household chores and financial matters. But when it came to parenting their three sons, Jason had always deferred to Cynthia. "I was afraid of being a parent because my own father had been so mean," he says. "I'd ground the kids for a month. No television for two weeks. My wife would say, 'Do you know what you're doing to them? You're not even home all day.' "
Emboldened by the task of keeping further disruptions from his children's lives, after the death of their mother Jason tried doing it all: preparing dinner every night, keeping up with the housework, driving the boys to all of their activities, and working full time. The consequences of his Herculean efforts? Two herniated disks, severe stomach discomfort, and a lot of misery and stress. Jason was so focused on his children and work, he never even considered the prospect of a social life for himself.
At first, parenting alone can feel overwhelming and practically impossible. Even Seth, who had been a stay-at-home dad and felt perfectly capable of doing the housework and tending to the kids, was staggered by his new role. When his wife passed away, he assumed the full responsibility of parenting twenty-four hours a day without a break. "I didn't have anyone to bounce ideas off," says Seth. "You don't have your soul mate there to assist you. And then there's the loneliness. All the other losses we handled together. This I had to handle by myself while raising the kids."
Thirty-eight-year-old Gary relates to Seth's situation. His wife, too, had been the principal wage earner. He was twenty when he started a job at a manufacturing company and was introduced to his female boss. Almost instantly, he was smitten. A rich ten-year marriage followed, producing three daughters but ending tragically with his wife's premature death from cancer. At first, friends and neighbors crammed the house, bringing dinners, helping with the girls, and comforting him. But gradually the plates of food and the support stopped coming and Gary, though accustomed to cooking and cleaning, was ill equipped to assume the role of both father and mother. By the time his kids returned to school after the funeral and Gary had resumed work, he was physically and emotionally exhausted.
Like so many widowed dads, Gary allowed himself to think about dating and falling in love again, but had no idea when to begin. Dr. Halpern says, "After a loss, a lot of guys say, 'I'm going to put myself into my children, into my work, my tennis game on Sunday. That's enough for me.' That sounds very hollow and empty. If you had something really special, the loss is devastating. I think those are the guys who have the most difficulty finding someone else, because they've had someone great. Some of them need to say, 'My wife was wonderful but not perfect,' which gives them permission to move on."
Timing is a particularly sensitive issue for widowers and the one aspect of their social lives on which everyone offers an opinion. All those family members, friends, and acquaintances who are not in your shoes have their own perception of the "appropriate" time for you to get over your loss and begin to date. You won't be able to please everyone on this issue, nor should you try. What you know, and what other people may or may not choose to understand, is that dating again, even falling in love again, never minimizes the love you have for your first wife. When your second child was born, did you love your first child any less? The decision to begin dating again is yours alone. And while their feelings are always paramount, even your children don't get to make this decision for you.
Precious Time: Divorced Dads
A friend of mine who has been divorced for five years and has partial custody of his children will go out on dates only when his children aren't staying with him. That means every other weekend and half of every week he will not see his current girlfriend. It also means that he goes through girlfriends like professional baseball players go through bats. He says there is no way he'll give up precious time with his kids. Consequently, his social life is sporadic at best.
If you are a divorced dad who has limited custody of your children, you can't imagine taking away from the prized time you have with them to cruise the bar scene. Any decision to begin dating is wrought with emotion and guilt. First you have to get past the hurt and scars left by your divorce, especially if it was less than amicable. Then you have to resolve the guilt about squeezing in a social life when your time with your children is already limited. "I used to be overwhelmed with sadness that I only see them half a month," says forty-four-year-old Robert of his four kids, "but I'm motivated to make the most of the time when I have them." What matters is not how much time you spend with your kids but how you spend that time. Another father, Warren, understands this; living close to his three kids, he makes the most of every moment they have together, even though he sees them less often than when he was married. In his thoughtful words: "You don't measure parenting on the extraordinary days. It's the ordinary days that mark the kind of parent you are."
These ordinary days are the ones that will transform your kids into well-adjusted adults. It never stops being necessary for you to do small loving acts: help them with their homework, commiserate with them when their prom date cancels, grab a bat and a ball and take them to the park. Talk to them-even if it's by phone-about their day. Remain engaged in their daily lives.
Dr. Halpern says, "Reassure them that they will never be rejected or ignored. Even if you meet someone new, your relationship with your kids will not be violated. This stranger will not come between you and them." Your kids may need to hear this from you over and over again-at least as
often as you tell them to clean their rooms.
Like widowers, some divorced dads become so stressed by their new single-parenting duties that dating is the farthest thing from their minds. David, a forty-four-year-old engineer, has been responsible for his kids since his wife trimmed down and tightened up and left him for a twenty-two-year-old at the gym. As if being both mother and father weren't challenging enough, David endures a two-hour commute to and from work each day and arrives home after 7:30 P.M. to make dinner for his kids. Like so many of the fathers who have full custody of their children, David thinks a social life for himself will take time away from his responsibilities as the sole parent. It's easy to deny yourself a love life because you feel guilty about the divorce, deluged by your responsibilities as a parent, and worried about your child's feelings. But would you ever discourage your child from having a social life with his peers? As much as he needs to be around other kids to become well-rounded and self-confident, you need to be around adult members of the opposite sex.
Not only do our kids influence our decision to date again, but overtly or tacitly, divorced dads are often hindered by another presence: the ex. If she's not dating, then she quite possibly isn't happy that you are. If she is dating, you may feel extra pressure to get back out there yourself. All of this is compounded by your children universally wishing that Mom and Dad would reconcile. Before telling them you intend to start dating, you must first make sure they understand that your marriage is over. They need to know that while you and their mother love them very much, you and she will never reunite. You may one day meet a woman who will grow to love them, too (because what's not to love?!), but she will never take the place of their mom.
Excerpted from Dating for Dads by Ellie Slott Fisher with Dr. Paul Halpern. Copyright © 2008 by Ellie Slott Fisher. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.