You’re a divorced, single parent. You have minor children. You wonder about having a dating life, whether you’ll ever fall in love again, whether you’ll ever have sex again, and what all of this means for the health and well-being of your children.
A divorced parent’s dating life is very confusing for children. Of any age. In its best moments. Additionally, and when handled badly, it creates painful anxiety and irreconcilable dilemmas of love and loyalty for them.
Moral maxim: The health interests of children rightly take precedence over the desires of a divorced parent for a dating life. I warn you, I have a stodgy reputation on this subject. But here is my primer for divorced, single parents regarding dating and sex.
When you’re ready to date, date. But keep it off your kids’ radar screen. They shouldn’t be within earshot as you banter and flirt on the phone. Your texts, instant messages, e-mails and greeting cards should be fiercely kept from their view and their knowledge. Be cautious with photos in your wallet, purse or nightstand. Private, private, private.
I didn’t say "lie." If the sitter arrives, and your children notice you’re dressed to the nines and on your way out, they might be curious. They might ask. With early elementary children, it’s both easy and morally appropriate to be ambiguous: "I’m going to the movies" or "Out with friends."
Never ambiguity, however, at the cost of credibility. Your older elementary kids and adolescents will figure it out. Your answer to them is more like, "Yes, I have a date. Nobody you know." If they press you, remind them: "I promise you that if I should ever meet someone with whom I want to make a serious commitment, I’ll let you know. Then we’ll talk about you meeting him/her."
My children will never meet my date(s), because parading casual dating relationships in and out of family intimacies is not good for children.
If you should decide to introduce a boyfriend/girlfriend to your children, or even bring to their awareness the name of this person and the revelation that such a relationship exists, then — you’re gonna hate this — it’s important (there are rare exceptions) to notify your ex first. Then, when you tell your kids about the person in your life, you add, "And I’ve already talked to your mom/dad about this."
"Why?" you’re protesting. "It’s none of my ex’s business who I date!"
You’re right, but you miss the point, and you miss it in a way that makes this whole thing about you. Which is exactly the problem we’re trying to ameliorate.
The notification is not a moral obligation to your ex, but to your children. Because, without this step, regardless of your best intentions, you force your minor children to be responsible for the information, even if you expressly say, "It’s not a secret." They, then, have to manage that information as they relate to their other parent. And this causes them an ocean of conflicted feelings. And that’s just wrong.
Regarding sex …
Children have a hard enough time with their parents’ sexuality even when their parents are still madly in love with each other! Imagine their thoughts and feelings about the sex lives of their divorced parents.
No way should your 8-year-old wake up on Saturday morning, stumble into the kitchen, and find a woman wearing your T shirt rummaging the cupboard for coffee. No way should your teen meet a man shaving in the master bath while you are in the shower. Can’t sugarcoat this one: That’s just reprehensible.
Traveling with your date? Be careful. If your older kids find out, it won’t take them a nanosecond to conclude ya’ll probably weren’t getting separate hotel rooms. And if the person in question hasn’t been introduced to your kids, and you promised you’d only introduce someone "special," … well, your kids will fill in the blank: My dad/mom is having one version or another of casual sex.
Which is fine if that’s the message you want to deliver. Just remember that when you walk in on your 17-, 18- or 19-year-old having casual sex.
I hope you’re getting me here. I have no moral axe to grind about casual sex. It is what it is. I’m saying that asking your children to navigate that knowledge is, yikes, pretty cavalier. And it has consequences for your credibility. Keep the behavior to yourself, unless and until you’re ready to introduce it to your children in a way that has moral continuity with what you want to teach them about sex.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Tuesdays and Sundays. Questions for the Asking Human Matters column or comments can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.