Dating as a single parent of small children is much like dating as a teenager. Really, the similarities are striking, as James and I — with six children between us — have been busy discovering.
In our teens, most of us went to great lengths to create and maintain a romantic relationship within and around the rules and boundaries set by our parents. Oftentimes this required some sacrifice of dignity (admit it — how many of you were caught by the local cops with your pants around your ankles at some notorious “parking” area?); some scheduling flexibility (“I’ll meet you behind the bleachers between 5th and 6th periods, but don’t be late because I have a test in chemistry.”); some creative problem-solving (“Mom, I’m staying at Sandy’s house because she’s feeling really bummed about not making cheerleading and really needs a friend tonight. Yes, I swear that’s the truth. Geez! It’s like you don’t even trust me!”); mastery of the poker face (“Don’t look at me. I have no idea where that box of condoms came from.”); and enough hormonal compulsion to devote ample energy toward the pursuit of those precious, stolen moments (“God, I haven’t kissed you in, like, 6 hours!”). And what’s most amazing, is that most of us didn’t even notice the absurdity in so much of our behavior.
Fast forward 25 years and suddenly it’s not our parents crimping our hormonally-fueled love affairs, but our children instead. All the same elements are present, just in a different context. There’s the sacrifice of dignity (“Shhhh! Don’t move! Did you just a hear a kid? Is someone out of bed?”); the same scheduling flexibility (“Okay, so between my work schedule and kid schedule and your work schedule and kid schedule, we can next see each other a week from Thursday….”) ; the same creative problem-solving (“Are we seriously doing this now? Here?” “Do you have a better idea???” “Good point.”); the same mastery of the poker face (“I have no idea what you heard, darling. James and I were just, umm…., talking.”); and the same chemistry-driven motivation to see each other, despite the obstacles (“God, I haven’t touched you in, like, 6 hours!”).
All of that sounds very quaint and mildly amusing, but when cast in the context of dating as an adult, it can be frustrating and challenging and truly threatening to even a good relationship. Sometimes it feels like a bit of innocent sneaking around without any true risk of getting grounded or losing car privileges, but on the other hand, it’s exhausting. Seriously. I am boggled by how much sheer effort and determination it takes just to see each other! And trying to steal an intimate moment or two requires strategy and planning and patience that could seriously undermine a less passionate relationship. Indeed, I have recently thought, on multiple occasions, that if I didn’t want this man so much, I’d have given up already. (Further evidence to support my theory that sexual attraction, while not enough on its own to sustain a long-term relationship, is vital to keeping one alive.)
For most of us exiting long-term marriages, the last time we dated the rules and expectations were pretty clear. But dating the second time around feels a lot like the overconfidence you get from having taken high school French, only to make that trip to Paris at 40 and realize that you have little to no idea what anyone is actually saying. “What?!” you think to yourself, “But I got A’s in that class!” Dating as a teenager or twenty-something simply doesn’t prepare you at all for dating as a middle-aged, single parent.
Neither James or I has had a relationship serious enough since our divorces to warrant or necessitate much juggling of priorities. But this — what we are creating together — is different. And so we are trying…. with admittedly mixed results. There have already been misunderstandings and missteps and days that felt (to me at least) as if the whole thing was suffocating under the weight of our mutual obligations outside our relationship. But neither of us is ready to give up on this relationship, and so we press forward. And everytime I have begun to lose hope for us, we somehow rally and rediscover the energy and desire to re-connect. And that’s when it starts to feel like we’re teenagers again. Giddy, silly, hormonal teenagers.
An old friend recently gave me some relationship advice and the bit that stuck with me the most — that has been echoing in my brain ever since — is that the most important question to answer, in my heart, is whether James is worth all this hassle. Yes, dating at this age and with small children is very difficult, and yes, it would be easier to just date someone casually while the kids are little. So, if I’m going to invest in a relationship, on this level, for any significant length of time, the guy has to be worth it. And every time I’m with him, I know he is. I don’t know how this will all end for us, but I know that I’m glad that I’m taking this crazy ride with him, and only him.
Now, if only I could get my kids to give me a later curfew….