Naive kid dating a single mom needs advice.
May 14, 2009 3:21 PM   Subscribe

I'm 26, she's 28 with 3 kids. I need some advice about dating a single mom.

I've been dating a wonderful girl long distance for just over 3 months now and I'm getting ready to move there within the next month. I'm comfortable with the relationship aspect, but she has 3 girls under 10 from a previous marriage and I feel totally unprepared for interacting with them. We've been seeing each other on the weekends every 2 weeks when her ex-husband has them so it hasn't been an issue, but being around on a day to day basis will surely change that.

I've been planning on making this move for the last couple years and met her while visiting friends, which is who I'll be living with, so I'm not moving in with her or anything. She hasn't said much about it other than that she has friends over all the time but that she wouldn't want to show any physical affection or allow me to spend the night when the kids were around. I have absolutely no problem with this. She seems to be a great mom and has a lot of help from her friends and family. The ex-husband pays child support and has the kids every other weekend. She says they don't really talk much anymore but that he's a really good father.

If it's not obvious, I'm pretty lost. I'm not even sure what details to provide that would be helpful for receiving advice. The fact that she has kids doesn't bother me, but I know that's partly because she's the most amazing person I've ever met. I think maybe I just don't know what I'm getting myself into. Any help (first hand advice from single moms, any other guys that have been in this situation) would be greatly appreciated.
posted by Kupo? to Human Relations (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I think maybe I just don't know what I'm getting myself into.

Trust your instincts.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 3:23 PM on May 14, 2009 [4 favorites]

Well, don't immediately transition from every other weekend to seeing each other on a day to day basis right away, that's for sure. Don't jump into the kids' life. Take a few months once you get there to just date her, and then think about meeting the kids. From there, look at the advice in this thread from earlier today, and just put yourself on the other side of it.
posted by amelioration at 3:33 PM on May 14, 2009

It's good you're not moving in. Take it slow, see how well you all "work" together when the kids are around, and most of all don't expect it to be perfect and easy. There will be days when she'll have near-zero time for you, and others where whatever together-time you planned is interrupted constantly and unexpectedly.

There will probably be a period where you're suddenly faced with the un-glamorousness of it all, and will wonder wtf you're doing... but ride that out, and you could end up with a deeper understanding and admiration of your girlfriend that's based on her entire life, not just the times you've been alone together.

Go slow, but be confident. As long as you are an easy-going person who can deal with some pop-up chaos now and then, you should be fine.
posted by rokusan at 4:13 PM on May 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I dated a single mother once. She had a boy, about five years old at the time.

Realise one imutable fact. No matter how much she likes you, she loves her kid and that responsibility will always come first. This is no bad thing; it's the way it's meant to be. But when you're cuddling, watching TV or whatever, and the kid needs something, don't make her feel guilty for going to help the kids, or if she already does feel guilty for whatever reason, make sure she understands that you're fine with it. And ask her if she needs help doing whatever it is she has to do for the kids at that moment.

Also understand that some single mothers are very independent and don't want your help with the kids. Others would love and welcome the help. It might be best for the both of you if you had a discussion pretty early on about how she feels about that, if it's not already obvious to you about what kind of single mum she is.

But helping dosen't always mean helping with the kids. For instance, you may have just had dinner and now she's helping the kids to have a bath or whatever. Without prompting, you'll earn many brownie points if you just do the dishes, or clean-up or do something else that she, for a long time has had to do herself. This is good advice for all relationships though, not just with single mums.

Interacting with the kids. Obviously, you're the new guy and so you have absoloutely no right to discipline or yell at the kids for any reason at all. If they're mucking up, it's up to their mum to tell them off or impart any other kind of discipline. You're just an innocent observer.

A lot of kids of single mums will automatically take a dislike to you, because you're not their dad and they want their dad back. My situation was different because the single mum I dated had seen the father dissapear at her sons birth so her son never really knew his dad. And her son loved me, so I didn't have to deal with that. Be aware you may have to, however.

All my life, kids had always seemed to like me, and I never understood why. It wasn't until; I dated this single mother that I realised why. Upon telling me her son had told her how much he liked me, she said that it was because I hadn't explicitly tried to get him to like me. This was because at the time I was in my mid-20s, had no interest in kids and so I wasn't really trying to be his best friend (getting his mum to like me was the more important task, at the time). And this made sense. Thinking back to when I was a kid, the adults who wanted to be my friend were the ones I disliked the most and I think that's true of most kids too.

So while it's important to realise YMMV in regards to this fact, don't try to be the kids best friend. Don't be rude to them, obviously. Engage them if they engage you. If they ask you to play with them do so. But if you let them come to terms with having you around, and let them get to know you on their own terms, then you stand a better chance of them liking you. The bonus to you of this is they tell your lady that they like you, and then she likes you even more.

That's about all the advice I have to impart. Hope it all goes well. Good luck!
posted by Effigy2000 at 4:16 PM on May 14, 2009 [6 favorites]

Your heart is in the right place....but dating someone with kids from a previous relationship is tough. And it can only get more tough once your relationship gets more serious. Those children are part of her life. Their other parent is part of theirs...therefore he will also be a part of your life. In addition to being prepared to interact with them, you must also consider what your life will be like together once things get serious.

I dated a guy for 3 years who had two children from a previous relationship. He had full custody of his daughter and son, so when we moved in together, it was inevitable that I had the mom role in our household. It was a role I did not want to take over, with respect to their biological mother, but it just happens. It happens when there are disciplinary issues, when you need to back up your partner when it comes to raising the children to be better will happen. The thing that most people are not fully aware is whether or not they are capable of doing that. Once you are in that child's life, you may be supporting your partner, but either the children will not agree with your tactics or the other biological parent will not agree with things and drama can only ensue.

You can only stay away from the kids for so long in terms of having a distant relationship, but since they are still young, there is plenty of raising left. And no matter how drama-free her relationship with her ex could be, this is a very, very tangled web. I hope you have a very different relationship experience, but I found myself being taken for granted and while I was helping raise the children, the guy never once stood up for me to his ex because he feared she would take her frustration out on him and not allow him access to his children when she had them.

Be prepared to be in the backburner. And if you do want to get serious...consider how it would be like to have children with her. Then you will have two sets of children who have different rules because you have actual say in how you want your biological kids raised. To be honest, after what I experienced and having seen my friends go through the same issues, I would never date a person with a child from a previous relationship ever again. Dating someone is tough enough, but to build a relationship on already shaky ground was just a waste of time.
posted by penguingrl at 4:27 PM on May 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

A close friend of mine has dated a lot of women. A LOT. I asked him for the best piece of advice he could give me. "Don't date single moms," he said. "It's not worth it."

I can see why. No matter how close you get, you're always second banana. You spend two weeks planning an awesome Valentine's day, and then a kid gets the flu and it's all blown. You have all of the romance-disrupting headaches of having kids, except they're not yours.

You can find an amazing woman to date who doesn't have such a major obstacle to your enjoying each other. Then if and when you want your own kids down the line, it's more of a possibility. Three kids is already a lot; a future with this woman might mean that you won't reproduce. Are you willing to make that sacrifice?
posted by dualityofmind at 4:43 PM on May 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

25 years ago, when I was 31, I met and started dating a single mom, three years younger than me. Her ex, and the kid's father, still lived in town, but had very little to do with his kids because he was more interested in alcohol. He did not pay any child support and only had contact with the kids on birthdays and major holidays.

After six months of what you could say was a quick romance, the mom and I married. The two kids were aged 10 and six, a girl and a boy, and they came with the package. I really hadn't thought the situation completely through during the dating phase, because frankly the kids weren't around but about 20% of the time. They were usually left with my girlfriend's mother while she and I were out.

That definitely changed when we got married and began cohabitating. Instant family, and all the responsibilities I had given little thought to. There were the economic responsibilities: I was now feeding four instead of one, or two; new clothes and shoes for the kids each time they would grow out of what they had; entertainment and other tools of interest. There were the parental responsibilities: getting them off to school each day and spending time with them each evening on homework and other nurturing. Those of you who are parents have seen it all.

Suddenly I was a dad, and I muddled through. I won't bore you with the next 15 years. I'm sure I wasn't the best dad (who is?), but I did help get them raised, on to college, and off on their own when they became adults. Even though their mom and I divorced six years ago, I still keep in touch with the kids, especially if they need some paternal advice.

I've said all that to say this: I think it's great that you are considering this matter now, before you go any further in a relationship with the single mother. While you and she may be having a great time and a great romance, you must remember that she is a package deal. If you are willing to fully accept the responsibility that entails, more power to you. If you have doubts, hash them out with her before the two of you become more committed. It is only fair to her, and especially to her kids.

Raising someone else's kids is not always easy, especially if the father is around a lot. Not to make myself noble or anything, but my ex-wife's family always thanked me for my part in the child-rearing. They told me many times the kids were a lot better off with a father figure around than with just a single mom. I don't know about that, but that's what they told me. If you are willing to accept these kids as if they were yours... if you are willing to accept that you won't see them in the baby, infant, and toddler stages... if you are willing to accept that your life will never be the same from the moment you open your arms to the entire package... then go for it with every ounce of your being and don't look back.
posted by netbros at 4:45 PM on May 14, 2009 [10 favorites]

I would never date a person with a child from a previous relationship ever again. Dating someone is tough enough, but to build a relationship on already shaky ground was just a waste of time.

Penguingrl, I'm sorry you had such a bad experience, but don't you think you are painting with a very broad brush there? Perhaps your ex had a beard, for example. Because that relationship was a disappointment, would you now caution everyone to avoid relationships with bearded men? Or just with that bearded man?

I'm suggesting that maybe dating a person-with-children could have been just fine... if you had dated the right person. The children were perhaps not the only problem.

As this relates to the OP's question, I think it's important: if someone is the right person for you, and they're someone you want to be with... then they're the right person, whether they're childless or they come with 14 rabid monkeys, and you should be with them.
posted by rokusan at 5:13 PM on May 14, 2009

Do not form a relationship with the kids unless you are prepared to maintain that relationship, no matter what. The kids need to be taught how to develop healthy relationships and how to attach to other individuals... It would be bad if you were to stay at their house frequently for a month or two until the affair cools and the two of you split up, and then you leave their lives forever. Try to figure out how to set it up so that you can have a longterm relationship with them, or avoid staying over at your girlfriend's house when they're there and walking around in your underwear until you're sure that you have found the right life partner.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:29 PM on May 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Based on being a single dad of two young girls, and from dating single moms:

Don't try to be their dad. Don't discipline them unless you've arranged it previously with their mom out of their earshot . But if they hurt you or say something really rude, you can say "Ow!" or "That kind of hurts my feelings" or "It's not my job to clean that for you." Be honest with them (emotionally). Be present with them if you are spending time with them, but be honest with yourself when you need air, and tell them if you have to work or watch a game.

Don't talk down to the kids. But try to see the world through their eyes, it's fascinating. If they tell you their stuffed duck wants to hug you, it's alive and it wants to hug you. Hug it and tell it how much you love it! Have you done improv, where the rule is "never say no, say yes and...."? Do that. I don't know why, but stuffed animals are hugely important. Also: Barbies and other dolls are just puppets used as characters in elaborate narrative storytelling. Kids use their dolls and animals to tell you things they can't verbalize. Also, show them any scars and other cool owies you have or pick up.
posted by msalt at 5:41 PM on May 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

We don't know you personally. We don't know the mom. We don't know the kids. So what can we say?

Yes, it is trivially true, that every case is different, we are all individuals, and what may be a disaster for one person, can be just peachy for another.

However, equally true is this: a kid in the picture (or three!), immensely complicates your relationship. The odds of failure and unhappiness increase sharply. Yes, you might still be successful. And you might jog on the autobahn and suffer no ill consequences. Just be aware of the odds. They are not in your favor. Having said that, see the first - we are all individuals, with unique... etc.

Think hard. Try to estimate your capacities. Go in with open eyes.

I just got off the phone with a very good friend of mine. He married a single mom with a small daughter. They are getting divorced after 8 years of marriage, with one additional kid (boy) they had together. She asked for the divorce, because she disagreed strongly with his behavior as a father toward her daughter. He was dumbstruck - he thought he was a great father in that he never made a distinction in his behavior toward his own son and toward his adopted daughter; he was always somewhat strict, but not even remotely abusive. Still...

It's a minefield. Tread carefully.
posted by VikingSword at 5:43 PM on May 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

You said you weren't sure if you gave sufficient details to elicit advice, let me assure you that the most important detail you gave is her ground rules for interacting with her daughters. Keeping things casual around the kids should tell you that she wants her daughters to be comfortable with you and wants you to be able to foster that comfort by being at ease yourself. Rokusan and Effigy's advice comes into play here. Take it slow, relax, and don't try to force buddy-buddy interaction with the girls. Like Effigy pointed out, kids have highly sensitive (and accurate) bullshit detectors. It's one of my favorite things about kids. That's not to say that they won't want you to play with them or have fun, but follow their lead as to what's cool and what's not.

I'm now married to a wonderful woman who had an eight-year old boy when we met. He and I found areas of common interest, which was easier with a boy. Kids love the give and take of a student-teacher relationship. Both when you can tell them more about something they are interested in and when they can play the teacher and tell you about it.

It's a nerve-wracking experience, to be sure. I went from a single guy in a one-bedroom apartment to married with two kids (we had a boy together) and a house in 18 months. It was a huge adjustment. The baby's almost 3 now and I'm still adjusting. Don't expect to do everything right. Just approach every situation with honestly and with respect for the girls and -most importantly- their mom, you'll be fine. It's a big commitment, but if you're open to it, it could be the most rewarding thing you've ever done. I know it has been for me.
posted by ashabanapal at 5:53 PM on May 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

You might want to ask yourself a few questions:

1) did you actually want children at all before this? You may be ok with her children now because you're in love. Once that initial glow and euphoria goes away the children will still be there and they won't go away.

2) did you want children now, soon or later? Maybe you wanted to do/see/experience/achieve x, y and z first because it's important to you. Again, being in love makes everything else seem less important but once things go back to normal... maybe you'll regret having given up your other dreams and plans.

3) is it important to you to have your own children? How likely is it that she'll have a few more considering she already has 3? Are you going to be ok with this?

4) are you ok with the presence and interference of a former spouse for basically forever? Some people are, some aren't.

5) are you prepared to deal with potential legal consequences? I know, she's the greatest person in the world but you'll never know how people change when things turn ugly until you see it happen. You wouldn't be the first person to have to support children that are not your own just because over time you become like a parent to them and maybe you're financially better off than the ex or he goes broke or something. This of course depends on the legalities you're subject to depending on where you live etc. I'd consult with a lawyer before you get to know the kids too well.

I guess what I'm really trying to say here is that you need to try and look at all this from your emotional baseline, not from the euphoric high of being in love. If it still sounds like a good idea then... knock yourself out.

PS: I'm not saying it's a bad idea 100% of the time and I'm sure sometimes it works great. But I'd be very careful and I'd think about it until I'm absolutely sure. There's long term consequences to consider here... not the least of which is the fact your presence in her life will inevitably affect her kids.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 5:55 PM on May 14, 2009 [3 favorites]

I appreciate everyone sharing their experiences with me. I marked a few as favorites because they mentioned things that I had not even considered, but this has all been very helpful.

Obviously each situation is different and I realize that if this becomes any more serious that I'm really committing to 4 people and not just 1. I feel like it would be unfair of me to continue seeing her if I didn't think I could ever do that and the only way I would know (since the relationship between her and me is phenomenal) is to be around her kids. Then at the same time I'm sure she'll want to see how I interact with them. I'm pretty laid back and will definitely take it slow, take Effigy2000's advice on not trying too hard to be their friend, and msalt's strategy on stuffed animal etiquette and showing owies.
posted by Kupo? at 6:18 PM on May 14, 2009

She hasn't said much about it other than that she has friends over all the time but that she wouldn't want to show any physical affection or allow me to spend the night when the kids were around.

I think you need to ask her to say a little more. You're not just a friend, you're a significant other, and that's a big difference. Even more, you're a relatively new significant other who's making a BIG change in moving to her area.

If she hasn't already, she needs to think (and talk to you) more specifically about how she sees you interacting with her kids at first and what kind of ground rules will make her comfortable. And then later, you two will need to discuss how she sees your relationship with her kids evolving, and how you two will know when you need to re-evaluate those ground rules.

It's safe for you to assume that you'll have a pretty limited role with them at first. Nthing that her kids will be a priority incomparable to anything else. But I wouldn't worry too terribly much about what will happen in ten years if her ex loses his job. I don't even know what to say about "single moms aren't worth the hassle" type advice.
posted by desuetude at 6:20 PM on May 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Date her as you would date anyone else--deliberately but slowly. You have three kids as well in the package, and it may take a while for you and them to get used to each other, not to mention you and gf to get used to each other. Don't move in together. You want to be very, very sure of your feelings before that happens.
posted by zardoz at 6:56 PM on May 14, 2009

[sorry folks this needs to go to meta and not here]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:59 PM on May 14, 2009

posted by Optimus Chyme at 9:06 PM on May 14, 2009

I dated a single mom. Then married her. Then celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary. It seems to be working out.

Really the kids are a bonus, or at least hers were. Yes it made things more complicated, but also more fun. Yes those kids are going to come before you in her priorities, but that is another thing to admire and love about her. Slowly become the kids' friend, but never try to exert authority over them--you don't have any standing, and they will resent the hell out of you. And I agree don't move in or become a fixture in the house or anything like that until you too are ready to get married yourselves. Never in your life speak an ill word about their father, though you bite your own tongue off holding it back.

Good luck! It is hard but all relationships are hard.
posted by LarryC at 11:04 PM on May 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I’ll always be grateful to the man who dated my mother and eventually became my step-father. He was a single man dating a woman with two boys. They eventually got married, and then had twin girls. Within a year, he went from being a bachelor to the father of a family of six. That still blows my mind. Perhaps the only thing that astounds me even more is the fact that the only time I ever remember him yelling at me or my brother was on the day my sisters were born. He came home from the hospital exhausted, and my brother and I were horseplaying instead of doing our homework; he’s never raised his voice since.

I still remember some of the guys that came and went in my mother’s life—in our lives—before then, and each of them had various degrees of success being the man they thought we needed or wanted. I’m sure there was a huge difference between what they pictured and what they actually got. I think there’s a certain resignation that my mother felt—perhaps all single mothers feel—when it comes to men and dating and love.

With my step-father, I’m sure he was very reluctant at first, and there have been lots of tears since, but also lots of smiles and laughter, and I am a better man now because of the example of honor and integrity and patience he has been. It’s not an easy thing to do, and as many opinions here have shown, it’s easy to become bitter. It’s not for everyone. But as someone who was simply another person’s “baggage” I will always be grateful for the man he decided to be—the man he didn’t need to be.
posted by sambosambo at 1:31 AM on May 15, 2009 [9 favorites]

Consider the commitment you make to the kids.

It might be a good idea to be friendly, but not be seen by them any more than any of her other friends, because - romantic relationships between adults come and go, but children expect stability in the adults in their life. If you become one of 'their' people, then you might end up seeing them even if you

* I'm still 'Aunty' to a couple of kids who were the *nephews* from a ltr I was in several years ago. Family is thicker than blood, and apparently I'm family now. ;)

* I know several males who dated single mothers, who became father figures - in one case, just by being a housemate. They continued being semi-parents even after breaking up.

* A friend recently broke up with the mother of a toddler. He'd been her partner while the kid was under one, then moved away. There must have been some kind of memory, because in only two months of re-dating, the toddler got really attached, and when the mother decided it wouldn't work, the *toddler* was inconsolable, and kept asking every day for the friend. He was pretty choked up about it too.

Note - this is obviously far, far easier with older children, and much less of a problem, but still, be very careful about the relationships you form with under 5s.
I personally think it's... a little morally reprehensible to suddenly leave the life of a small child who has gotten attached to you, and unfortunately, many guys aren't looking at it that way when they start dating a single mother, they're just being friendly because of the relationship with the mother, until boom, they're more involved than they counted on.

Needless to say, there's also many dicks out there who break up with someone, and don't think about the fact that they're 'breaking up' with the kids too, and don't really care.
posted by Elysum at 2:45 AM on May 15, 2009

There's a lot of great advice in this thread.

Go really slow. I can't reiterate this strongly enough. You've been together for 3 months? The kids should not even enter the picture yet. Get to know each other more, maybe after 6 months or more, you can start all going to the park together for an hour or so. But don't suddenly become this huge presence in their lives. Really. Don't shower them with presents to win affection. If you do spend time with them, be mellow, talk to them, listen to them. Try and find out what they like (mom's a good source on this) and ask them about it. After 9 months or so, you'll have a better idea if your relationship with mom will work, and if it will, it's time to start developing a relationship with the kids. But slow.

Think long and hard about being a step-dad. Did you want kids? Talk to the mom about raising kids, listen to her ideas about school and learning and discipline and behavior. How does that match your ideas (you may be surprised to find you have lots of ideas about it) talk with her about it.

The kids come first. Always. In the beginning this can be hard to deal with, and you won't always have the time or focus for each other. I think most couples with kids go through this. You'll have to find time and energy for each other. But before you know it, the kids grow up, and they'll be teenagers spending all day in their rooms listening to music and ignoring you, and their chores.

If, after all the time, and gentle introductions, and talking, you decide you can become a step-dad, then do it, don't half-ass it. They become 'your' kids too, with all the joy and worry and sorrow that birth parents have, but with additional complications. In your case, they are young, which means you won't likely have the same struggles as joining a family with teenagers.

Other thoughts: What's the birth father like? Will he use them to get back at you (talking shit about you to them, etc..)? Please never talk badly about their father, regardless of his actions. Please don't ever undermine his (potential) relationship with them.

I met Mrs. Gofargogo 5.5 years ago, when she had a 10 year-old boy, and 6 year-old girl from a previous marriage. I'd never spent much time around kids (being the youngest in my family) and was really unsure about how to proceed. I stayed out of the kids life for the first year or so, with minor exceptions for dinner, or going to the park. But after a lot of talking, and thinking, I decided I couldn't be happier, so I jumped in. At year 2, we moved in together (a few months before actually moving in together I started spending a lot more time with the kids), and two years after that we bought our house. Two weeks ago (tomorrow!) we got married. Now I'm officially a step-dad, and I wouldn't trade it for the world. Best of luck to you.
posted by gofargogo at 5:27 PM on May 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

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