Life after divorce - with kids.
July 8, 2011 10:00 AM   Subscribe

I'm in the throes of a divorce. I have an 8 year old girl. I've met someone else - how best to integrate two people with young kids...more details below...

My ex and I have been in separate houses for over a year and a half, and custody is split 50/50, though we aren't legally divorced yet. Our daughter can see either of us when she wants. She has a weekly therapy session, and she can ask me about anything at any time (and she does, she's just moving passed the "angry" phase at the moment). It's going as well as it can, under the circumstances.

6 months ago, I met someone else, quite by chance. It's the real deal. She has two children under 7 and is also getting a divorce. Hers is somewhat further along than mine, and she's been to the mandatory parenting class, which filled her with horror - enough for her to say that if I needed to go back to my wife for the sake of our daughter, I could. Amongst the wealth of statistics about failed second relationships and damaged children was one that said it takes between 4-7 years to blend new families.

I've met her kids (last weekend, as it happens), she hasn't met my daughter - though she knows that I'm in a relationship. We are taking everything very slowly, and the welfare of our kids is paramount. How do we do it right?

tl;dr Give me your tales of life after divorce, specifically integrating young children into a new relationship.
posted by nicktf to Human Relations (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The younger you get your daughter used to you dating, the better. My parents were more of less split up by the time I was 8, but my mom didn't start dating until I was about 15. It was a disaster. I was horrible to her boyfriend (now husband) because I was used to having my mom all to myself. I begged her not to have him spend the night in our house. I had spent so much of my life without a man in my home that the thought of him being around drove me into fits of anxiety. This went on for many, many years before I grew to accept him as a part of my mother's life.

Of course every kid is different, every family life is different, and my experience has absolutely no bearing on how your daughter would behave or react. But I do think, if you want to have a romantic relationship with this woman, or any romantic relationship with anyone for the rest of your life, you should go ahead and get your daughter used to you dating, and get used to interacting with your SOs and their families.
posted by litnerd at 10:12 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd be cautious about getting too close to someone else's kids, or letting them get too close to mine, before I was absolutely sure that the new relationship was going to last. Your kids just do not need to go through losing more parental figures and general disruption.

As for once you are sure, I understand the best thing to do is for the step parent to just be friends with the step kids at first and ease into a parental role gradually. Let the biological parent be the disciplinarian for awhile until the step parent has gained the level of trust and respect necessary for the step kids to accept him or her as an authority figure.
posted by orange swan at 10:19 AM on July 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

Agreed with orange swan. For young kids, introduce them to someone who you're going to marry.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:36 AM on July 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

what does your daughter know about divorce? what does she know about your divorce? does she draw a distinction (like you do) between separated and divorced?

if she knows you're separated and not yet divorced, it might be confusing to accept your new partner. how much longer are you drawing out the divorce? i mean, custody is settled, you're living in separate places - if there is no hope for reconciliation (which i hope there's not as you're dating someone new), then why haven't you guys signed on the dotted line? does your daughter know why?

in my experience, kids don't do ambiguity really well. you need bright sharp lines of delineation.

but, now that you've met her kids and if your kid knows that, you'll probably be better to introduce the new girlfriend sooner rather than later. otherwise she might start feeling like you're ashamed of her or something.

in general i agree with orange swan, for young kids they meet long term partners/marriage material. it's cruel to let them get attached to a string of girlfriends.
posted by nadawi at 10:43 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

My parents divorce wasn't that painful. The following years of dating, dad's girlfriends, mom's boyfriends and the various attached children coming in and out of my life, was very painful. Don't introduce your daughter to this woman until your divorce is finished, your girlfriend's divorce is finished, and you've been dating her for a very long time and you're heading for a marriage.

The chaos you bring into your child's world now will be the shit she has to work through as an adult. Be cognizant of that, please.
posted by BlahLaLa at 10:54 AM on July 8, 2011 [13 favorites]

After my dad's 2nd marriage, there was a period of a few years (I was probably 9-11 yrs old) where he casually dated (I met two of the women; we maybe did some dinner-eating/movie-watching and I thought they were all right, but he did not make a big fuss about either of them), and then he started dating the woman who is now my stepmother (of 15+ years). He mentioned her occasionally, so that I knew he was dating someone, but he wasn't too intense or serious about it, just brought her up in conversation when it made sense. Eventually he got to "S. and I are thinking about having dinner with you and her son so we can all meet."

I don't think either my dad or my now-stepmom had met the other one's child before that meeting with all of us; I think I would have been weirded out and perhaps upset if my dad and my now-stepbrother had met before I got to meet stepbrother & stepmother, though I guess maybe if your kids are younger they won't mind? I would recommend getting them all together before long, though, so that your daughter doesn't feel left out.

Practically speaking, I'd suggest that initial both-family activities take place on neutral ground. We went to a movie and dinner and I still remember it very fondly (The Nightmare Before Christmas; Chester's Pizza). Then maybe try to mix it up location-wise so both your kid and her kids get to be on their home turf an equal share of the time.

She already knows you're dating; what does she think? Does she have concerns? How have you framed it? Don't make it into a Big Thing. I mean, it is a Big Thing, but it can be harder to talk about and raise concerns about if you make it seem like it's a huge monumental deal. Be attuned to her worries and reactions, but don't jump ahead and assign her worries she might not even have.

Keeping her insulated from your dating life is wise to start with, but if you feel serious and confident enough in the relationship to be telling her about it (you plan to get married, yes, for sure?), you should level up to introducing everyone soon. Too much build-up might make it more fraught. Let the two-family relationship unfold naturally, take it easy, keep it low-key, be honest about what's going on, listen and respond to her concerns, and ... yeah. Good luck.
posted by little cow make small moo at 11:02 AM on July 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

I agree that it's best to wait until you're this is a super sure thing. It also depends on what your (soon to be ex-) wife has got to say about this. When my dad started dating while my parents were legally separated (in NJ, where it took at least 18 months to get divorced), my mom had a huge issue with this because he was still legally married. Having to hear her opinions on this was super awful and uncomfortable. I was maybe 8 or 9 at the time? Third grade, at any rate.
posted by smalls at 11:02 AM on July 8, 2011

My parents divorced when I was ten years old. My mother got custody. She remarried twice, both ending in divorces. I was force-integrated twice with new stepsiblings then abruptly separated from them, in a period of about four years. I didn't find that series of events to be especially scarring.

What did, however, make me collapse in a devastated sobbing heap, was when my father told me he was remarrying. I felt like I was losing him, my refuge. I felt like I needed every single ounce of love and support he had in him and that he was now going to force me to share it. Like he was leaving me.

I don't know how it should be handled. But please do everything you can to reassure your daughter that your love for her is not a finite resource that is about to be depleted/shared with someone else. She may feel she is losing you, or a big part of you.
posted by chicxulub at 11:11 AM on July 8, 2011

Additionally, from the Children Are Resilient, Unpredictable, and Weird Department:

The night we all met for the first time, I dressed up in a nice skirt + shirt outfit (a hand-me-down from my first stepmother, no less!) thinking "well, if this doesn't work out, maybe her son is cute."

Which is funny but also kind of a downer for an 11-year-old. I guess I would say that while none of this parent-dating stuff ever bothered me on a kid level, it may have contributed to my general assumptions about dating and relationships later on. None of it was particularly upsetting to me at the time, but I also didn't develop any expectation that couples, in general, would stay together. I don't know what to tell you about that, because it's kind of a long-lasting thing your kid might have to deal with as an adult, or she might not, and you can't really know yet. I don't think there's anything my parents did Wrong to make me draw those (Wrong) conclusions, but there they are. Or were, anyway.
posted by little cow make small moo at 11:15 AM on July 8, 2011

The problem with waiting to introduce your kid(s) to someone new until you're sure you want a serious committed relationship with that new person is that they and/or your kid(s) might not like each other, might not connect, for whatever reason. It does happen, and it is probably more likely when the various children are close in age. (My kids are grown, I was a single parent for a long time, I speak from experience.)

Instead of making the introduction a big deal consider inviting your friend and her kids and some other friends and their kids to a picnic, a backyard cookout, or some other informal group event. And don't, repeat do not, show signs of special affection to your new friend in front of your kid and/or hers for a while.
posted by mareli at 11:32 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

There is already a lot of good advice here, but I wanted to add that at least part of how well it will go has to do with the relationship you have with your (soon to be) ex wife. My fiance and I introduced ourselves and our kids (at the time they were 6, 10, 12) and it was a whole lot easier on my boys than it was with his daughter, and a good portion of that had to do with the other parent. 2 years later, his daughter is still working in therapy through the fact that her mother hates me and berates me constantly so she feels like she should also hate me, but can't reconcile those feelings with the fact that she likes me and I don't act in the way her mother says.
posted by Zophi at 11:37 AM on July 8, 2011

I met my current wife online, both of us divorced and with kids; we communicated online for a month or two, and then I had some vacation, so I went out to visit her with my daughter. Our relationship was in the very earliest of stages, and we hadn't even really decided whether it was quite capital-R relationship yet, but I had to use the vacation and had some money and we'd never been to Milwaukee before, so it sounded like fun.

Of course, within a couple hours of our arrival at my now-wife's house, my 8-year old daughter and her 13-year-old daughter declared that they wanted to be sisters. Go figure.

My suggestion would be to keep the interactions with parents and kids casual -- everybody's been to events where adults and kids all hang out and do things, so turning it into a serious "this is going to be a serious relationship so we have to make sure everybody's getting along and on board" event is just going to add to the stress. Haven't you gone and done stuff with your other non-intimate friends and their kids? Keep it on the same level, even if it doesn't feel the same in your head. Don't try to hide the relationship, but relationship-building is drama enough as it is, plus ongoing divorces aggravating things further, so reduce the drama by just spending recreation time between the blended families for what is is: a bunch of people hanging out.
posted by AzraelBrown at 12:12 PM on July 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

My ex and I split over a year ago but our divorce wasn’t final until February of this year. Our kids are 8 and 3. 2 weeks after our divorce was final, the ex moved his girlfriend and her 2 kids in with him. While I have been dating someone for awhile, (and yes, it’s serious) he only MET my kids for the first time a few weeks ago…and that is only because we have decided to move in together. I have dated quite a bit since the divorce, however, I didn’t want to put my kids in that mix. They get attached to the spider that comes into the house that we catch and release. I didn’t want them attached to every dude I went out with.

When my parents divorced, we met ALL of my dad’s girlfriends. I know my mom dated, but we never met anyone she went out with until she had been dating the man who is now my step-father for quite sometime. I always respected her for that.
posted by Amalie-Suzette at 2:34 PM on July 8, 2011

I am a woman and my parents divorced when I was 13 (older than your daughter.) I met my best friend at the time and her parents were divorcing around the same time. My family's divorce was horrible and my dad said hurtful things to me before he left my life for good. My best friend's family had an amicable divorce and her dad was in the picture. It is amazing at how much better she is at relationships and men than I am.
What I'm trying to say is that, I think it is important that your daughter knows you still love her and also knows that you respect women. I think her seeing you react to your friend in a positive way will make her feel more confident about herself as a girl and your daughter.

Good Luck with your decision and relationship!
posted by redandblue at 7:24 AM on July 9, 2011

Thanks, everybody. Some really good stuff here. It's a horrible time that I wouldn't wish on anyone.
posted by nicktf at 10:43 AM on July 10, 2011

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