Advice for Dating People With Children (When You Are Childfree)
Knowing that I was moving back to a small town after years of living in cities, I looked at my therapist and said: "I can't date someone who has children. I just can't. I'm not ready."
Six months later? I was in a relationship with a man who had a 10-year-old son. And while I was in love with both the man and the kid, I was totally lost. It turns out there is very little literature on how to date someone who has children. I was on my own.
Photo by Single Parents Specials.
To be clear, I wasn't against dating someone with children because I don't like children. There is nothing wrong with single or divorced parents. It wasn't about that. For me, it was the Great Unknown. I was 29 years old, and the majority of my friends in Chicago were childless or childfree, whichever term you prefer.
But my friends back home in the small town I was moving back to? All of them had gotten married in their early 20s. Most of them had 3 or 4 children a piece. I knew that by moving back here, I was inviting many children into my day-to-day life -- and probably my love life, too. And I was scared sh*tless.
Despite all of my fears, I reconnected with this man from my youth. He had a son with his ex-girlfriend, who I also remember from my past. After running into him over a period of months, we began dating. Overnight, I was thrown into a brave, new world -- one that involved a tween.
I scoured the Internet for advice about dating people with kids. The only books I could find were about step-parenting. I wasn't a step-parent -- far from it. Considering the divorce rate in this country, I thought finding the advice would be easy. Oh, silly Blondie. Then I posted about it on my own blog. I got the same advice from multiple people: "Be yourself."
OK, what next? *crickets*
My relationship with this man continued for... I don't know? Like a year and a half? We were on and off, and it wasn't the healthiest relationship I've ever been in. But I did learn a LOT about the kiddos and how to deal with them. So here is my advice about dating people with kids. Take from it what you will:
Even though my boyfriend was eager to introduce me to his kiddo early on, we waited a long time before it actually happened. You have to make sure you're serious and your partner is serious before you bring the kiddos into the mix. It's not fair to the kids if you aren't going to stick around. I recommend waiting at least 3 months before the introduction. Even if you already know the children, you shouldn't be showing up too soon.
Meet the Ex
I lucked out with my boyfriend's ex. She was married and was actually pregnant with her third child when I "met" her. (It's a small town, so we kind of knew each other, but not really.) I was extra, extra lucky because my boyfriend had a (mostly) good relationship with her. This is not always the case, but that's another blog post.
For now, my advice is to also play the waiting game with the ex -- take your time before you meet him or her. Be respectful when you do. Realize you are taking someone else's child into your life. Show that you care about the child, and you will go a long way towards a good relationship with the mother or father of your brand new kid.
Don't Be Their Friend
Just as with any old parent-child relationship, it's a bad idea to try to be "friends" with your significant other's child. It's easy to want to impress them and be that cool, new person in their life, but they need the structure, seriousness, and guidance that only adults can provide. You are still in charge. (Even when it totally doesn't feel like it.)
Lay the Smack Down Early
My boyfriend was a supreme joker, so it came naturally that his child was, too. But some of the things they said or did were NOT funny. I let a lot of things slide for waaaay too long. Then one night, I'd had enough. I looked directly at the boy, right in front of his father, and laid it out. I said, "Do you talk to your mother that way? Then don't talk to me that way. You will show me the same respect that you show women like your mother or teachers." BAM. Boy shaped up quickly.
I wish I had shown that kind of strength earlier. I was afraid of p*ssing off my boyfriend, but he was fine with it. He agreed that I needed to be shown more respect. The boy was a little pins-and-needles with me for a few hours afterward, but he soon got over it and life went back to normal. This is a delicate dance. Don't try this move too soon, but don't wait too long, either. You'll know when it's the right time -- mostly because you'll feel like your head is going to explode.
Keep Your Own Life and Rules
You'll need to find out the "rules" from the parent. For example, my boyfriend was totally fine with letting his kid zone out in front of a Playstation for an entire Saturday afternoon. If this were "my kid," we would have been doing something else. But I quickly learned that this wasn't my kid, and the rules were different at my boyfriend's house.
But that didn't mean I had to agree with everything. So if I felt a Playstation attack coming on, I left. I would go do my thing, and they could do theirs. I invited them places and if they didn't want to go, I went with someone else or by myself. When you date someone who has a child, they can feel that their life has more "weight" than yours -- like you should do whatever they want to do based on their schedules and needs. Not true. Your life has weight, too. Remember that.
Men. Sigh. They pee with the door open. All the time. It's one thing to have your boyfriend pee with the door open, but it's another thing when you're sitting on the couch and realize you can hear his kid peeing down the hall.
Since it's his house, the tween will not realize the awkwardness of the situation. The boyfriend might be oblivious to it, too, because he's too busy watching the football game. So it's up to you to point out that this makes you feel uncomfortable and is inappropriate. Set the boundary with the boyfriend first -- in private. If he doesn't do anything about it if it happens again, go straight to the kid. Be gentle, but let them know that things are a-changin' in the house. Explain your boundaries to all parties, and KEEP THEM.
Here's the thing about all kids: They will always listen to another adult before they listen to their own parents. So throw the advice on. My boyfriend didn't like reading, but his kid did. I offered a ton of advice about what books to read. Then, over time, I took it to the next level and offered advice about school, friends, food, movies, girls, etc. Not in a bossy way, just as conversation. It was fun. I miss it.
Yep, I said it. (And I can hear the parents recoiling that the childless girl is suggesting it! Don't worry -- I don't mean spanking!) I have a ton of friends with kids. When they first started having babies, they freaked out if I told their toddlers, "No!" about anything. Now? They practically beg me to take control of their kiddos at the restaurant. Sometimes, the single parents need help. They're working, raising the kids, paying all the bills, doing all the housework, and are completely exhausted. Sometimes, they really need someone else to be the heavy.
I'm not saying you get to send them to their rooms or take away their phones. That's all for the parents. But sometimes they need to be told to CALM DOWN, STOP DOING THAT, ENOUGH! Things like that. Because you aren't the parent, you get to do the easy disciplining, such as reminding them to eat over the plate because CRUMBS ARE GETTING EVERYWHERE, reminding them to go take a bath because it's bedtime already GEEZ HURRY UP, and hollering HEY STOP PULLING THE CAT'S TAIL when you hear the wee feline screech in pain.
Go Ahead and Fall in Love
Let that child or children into your heart. Go for it. Other people's children are such a blessing in my life, and I'm honestly very sad that I don't get to spend time with my ex-boyfriend's son anymore. I was scared of him at first -- skittish. He was the same with me. But over time, we developed our own kind of bond. We shared inside jokes, teased each other ruthlessly, and I think deep down inside he loved me just as much as I loved him. When you date someone who has a child, you're dating that child, too. One of the coolest things my cousin has ever done happened at her wedding. She not only gave vows to her new husband, she also gave vows to her new stepson. If I ever find myself in that situation, I'll totally do it, too.
I have a ton of other thoughts about dating people with kids, but I want to hear YOUR advice now. I may find myself in a new relationship that involves children one day, so I need as much advice on this topic as I can get. I got a lot of "don't do XYZ" when I was dating my ex, but I very rarely heard what I should do. I'm all ears -- GO!
Blondie writes at Tales From Clark Street.