When I first became a solo mum, I thought the only way I’d find a man would be if he appeared miraculously between the back door and the clothesline. It’s hard enough to find a decent bloke these days, let alone when you need a babysitter and a bank loan just to go out for coffee.

But I have in fact met some lovely men over the years, mainly through friends. And it turns out that having a child is not the off-putting factor I thought it would be. One guy even said he considered my child a bonus! I have discovered, however, that dating is very different when you’re a parent.

Anne Malcolm, a senior counsellor with Relationship Services, says single parents must realise that the children come first and that any new relationship has to fit around them.

“People don’t like to hear that when they’re in love,” she says.

Are you ready?

Many single parents leap into a relationship far too quickly. If you are still attached emotionally, you are not ready for a new relationship and will end up hurt, or hurting someone else.

“Newly single parents are vulnerable – tired and lonely and feeling unloved or unlovable,” says Anne.

“ Every case is different, but generally it would be two years or more after separating before someone is really balanced again.”

Other counsellors would take this even further, saying that after a divorce it takes one year of healing for every four years of marriage.

Wise dating

A divorced friend of mine has a great saying regarding the women he dates:

“There’s no need for my children to meet all the contestants.” And the experts agree – when you are ready to begin dating again, it’s a good idea to keep casual and non-serious relationships separate from your children. Spend time together when they are with the other parent or get a babysitter.

“It’s really confusing and upsetting for kids to have a series of people coming in and out of their lives,” says Anne.

If a relationship becomes serious, introduce the new companion as a friend and share positive or funny stories about them from time to time. The children need time to adjust to the idea of a relationship before they are presented with one.

Limit physical affection in front of your children. Keep it to a minimum to begin with; and avoid anything with blatantly sexual overtones.

Acting out

It is very common for children’s behaviour to worsen once they know Mum has a boyfriend.

“Kids are scared, they’re worried about being loved less and also about practical things like whether they’ll have to move house,” says Anne Malcolm.

“They start acting out – and can be like a Mac truck, driving through the middle of the relationship.”

Communication is vital. Invite the children to ask questions about the new relationship and what it means for them, reassuring them that you and the other biological parent will always love them and will always be their parents.

Having said that, keep information age-appropriate and remember they don’t need to know everything.

Anne Malcolm says it’s also important to communicate your expectations to the new partner.

“Make it clear that you are a mother or a father above all else, that you are a package deal and the children are your first priority.”

Time alone

One of the reasons dating is difficult for children is that it is yet another change in their lives.

Psychotherapist and author Darlene Weyburne advises parents to minimise the change by continuing family rituals like fish and chips on Fridays or watching a video together every week. Sometimes the new person can be included, other times keep it to just you and the kids.

If you continue to spend time alone with your children, they’ll be less likely to view the new person as a threat.

Marrying again

Be aware that if you actually get engaged or re-married, children who have previously appeared to accept your new relationship may suddenly fall to pieces.

Anne says getting married again ‘gobsmacks’ older children in particular because it means there is no longer any chance their real parents will get back together.

“They can hold on to that dream for years and years and often it’s not acknowledged. It’s the end of the fairy tale.”

The key once again is to communicate – about why it is important to you and what it will mean.

Dating and re-marriage can be painful and difficult for children, but if you do so cautiously and wisely, it can be rewarding for everyone.

Online dating tips for single parents

Online dating has become a great tool for single parents to help get back into the ‘dating’ game. But there are some things that you need to consider. Yoursafedate.com has some great tips for keeping yourself safe when using online dating apps:

1. Meet in public at first
The first time you meet this person in real life should be in a public location like a coffee shop or restaurant. It doesn’t matter how long you have spoken to them, it’s a basic safety precaution and should be followed when you are dating people you have met online.

2. Tell a friend and ‘check in’
Tell at least one person where you are going and who you are going with. You can also check in with them to let them know everything is OK. A quick text is all it takes to keep yourself safe.

3. Do your research
If you are interested in meeting up with a particular person, do a little bit of research into them first. Putting their name into Google or Facebook, should give you a little more insight into their life. If you uncover anything shady, it isn’t too late to bail! Don’t think of this step as stalking but rather as ‘research.’

4. Video chat first
Nowadays, there should be absolutely no reason why your date is not prepared to video chat before the initial meeting goes ahead. Doing this will give you an opportunity to make sure this person is who they say they are. Video chat also allows you to get to know each other and see if the spark is still there when speaking face to face.

5. Trust your instincts
If somebody seems too good to be true either online, or when you have met in real life, don’t be afraid to stop contact with this person. There are a lot of online dating scams out there. If somebody you are talking to makes you feel uncomfortable at any point, hit that block button and move on to the next one!

Follow these tips to ensure fun but safe dating experiences on the internet.

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Sandi Paterson is a freelance journalist based in Tauranga. She lives in a 1950's bach with her daughter, a grumpy cat, and a budgie who sits on her computer when she writes. This article appeared originally in Little Treasures magazine.

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