By Marie Hartwell- Walker, Ed.D
You may remember the chant from childhood:
First comes love,
Then comes marriage,
Then comes the baby in a baby carriage.
It may have once been fun to jump rope to the rhyme, but these days, it’s far, far from the truth. 40 percent of children today are born to single mothers. Some births are accidental — happily or sadly welcomed. Others are planned by women discouraged about finding a solid and loving partner.
What used to be understood as the order of things isn’t so orderly anymore. Baby may come first, not last, in the rhyme.
Single mothers with children rarely give up the dream of finding love and making a life with someone. Sometimes everything just falls beautifully into place. The mom meets a new love who embraces both the parent and child and all three go on to live happily ever after.
But most of the time, life isn’t so smooth. Sometimes the child seems to be an obstacle to finding a mate. One male after another says some version of, “Well, I love you but your kids are in the way of our relationship.” What happens then?
If you’re a single mother who has fallen in love, make sure you know what your sweetheart is prepared to do about becoming part of a family before you start dreaming of tying the knot. If your true love says he never wanted kids, doesn’t now, can’t stand kids, sees kids as a drain on money, time, and fun, or doesn’t want anything to do with your child’s other parent (if that parent is in the picture) or the grandparents from your ex, go very slow and see if he means it.
It’s just true. Sometimes people are so in the habit of saying something that they haven’t thought for a long time about whether they really mean it. Sometimes, a man who never thought about having kids in his youth is open to rethinking his position as an older adult. It’s worth asking.
But if he can’t think about changing his mind and folding children into his life in a genuine, loving way, he probably won’t. Marrying a man who is anti-children has huge implications for your relationship with your children and your relationship with him.
Don’t pretend that he’ll fall in love with your children because, after all, they’re wonderful. A man who goes into a relationship with children expecting not to like it probably won’t. Worse, the children will feel his rejection on a daily basis. They won’t like him and they will be angry with you for bringing him into their lives.
Don’t fool yourself into thinking that he can be minimally involved. At some point, it’s likely you’ll get resentful that he isn’t helping with the daily demands of managing a household with children. At some point, he’ll resent the time you are spending with the kids.
Don’t persuade yourself that you can be the kind of romantic partner you were when you were young and child-free. It’s harder to date when you have to cancel repeatedly because kids got sick or needed a ride or needed help with homework. He’ll resent your distraction. You’ll resent his lack of concern for your children’s welfare.
If you give in and make uncomfortable compromises in your parenting, you will lose respect for yourself. Your kids are likely to get clingy or angry or both. Yes, parents can and do carve out some time for romance but it’s always with the knowledge that kids’ needs can disrupt the best laid plans.
If you have children and you are looking for love and marriage, hold out for a man who understands that…
- Loving you means learning to love your children. They are part of you and part of your life. Yes, it’s more complicated than marrying a childless person who is free to spend all her time and affection on someone else. But it’s also more rewarding. Marrying a woman with children makes an instant family. Marrying a woman with children provides the chance to relive the positive experiences of growing up or to heal old hurts by making a better childhood for someone else’s kids. A man who embraces your children as an opportunity to have even more love in his life is someone to take seriously.
- Loving you means understanding that the kids take priority while you transition. You fell in love with your partner. The kids didn’t. They will be ambivalent, no matter how wonderful you think your guy is. They are likely to have strong feelings about not having all your attention and time. They may resist adjusting to changes that come with marriage. It falls on the adults to be adults and to put kids’ needs first for awhile. They will need help making the countless big and little changes that come with accommodating another person in their home and their lives.
- Loving you means getting involved with the whole family. To make a family with you is to get it that their grandparents, aunts, and uncles and cousins and whoever else is related by birth or by choice will be part of life as well. Kids need to be connected to their extended family as long as that family is reasonably sane. Your partner also needs to make it clear to his extended family that he now has children and they therefore now have more kids to love.
- Loving you means doing hands-on parenting. Working through differences and decisions about how both of you will encourage and discipline the kids is an important part of your courtship. For kids to grow, they need parents who are on the same page at least most of the time. They need the safety of structure and limits, the approval that is the building block of self-esteem, and the clarity of consequences that helps them learn to be responsible. A man who will spend lots of time talking through how to parent as well as whether to parent is a good bet.
When dating, it’s crucial to hold onto the things you strongly believe are non-negotiable. You probably have a top three for yourself. Maybe your priorities include finding someone who practices the same religion, who is financially solvent, or who is interested in whitewater rafting and likes walking in the rain. By all means, find a match. But if you’re a parent, parenting principles like these need to be added near the top of list. A relationship with a man who meets those criteria is a relationship that is likely to last.
Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central’s Ask the Therapist feature, and has published the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.