There was a period after I had separated from my ex-partner when I genuinely intended to remain single forever. The thought I kept dwelling on was that if my daughter’s parents couldn’t be trusted not to hurt her, then how on earth could I ever trust a stranger not to? The only certainty I had was that I would always put my daughter first and never hurt her, so going it alone seemed like the only safe bet.
Fortunately, that sentiment didn’t last forever. I came to realise that one of the crucial ingredients of a happy child is happy parents, and as much as I embraced the freedom of singledom to a certain extent, that hole that’s left by being unable to share your life eventually started to eat away at me (I think it was devouring my sixth TV boxset alone that did it).
So, I got on the dating bandwagon. And it was a hoot! With my girl away every other weekend there were plenty of opportunities to get out there, and I had some great experiences (roaming around London after one too many in the early hours) and some definitely not great experiences (infuriating my date by expressing negative sentiments about the monarchy, of all things). And of course it culminated with me meeting the lovely lady who is now my wife.
The reality of dating as a single parent though is that you’re not just dating for one – you’re dating for two. Well, I was at least. I understand that not everyone embarks on the dating journey in search of a life partner, but that’s just how I am. Therefore, any partner I met was immediately assessed on her suitability as a parent.
Once I was certain that I’d found the lady I was going to marry, the process of introducing her to my daughter was actually quite nerve wracking. I was certain it was going to go brilliantly, but what if it didn’t? What if they clashed? What if my daughter couldn’t handle the introduction of, ultimately, a ‘new’ mum?
I can happily say some three years or so down the line it was all for the best and our family is a happy and loving one. Here are a few things I learned along the way:
1. Wait until you’re absolutely certain
Those early days with a new partner can be very overwhelming and it’s incredibly easy to very quickly find yourself believing that this will be forever. And really, take this advice with a pinch of salt because I introduced my wife to my daughter way, way earlier than I’d told myself I ever would. I was in time proved correct (like there was any doubt!) but I very easily could not have been.
Even if your kid has coped well with the separation of their parents, it will have affected them to some extent and it’s entirely reasonable to assume that the introduction of a new partner will have some sort of emotional impact. The thing you absolutely cannot risk is for your child to grow close to someone only to have them leave. They’ve already had to cope with a massive loss, and perhaps are still coping with it, and repeating that scenario could be disastrous.
Wait until you and new partner are stable, happy, understand one another and are both sure you’re heading in the same direction before introducing them. A laid-back outing to the cinema or park (or, in our case, a pancake night) is the ideal and fun ice breaker.
2. Make sure this is what your partner wants
You should never, ever be in the situation where you’re having to talk your partner into meeting your child. This must be something you both want. I was completely open about my situation from the off. After all, if any of it was a deal breaker for someone then there was absolutely no point in us meeting in the first place.
I know people who have waited for a few dates down the line before revealing that they have a child – which is absolutely crazy! For starters, I can’t even identify myself in terms outside of being a parent anymore, so the conscious effort needed to hide it would be incredible. And starting off a relationship with that sort of half-truth is soap opera levels of destructive.
You’re a parent. That means if someone is going to be with you, they’re going to have to be a parent too. It’s not an issue that can be skirted around.
3. Let kids know they will always be No.1
We actually got to the stage where my daughter would roll her eyes when I told her – again – that she would always be the most important person in the world to me. But it was a message that I completely believed I had to get through. She was already coping with the loss of one parent, and I couldn’t bear the thought of her worrying that she might lose me in some way.
I was once told by a very wise friend that, ultimately, all kids really need is to know that they are loved, they are cared for and they are wanted. Knowing that dad or mum will be there no matter what and will love them more than anything no matter what is the bedrock that any good childhood is built on. Obviously plenty of kids aren’t lucky enough to have this and are able to prosper regardless, but what a struggle that must be.
Until your child truly believes in your new family and comes to regard your new partner in a similar way to which they regard you, this is a message you need to keep hammering home. And not just with words, either – prove it by listening to them and being there for them when they need your support. Unquestionably, and always.
4. They are not replacing mum or dad
While in time your new partner will hopefully grow into a parental role within the family, it’s important to stress that they are additive. They are not replacing the absent parent. This is especially important if the parent in question is still on the scene. But even if not, there’s every chance that if a new person is seen to try and be filling the void that your child is perhaps still emotionally attached to, that can lead to resentment.
I’m a firm believer that a new partner should be framed in terms of friendship. The transition to parent should be an organic one that is as much led by your child as it is by either of you.
5. Introduce them to you ex-partner
This is always a difficult one. It’s unlikely that your new partner and your ex are ever going to be mates (although it can happen). From your partner’s perspective, they are the person who hurt you. From your ex’s perspective, your partner is a stranger who has been thrust into their child’s life without their input. It’s a potential cauldron of resentment.
None of that changes the fact that they really do need to meet. This situation needs to be a stable one for your child and for that to happen some bridges need to be built. Friendship may be a bridge too far, but acceptance and ultimately trust are things that need to be achieved. Your kid never needs to hear you bad mouthing your ex and vice versa. That’s simply not in their best interests.
6. Discuss your approach to parenting
This goes for any couple really, and is hopefully obvious. Parents can’t always be expected to agree with one another on everything but any difference of opinion should be played out behind the scenes. Any couple should present a united front, and this is especially important when one of the parents is joining an established family.
Kids thrive when they understand where they stand, and a new parent with new standards and new priorities can really throw a spanner in the works. Any incoming parent needs to roll with the established boundaries, and if there are things they want to introduce – be that some new limitation or a different reward structure – these should be phased in gradually, and with the backing of the existing parent.
If anything’s going to cause friction with an ex-partner it’s this, but as long as any changes you’re making are for the right reason and can be justified you should not be concerned.
7. Ask your school to monitor your child
It can be surprisingly hard for a parent to ascertain if a child is struggling to cope with changes at home. Mood swings or bad behaviour that are in fact perfectly normal for a growing child can very easily and understandably be construed as being symptomatic of something that in fact might not be there. At the same time, children may be hiding concerns at home for fear of upsetting people.
One thing you can be certain of though is that if there are issues, they will surface – and school is the most likely place for this to occur. Most schools will have procedures in place to monitor kids who are going through challenges at home, so do inform their head teacher of what’s going on. My daughter’s school were certainly very understanding and invited me in for a couple of updates – which fortunately, in my case, reported no noticeable change at all. As it turns out, my daughter has thrived.
I also found it useful talking to other parents. My daughter had said a couple of things (which, fortunately, were very reassuring) to her friends which had then been reported back to their families. People are nearly always happy and able to help, so I urge you to let them.
8. No deal is better than a bad deal
The day you become a parent is the day you cease to be the most important thing in your life. It’s a cliché, I realise, but it’s true. From that moment on you’re only making decisions in your own best interests if that correlates with what’s in your child’s best interests. Dating and relationships are no different.
It’s of course important that you look after yourself and remain happy (a subject we’ll be touching on in another blog) as that IS in your best interests of your child, but that can never come at their expense.
Therefore, if for whatever reason it transpires that your new partner and your child are not a good fit, or that their introduction to the family has not or will not be a positive one, then the relationship has to end. That’s a horrible thing to say, but is an entirely unavoidable truth. And as much as it wasn’t the line I chose to open mine and my wife’s first date with, I know that she understood it too.
9. Listen to your kids and presume nothing
In trying to protect our kids it can be very easy to fall into the trap of wrapping them up in cotton wool and shielding them from anything we feel could hurt or upset them. But kids are nearly always brighter and tougher than we give them credit for and will almost certainly deal with these challenges better than you will!
Letting them glimpse behind the veil of parental secrecy from time to time can be hugely beneficial. Let them have an idea about your concerns and about how seriously you take all of this. For one, it shows them you care, but also kids will feel a lot better about stuff if they don’t feel powerless. Encourage them to discuss how they feel about your new partner and listen to what they say. A child who knows they can pass comment without fear of reprimand is far better positioned than one who is not.
This article is by Ben Parfitt, a former client of BLB Solicitors. He writes from personal experience. For legal advice on all issues to do with divorce or separation, please contact the family team at BLB Solicitors.
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Image (cropped) by Gordon under a creative commons licence