“I don’t think it could work out between us because my kids come first.”
—Almost Every Single Dad on Every Single Online Dating Site
“Don’t get involved with a man with kids. You’re just getting someone else’s problems,” my mother advised me when I, a childfree woman of a certain age, informed her of my brave new agenda to do just that. She made single fathers sound like used cars—no warranty, no guarantee, and probably too much mileage to go very far.
“The mother of those children would always be around,” my mom went on, but a bit of ominous had slipped into her voice. “There’s child support, and then college to pay for, and in this economy, who knows if those adult kids would ever find a job. Ever think about those things? No, find a nice man without children.”
“But you don’t know what’s out there,” I wailed. No, really. Mother. Did. Not Know.
I used to peruse the virtual personals. The good news: childfree men, also of a certain age, existed! The bad news: the odds weren’t good, and the goods were odd, and nowhere else was this more evident than Match.com and its ilk.
I don’t know what I thought would happen. I suppose I thought there would be a handful of eligible bachelors just waiting for a girl like me to come along. Instead, I found single men whose relationship potential had the tenacity of Silly String.
After I had sorted through the binge drinkers, the terminally unemployed, men more than a decade my junior or senior, the Peter Pans, Walter Mittys, Indie Jones wannabes, obvious players, “personal asset” $eeker$, the narcissist that berated the waiter, and the OCD guy that showed up at the café with his own sack lunch, I had settled for the least of the evils: the player who thought he wasn’t a player.
Hey, what’s a little abject lack of honesty between two childfree souls?
I had squeezed my eyes shut tightly and thrown my last vestige of altruism into that relationship, which I swore would be my last attempt. Even after a painful, drawn-out divorce from a childfree husband, I had never stopped dreaming of a small family—a family of two. A normal, somewhat traditional family. I dreamed of Thanksgiving at Threadgill’s with our closest friends, vacations to sunny Caribbean islands, and stupid spats about whose parents we spent the Christmas holidays with.
We might marry, we might enjoy a lifelong courtship. We might live together, but probably not. As long as we loved each other, had each others’ backs, shared the same core values, and put each other first, we would be golden.
There was a reason I clung to a moribund marriage so tightly. I knew finding another childfree man wouldn’t be easy, and it wasn’t. It had been disturbing. And, most recently, soul destroying. After getting summarily dumped because my childfree boyfriend decided he had to have a life partner with a zest for skiing (he’d never skied in the two years I knew him, just so you know I didn’t fall for it), I had my come-to-Jesus moment: maybe a big part of these faulty equations lied with moi.
There’s an old chestnut writers trot out before they capitulate to misguided editors: “You can be right, or you can be published.” I could have everything just the way I wanted it … or I could have love.
I decided to give single dads a chance, even theirs were not the choices I would have ever made, or even understood. I like being around kids—well, most of the time—but especially tweens and teens, with whom I have the patience of proverbial Job, because hey, I remember that confusing time of life vividly, and I totally get you, kid. I was willing to brook raucous sleepovers and snarly, palms-out ex-wives that changed timeshare at the last minute. I’ve always made my own money, so who cared what my beloved did with his, as long as there was enough to go around?
There was only one condition: I must come first in my partner’s life.
I hesitated before I typed those words into my profile. For a relationship to work, of course two people must put each other first. Of course. This is simple fact. Er … right—? I knew why I felt ill at ease about hitting the “save” button when the messages from single dads started pouring in. You seem to really have it all together, but my kids come first …
It was then that I grokked my mother’s “used car” logic. Just like you must be assured that your car will get you where you need to go, you must be just as sure of a life partner. I was smart. Any man who told me that his kids came first had just told me why his marriage had epic FAILED. He was also giving me a clear picture into why any potential relationship with him would epic FAIL as well.
I sussed out the thrill-seekers and patriarchal traditionalists during one-off coffee meets. These were the men who treated me like they would a hook-up and/or couldn’t understand why I’d ever gotten married if I didn’t want kids. Oh, you know, so we could exercise each others’ end-of-life decisions and inconsequential stuff like that. No second helpings for you, sir.
Could I commit to a man with children? Absolutely, if he treated me the way my father had treated my mother. My parents’ relationship with each other had taken precedence over their relationships with me and all other living persons. There was no doubt in my mind that if the house were burning down, my mom and dad would have saved each other first.
That they put each other first didn’t scar me for life. On the contrary, it made me feel secure and far more independent. Before those of you from dysfunctional families of origin say, “Sheesh, you were one lucky bitch”, let me assure you that there was a ginormous downside to functionality: I grew up believing that the love my parents shared was par for the course, and that I too could have it one day, too. With anyone! Whee!
Then I struck pay dirt: I went on a real date—“real” meaning plates and utensils were involved—with a single father. He didn’t care if I skied. He didn’t tell me his kids came first, either. He had two teenaged children, one at university and one almost out of the house. This dad-man wasn’t some antiquated specimen in a moth-eaten cardigan. He didn’t quote Mr. Rogers or speak in the dreaded “eat your peas” voice. Best of all, he thought my childfree choice was just the bombdiggity and thought I’d be a good influence on his own kids.
He was an excellent conversationalist with intriguing passions. We shared the same alma mater and Netflix queue. He was exactly my age, smokin’ hot attractive, and had the social aptitude that made him a good candidate for my “plus one” at the upscale social events I sometimes must attend.
He and his ex-wife had divorced amicably, he assured me. He had a healthy view of his former marriage, which was that it had lasted just as long as it needed to. He told me that it wasn’t until his kids started to lead their own lives—college, career planning, and relationships of their own—that he realized he had gone through much of his life alone.
He needed to be someone’s priority. He was ready to put the woman in his life first, too. And that’s when I got a lump in my throat.
Many of us childfree and childless single women have known this feeling of aloneness, too. Many of us have had several halcyon years with husbands and partners interspersed with years of aloneness. But some of us have lived with it all of our lives. When you meet another person who feels that aloneness that begs to be assuaged, his childed status has no bearing, and you are simply two people trying to solve the same problem.
I really liked this man. I felt as though I could slide into love with him comfortably, like I could my Ugg boots. But something gave me pause. Maybe I don’t believe in magic golden unicorns. Maybe we hadn’t been in a burning house together, so I found his truth hard to believe. Or maybe old habits just die hard, and I still wanted exactly what I wanted.
After I left the restaurant that night, I lost his number.