The Single-Mom Dating Guide

I can't set you up with the right guy, but I can give you some pointers about getting back in the game.
Date night

Several months after my husband and I separated, it finally occurred to me that I was free to date. It was a concept both thrilling and terrifying. The last time I'd been single, I'd had copious amounts of free time, was beholden to no one, and believed in love. Now, however, I had 16 years of marriage and 11 years of motherhood under my belt, plus a less-than-starry-eyed attitude about romance. And did I mention the two precious, innocent little girls who needed me to be there for them?

Trying to simultaneously be a hot mama and an uber-responsible single parent was a challenge to my schedule and my psyche, but I learned that you can, in fact, have a romantic life without freaking out your kids (or yourself). I've been at it for three-plus years now, so let me take a stab at what I suspect are your most pressing questions--they were surely mine.

How Will I Know When I'm Ready to Start Dating?
I know people who waited years before deciding to take the plunge and some who threw themselves into it instantly. There's no right or wrong, but you should date only because you want to, not because anyone else thinks you should or shouldn't. Believe me, people will have opinions... lots and lots of opinions.

If there's another parent in the picture and you share custody, you will suddenly have something called free time, which you may remember from your pre-mom days. (If you're the solo caregiver, please put down this magazine and make yourself a roster of babysitters because you'll need a break.) I remember finding those first few weekends sans kids heady and horrible at the same time. One minute I was dancing around the living room singing "Do you believe in life after love?" with Cher and the next I was weeping because my daughters weren't there to cramp my style. Without playdates to supervise, squabbles to moderate, or mac 'n' cheese to make, it's hard to know who you are at first.

"I had to take a step back and process what had happened in my marriage," says Jennifer Fink, a mom of four from Mayville, Wisconsin. "I went to a therapist, wrote in my journal, and spent time with my friends and family. I was afraid that if I jumped right back in, I'd just end up in another unhealthy relationship with someone else--which wouldn't be good for me or my kids."

She took the plunge about five months after she and her husband separated. I decided to enter the fray about four months after my ex-husband moved out. How did I know it was time? For one thing, I couldn't bear to face another kid-free weekend doing jigsaw puzzles or watching English period dramas. And I found myself lusting after a headless male mannequin in the Gap.

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