Dating With an Audience: How To Date as a Single Parent Because the Kids Are Always Watching

The love lives of Black single parents face plenty of criticism from a marriage-centric society, but the most consequential critique comes from the impressionable little humans who live in our home.

mother looks at son while sitting on the floor in front of a couch
Photo: Ashley Simpo

A few months shy of her 30th birthday, writer Ashley Simpo and her husband separated. Suddenly, all the stereotypes she learned growing up bubbled to the surface, and, for a moment, she felt like a walking statistic—a drop in the bucket of the 4.5 million Black single parents across the nation. But, single parents aren't statistics: We're families. We're worthy of love and intimacy and a nice night out with someone who doesn't disrupt our delicately balanced lives. Is it too much to ask? In Kindred's recurring column Dating w/Kids, Simpo explores the answers to that big question.

I was 30 years old when I separated from my ex-husband and, in turn, added "single parent" to my list of accolades. It wasn't an easy pill to swallow considering the social connotations around divorce, especially during a milestone year. At 30, I was supposed to be happily married. I was supposed to be embarking on a lifelong journey with the person I made a person with. I was not supposed to be doing this part of life alone. But as much as we plan and plot out our futures, we don't really get to dictate what's supposed to happen. We can only choose to lean in with our best effort and a little grace.

So, after some time, some space and some therapy, I allowed myself to imagine what love looks like when you're dating for two. This time around, dating took on a whole new definition and a seriousness it never had before. Prior to motherhood, dating was for me and only me—my pleasure, my preferences. My ideas around relationships and love were the only tenets of my strategy since middle school. Now, and for the rest of my life, who and how I loved will have some level of impact on my kid, who never asked to be involved, to begin with.

I'll admit, I was nervous that dating would ruin my son's childhood. I didn't know what parts I should keep secret or what parts I should explain, and there were no readily available examples around me of anyone who had done it right. And let's just be honest about the stereotypes for a moment: Labels like "baby mama" and "baby daddy" generalize our experiences, and our parenthood is minimized as "baggage" by uninformed observers. Even if you dust off public opinion, you still have to grapple with the most important opinion of all— your kids'.

Know You're Not Going To "Damage" Your Kids

When I contemplated dating, I thought about all the "my mom's boyfriend" stories that I heard my whole life. Friends who were ignored or even harmed by the people their parents allowed to take up space in their home. Urban legends about the single mom who dashes out the door on her way to "go see about a man" while her emotionally neglected kids are left with a half-interested babysitter.


But as people who are raising people while daring to date new people, I can tell you right now, the first step is to remove the idea that you are any stereotype you have ever heard about single Black parents. Perhaps the most radically loving thing Black single parents can do is imagine themselves differently. That includes the notion that pursuing love and partnership (or whatever you're romantically seeking) will inherently damage our kids. We are, after all, the majority of Black parents.

Take the Opportunity To Model Healthy Relationships

According to recent data, less than half of Black children in the US live in a home with both parents. In fact, Black children are the only race of kids that are more likely to live in a single-parent home, according to data from 2020. But hard figures don't account for the nuances of our community. Mass incarceration, higher rates of stress and anxiety, and a lack of mental health resources have left a dent in Black family dynamics for generations. Marriage and relationships are hard enough without the socioeconomic and socioemotional impact of being Black in America. Our best response to this inequity is to strengthen our communities and the most central piece of those communities—our families.

So, I decided to consider my "single but looking" status as a learning opportunity. Here was my chance to model healthy relationships for my son. This was something I didn't get to see myself growing up. When it came time to choose my own partners, I was left to draw from pop culture and the few things I gleaned from my parents. Since I didn't see constructive criticism, apologies, forgiveness or compromise modeled when I grew up, I learned their importance the hard way.

Perhaps the worst education we can give our kids about love and relationships is none at all. The hard part is, dating is messy. Schedules and red flags and toxic masculinity and generational trauma and all the complexities of sex; whether you're solo, swinging, polyamorous, or married—relationship woes are a part of life. But where's the line when your kids are watching you fumble through the fray? How do you center your own needs while maintaining balance in your family?

Navigate Dating Mindfully—Check in With Yourself and Your Kids

My advice is to start from a healed heart. Take time and space to sort out lingering unprocessed trauma. Yes, go to therapy. Yes, set boundaries with toxic people. Yes, practice self-care. Instill these habits in your life before you install those dating apps. No matter what happens in your love life, you can navigate it more mindfully if you start from a healthy place.

Ashley Simpo

We can model what self-care looks like when you're in a relationship, or between relationships, or recovering from the loss of a relationship—all things our kids encounter themselves before they reach their teens. These are vital lessons that shouldn't be exclusive to families with married parents.

— Ashley Simpo

Now that we've extinguished old stereotypes and gotten mentally prepared for dating, the question remains: what will the kids think? I think a great first step is to ask them. I've always been very honest with my son about all aspects of my life as is appropriate for his age and comprehension. Go ahead and ask your kids what they think about you dating. If they're very young, phrase it in a way they can understand. "How do you feel about Mommy leaving for a few hours with a new friend?"

Answer their questions if they have any, and make space for them so they don't feel excluded. I found it to be more of a disruption to our family dynamic to drop a fully-formed relationship onto my son versus allowing him to be an early adopter of a potentially life-altering change.

We actually get to use our life experiences to teach our kids that relationships have ups and downs, and sometimes people have to forgive each other or communicate or let each other go. We can model what self-care looks like when you're in a relationship, or between relationships, or recovering from the loss of a relationship—all things our kids encounter themselves before they reach their teens. These are vital lessons that shouldn't be exclusive to families with married parents.

It's OK to start over, and it's OK to center your needs so you can pour into your children from a full cup. I love that this generation of Black single parents is opting out of archaic social standards that no longer serve us. We get to get loved on, we get to raise healthy kids and we get to determine what it all looks like.

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