When my sons, Jacob and Isaac, were just 3 and 1, my husband and I separated. As a child of a divorce, I'd always sworn that I'd never put my kids through that -- yet as it turned out, living paycheck to paycheck and trying to do our own growing up while raising a family proved to be too great a strain on our marriage: It bent, cracked, and finally broke.
I flew through the first couple of months after our separation in an adrenaline-powered blur. But things like finding a place to live and paying for it all by myself, taking care of almost all the day-to-day parenting of two small children, and trying to find a job when I'd been out of the workforce since college terrified me. I felt like a flake -- not a strong, capable mother who was going teach her children to succeed despite the obstacles ahead.
When I was married, we were just like all the other families: our own tiny self-sufficient universe. Even if my husband and I didn't get along, we were both still deeply invested in the minutiae of running our family. Then one day, my best friend and co-parent was gone from my life. Though I had always paid lip service to the "It takes a village" idea, it turned out that, while there might have been some "village" people out there, we had been too wrapped up in our own lives to get to know them.
It really hit me one Friday night. I was driving through a bad snowstorm with my little boys. What if our car skidded off the road into a ditch? Would anyone notice? Okay, that was an exaggeration -- but it's how it felt at the time, and it prompted me into action. I decided to check in every night with another single mom. Then I made a conscious effort to invite friends over for dinner, ask a neighbor to help me move my couch, and chat with the other moms at drop-off. Slowly, my sense that I had a contagious disease lifted, and I found myself expanding my definition of what makes a family. "It's crucial to explain to children that family is defined by people who love us and whom we feel really close to," says M. Gary Neuman, Parents advisor and author of Helping Your Child Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles Way.
When my divorce was new, talking with my ex was painful. We were angry at each other, and, let's face it, looking for ways to hurt each other. But no matter how right I felt I was, deep down in my heart I knew: Being in constant fight mode was horrible for my kids, and it was making me even more miserable. "You have an obligation to your kids to stay friendly -- or at least civil -- with your former spouse," says Neuman. But this is easier said than done. So, I tried my hardest and used the greatest gift to divorced parents everywhere: e-mail. Hashing out sensitive topics this way allowed me to cool down before responding. "Sleep before you send," advises New York City family-law specialist Peter Bienstock. "Read the e-mail again in the morning, and make sure it says exactly what you mean." Don't be snide, angry, or sarcastic. Try for a pleasant and courteous tone even if you don't feel that way. It's easy to fake it electronically.
"It's absolutely critical that you take the high road and don't bad-mouth your ex in front of the kids," says Susan Bartell, PsyD, author of Mommy or Daddy: Whose Side Am I On? Whatever his flaws, your kids love their dad with all their heart. But what about when your ex doesn't show up for visits or blows off child-support payments and actually makes your kids' life miserable? "It's good to acknowledge your child's feelings as long as you don't add anger to your empathy," says Neuman. You can say "I know it's hard that Dad couldn't come again this Wednesday," but leave out the "That jerk has always been irresponsible!" comments.
As if this advice isn't tough enough to follow, you've also got to keep yourself from making negative comments to your friends, mother, or next-door neighbor if there's even a chance that you'll be overheard by your kid. A sleeping child has a way of appearing out of thin air -- just when you're cursing out his dad. Remind yourself that each time you keep quiet, you're causing your child a little less pain.
When my kids and I first moved into our own place, it soon started to resemble a really nice frat house. We'd stay up late watching videos and fall asleep in my bed. We'd eat microwave popcorn and cereal for dinner. Without another grown-up in the house, I realized that it was easier to slide down to my children's level than lift them up to mine. It wasn't long before I realized that this was no way to live -- we needed some order in the house. "Newly divorced and single moms and dads do have to be kind to themselves and allow for less structure, but you can't let it all go and turn into a roommate instead of a parent," says Neuman.
I saw it as a balancing act. I didn't have the time or energy to stress over some of the finer points of household management like I did when there was another adult helping out -- but at the same time, my kids needed structure and the sense of security it provides, now more than ever. So I began to really focus on figuring out what mattered and what didn't. Forget organized closets, spotless bathrooms, and ironing. Try to say yes to serving nutritious family dinners, scheduling regular bedtimes, and being prompt for pickups and drop-offs. For a while, it was overwhelming, but we eventually created chaos lite.
No matter what the latest study said about the damaging effects of a broken home, I tried to remember that my boys and I were much more than a statistic -- and that our home wasn't broken. "Children grow up fine as long as parents love them and raise them thoughtfully," says Dr. Bartell. "You need to be optimistic."
After being a single mom for three years, I discovered things about myself I'd never had the opportunity to find out when I was married: I was independent and accomplished, and I was able to run a household, bring home a paycheck, and take excellent care of my kids. My children learned just how much we all have to depend on each other -- and on others -- to function as a family. As a result, they became more responsible and empathetic. And my ex-husband? Dear reader, I remarried him, and we now have two more kids together. I didn't set out to achieve this particular happy ending, and I know that it might sound strange. But my husband and I needed to go out into the world and learn some life lessons. Once we learned to do it alone, we were ready to do it together -- again.
The dishes are done, the kids are asleep, and the toys are put away. Wouldn't it be nice to curl up in bed with a good...man? As fulfilling as being a mom is, we all need a grown-up playdate once in a while. But finding a nice guy can sometimes feel like climbing Mount Everest, and you need more than a compass to find your way through the duds and dorks of the dating world.
"You're ready to be back in the dating game when you don't feel like you need a man, but you feel like you want one," says Sharon McKenna, author of Sex and the Single Mom. When you're done obsessing about your relationship with your ex, you're generally ready to get on with your life.
Now that you're ready to meet Mr. Right, how do you find him? He could be at your PTA meeting, in the supermarket, on the sidelines of your kid's soccer game, or in the bookstore -- but you'll never know if you don't approach him. Though it sounds totally retro, "men like to feel needed," says Jill Spiegel, author of The Flirtologist's Guide to Dating. Ask him for help reaching cereal on the top shelf or whether he knows the score of the game. If he's interested, he'll keep the conversation going.
Your dream guy could also be on the Internet dating sites like Match.com or Perfectmatch.com. But though your computer might seem like the ideal meet market because you can flirt it up in your pj's and there are so many men to choose from, all that back-and-forth can be a full-time job. And with kids at home, you need to be extra careful about the kind of person you let into your life (even if it's just a date). With Classmates.com, you can reconnect with people you used to know in high school. There are also sites just for single parents, like Singleparentsmingle.com. But the best route of all is to let people know you're interested in being fixed up. And don't ask just your closest friends -- tell your pediatrician, your yoga teacher, or even the person who cuts your hair.
It would be great to find a father figure for your child, but not every guy you date is qualified to play that role. Never introduce your child to anyone on the first date, even if you're excited about his potential -- it will only compromise her sense of security.
"It's important to tell your child the truth about your social life, but give her a version she can understand and that won't worry her," says Pepper Schwartz, PhD, professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle. Tell her you're going to see a new friend or you're going out to dinner. At the beginning, that's really all you're doing. You might hope it'll turn into something more, but don't get your kids wrapped up in that until it happens. Once you've been steadily dating someone for at least three months, and you feel he has staying power, you can consider introducing him to your child, says McKenna. Arrange for him to join you at the bowling alley or at your picnic in the park so he doesn't feel like it's all about him. And if it doesn't go well, he can make a graceful exit.
It's only natural to worry that no one wants to date a mom, but you need to pump up your positivity. Think about it: Your married friends are surely jealous and dying to hear every detail of your swingin' single life, a "call from the babysitter" is the perfect excuse to bail on a dreadful date, and no matter whom you go out with, you'll always come home to someone who loves you unconditionally. Who cares if McDreamy never calls you again? Your kids are calling you from the living room, and they think you rock.