It doesn’t make sense, and it goes against all conventional wisdom, but watching my mom date a bunch of losers while I was growing up was surprisingly helpful.
If you read the parenting books — which I don’t, to be honest — they’ll tell you, vehemently, NOT to introduce your dates to your kids after a divorce. You’re not even supposed to think about it until things get serious. Apparently it’s damaging.
You know what’s more damaging? Thinking that your parents don’t date anybody at all. For years.
My parents split up when I was 7. My dad is gay, but couldn’t tell us that then, thanks to a pile-up of outraged family members plus a mired-in-the-times therapist telling him how traumatizing it would be for us. So while the reality was that my dad headed directly into the long term relationship (and eventual marriage) that he’s still in to this day, we all thought he wasn’t dating anybody at all. The gap left in the silence of his love life was bewildering; we knew there was a piece of the story that we weren’t being told.
My mom, on the other hand, was dating up a storm, and while this probably wasn’t a whole lot of fun for my siblings, it was precisely what I needed to see.
Of all of us, I’m the most like her. I struggle with my weight the way she did; but more than that, I have the same constant swirl of powerful emotions, thoughts, and feelings rushing through my head at a frenetic and relentless pace. I think I understood her crazier moments better than anyone else. A few years into the divorce, I was heading towards teenagerhood, with emotions and insecurities turned up to eleven. When I looked at my mom, I saw my future self; and what I saw, to my surprise, was a woman who was in demand, because my mom dated. A lot.
All the books say this is bad news for the kids, but trust me: I wasn’t thinking that any of those guys was going to be my new dad. I already had an excellent dad, and wasn’t in the market for another. But seeing all those men wanting to date my mom was amazing. Men, lots of men, wanted to go out with this woman who had four kids, a sharp wit, and a growing career. How could that not inspire? I’d absorbed through pop culture that women were supposed to be single, thin, and pretty — not funny or smart or ambitious. So this interest in her from a bunch of men, despite all that, was encouraging. I wasn’t a bombshell, I struggled with fashion, and I was smart and funny: Maybe one day there’d be guys lining up for a chance with me, too.
I wasn’t naïve. I didn’t expect her to live happily ever after with them; like I said, there were a lot of losers. But I was in junior high, and not even loser guys were interested in me. I was a late bloomer — the latest, in fact — on the puberty scale, so the boys were looking at girls with boobs and confidence while I had neither. I needed some hope for the long term, and my mom gave it to me. The fact that there were some losers mixed in there sent a very useful message: Everyone you date doesn’t have to be Mr. Right. In fact, you can learn a lot from the Mr. Wrongs.
My mom didn’t marry any of those guys. Some relationships were long-lasting, and some weren’t, but she didn’t meet her Mr. Right until she was in her sixties. She made some terrible mistakes in the years before that. One of her boyfriends was abusive; more than one was gay. It wasn’t all fun, and some of it was pretty damaging. I wish she’d skipped the total jerks and had more of the good guys, because she deserved better. But as she learned, I learned, and I avoided a lot of the turmoil she went through because I’d already seen the good, the bad, and the ugly, up close. When I met my own Mr. Right, I was ready for him.
These days, I don’t tell my divorced friends to hide their social lives from their kids. I don’t go by the books. Only you know what’s best for your own family, but I think that letting your kids know you’re dating sends the message that we’re all entitled to look for romance in our lives, no matter what happens. It’s not necessarily noble to be alone, and divorce doesn’t mean you have to stop living. If I’d thought my mom didn’t date anyone, I wouldn’t have believed that my own lonely life would change. And that was what I needed to know the most.