Among the many thorny conversations Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie will eventually have to have with their six kids following their recently announced plans to divorce, lies one in particular that routinely stumps even the most grounded parents: how to explain to your kids that you are dating someone who is not their mom or dad. Some of us find it equally challenging to explain to our kids why we’re not dating.
Last week was National Unmarried and Singles Week. This had nothing to do with the timing Jolie chose to file for divorce. However, stats show that Brad and Angie are in good company, because there are over 109 million unmarried adults in the US – 45% of the population. Roughly 35 million Americans live alone. Forty percent of babies born in the US today have single parents. And lastly, more women than men are single, roughly 53% vs. 47%.
So you’d think it’d be straightforward to explain to children of divorce that Mom or Dad is dating seriously, or serious about remaining single. The classic, conventional wisdom is that kids are afraid you will remarry and be less available to them, and that they need parental reassurance that they are, and will always be, the priority. The flipside concern is avoiding making children feel overly responsible for a parent’s happiness, health, and economic welfare, if the parent remains single.
In my family, the funny twist is that I’m happily unmarried, but my kids seem to want me to get remarried. Since my divorce from their dad three years ago, every time I put on lipstick, go out at night, or have a male friend stop by the house, one of my children will invariably ask when I’m marrying whoever it was I put lipstick on for, or when he’ll be their stepdad. It’s as if there’s only one relationship model they understand: marriage. And if you’re thinking this is normal behavior for little kids, think again: my kids are 14, 17, and 19.
The divorce from their dad, after 20 years together, was my second divorce. I’m not sure I ever want to get married again. I’ve told my kids many times that I want to date a few wonderful men, nothing serious, and that I don’t want to settle down and remarry anytime soon. Their response has been to insist “You can’t do that, Mom!” As if there are strict rules for Mom-Dating that I apparently keep violating.
I’m usually in favor of being transparent with my kids about every imaginable subject. But I’ve found with post-divorce dating, less is more. Maybe the subject is unavoidably painful for them. They don’t want the details, even the details about the kind of single life I’m trying to create for myself.
But I’m going to keep trying to explain my single life, because one of the most important examples we can set for our kids is our approach to relationships. I want to model that it’s okay to be single. I want them to see that marriage is not the only path to happiness, and that at times, it can actually be a huge barrier to it. I don’t want them to view every man or woman in life as valuable only as a potential mate. I want them to see how fruitful it is to take time for yourself, to have a range of friends and boyfriends, and to enjoy the productive, reflective stage of singledom. I want my kids to know that being single is not a weird or temporary state.
Maybe I’ll stay single forever. Maybe I’ll remarry and live happily ever after. Being comfortable being single means being comfortable relying on yourself, which is healthy whether you stay single or become half of a couple. Part of post-divorce parenting, for me, is to show my kids that being single, temporarily or permanently, is a valid lifestyle. My hope? They will feel comfortable being single themselves at various times throughout their lives.
And maybe, they will stop grilling me every Sunday morning about what I did the night before.