I dated a lot when I finally emerged from the dark fog of separation and divorce. To be honest, it was mainly out of boredom. On weekends, when my kids were with their dad and my friends were spending time with their own partners and kids, I decided it was better to put myself out there than stay home, drink wine and watch old episodes of Grey's Anatomy, tearfully doubting that I'd ever find my own McDreamy.
So I started dating, and it was awkward and messy and stressful and sometimes fun — but mostly a massive headfuck.
Until I met my guy, and then it all fell into place. I introduced him to my kids three months after our first date, he moved in with us four months later, and two years down the line, we're married and navigating life as a blended family of seven, with our first child together on the way. It's far from a fairy tale, but it's as close as I could ever have hoped for. (And who wants to be Cinderella anyway?)
He was the first guy I introduced to my kids, and I knew without a doubt that it was the right thing to do, but it was still a nerve-wracking experience. What if they didn't like him? I had visions of my then-6-year-old daughter reverting to a clingy co-sleeper and my 8-year-old son deciding he'd rather live full-time with his dad.
I also wondered if I was making the intro too quickly — not because I had doubts about my partner, but because my sensible side told me that three months wasn't, in the grand scheme of things, a long time. But according to Dr. Mark Borg Jr., psychologist, psychoanalyst and coauthor of Relationship Sanity: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Relationships, your emotional well-being is more important than timescale.
"The time frame will vary, but the most important thing to keep in mind is whether you, as a single mom, are seeking some kind of consent from your children," Borg tells SheKnows. "During times when parents are perceived by children to be unwell (sad, anxious, depressed, unhappy, in mourning), children will turn the tables on caretaking and might prioritize their parent's needs — a relief from loneliness — above their own — a need to process their own feelings about new people in their lives."
It's also important to ensure you and your partner are on the same page about how serious the relationship is and where it's going, says licensed marriage and family therapist Lauren Consul. If this isn't the case, introducing a new partner to your kids can be a huge mistake. In Consul's opinion, a good rule of thumb is at least six months, but she says one year is ideal.
"What matters most is that the relationship is serious," she tells SheKnows. "This doesn't mean that you really like them, but rather that the relationship has taken steps towards being more serious, and you and your partner are in it for the long haul."
Consul recognizes that it can be challenging not introducing your children to your significant other because it makes seeing each other more difficult, but handling the situation correctly is vital for the mental health of your child. "If you repeatedly introduce partners to children, they can get confused and struggle with attachment because people they start liking keep leaving," she warns.
When you're confident the time is right to introduce your new partner to your kids, communication is key, says Consul. "It's important to make your child feel comfortable before an introduction and not put too much pressure on it," she advises.
You can make the transition easier by building up the time spent together. This means not rushing into entire days together or overnight stays. When my now-husband first met my kids, he popped over for dinner one night. It was another few months before he stayed overnight while they were at home — and I talked to them about it first to make sure they were comfortable with it.
Talking, it seems, is the most crucial element of this process — both before and after the introduction takes place and all throughout the subsequent settling-in period.
"Parents do not talk enough to their children before and after meeting a partner," says Consul. "Often, this is because of their fear of their child's reaction, but if you create a space where your child can express whatever they are feeling, they will be much better off."
Communication is particularly important if your kids react negatively to your new partner. "It's important to talk to your child about what they are feeling in a nonjudgmental manner," says Consul. "Don't start defending your partner if your child responds negatively, but rather be open and curious about their thoughts and feelings."
Of course, your child's reaction may not be negative. It's important to be prepared for any reaction, says Consul. "Your child might be overly attached right away or want nothing to do with your new partner," she explains. "Be open and receptive however they respond."
When it comes to sex with your new partner when your kids are at home, Borg recommends establishing healthy boundaries between the kids and the bedroom. "Being open is not the same as relinquishing privacy," he says. "Healthy boundaries ensure kids are not provoked by stimuli they are not prepared to handle — is any kid when it comes to thinking about their parents' sex life? — and allows more emotional space for kids to discuss sexual matters when they are ready and according to their comfort around such issues."
It's completely natural for single parents to stress about introducing their new partner to their kids. I've been there. But the best advice is to keep it simple. Take your time and be honest with yourself, your partner and — most important — your kids.