The-Challenges-of-Dating-as-a-Single-Mom-MainPhotoUPDATED February 27th, 2018

It’s never easy, this whole dating-as-a-single-mom thing. First, you have to find the time to actually go somewhere without your kid. Second, you have to basically become a double-agent in your own life, juggling your role as head of your family with your role as the fun-loving, eligible girl.

Lately, this task has become even more challenging for me, as I have gotten serious with The Cowboy, and as a result my two worlds have begun to crash together with more frequency.

On a recent weekend, I took my son and his friend to The Cowboy’s ranch, at his suggestion. We attended a re-enactment of Billy the Kid’s last escape in the nearby town of Lincoln, New Mexico.

To understand how monumental a move this was on my boyfriend’s part, you must consider that he has never been married and has zero experience raising children. He also lives alone on 10,000 acres because he’s not big on crowds and noise. It was a huge gesture. “Raising a ten-year-old boy was nowhere on the map of my life,” he told me. “But I love you enough to consider amending my map now.” For me, the balancing act of being both Mommy and girlfriend at the same time was not only new, it was daunting and overwhelming. For months I have kept these two worlds of mine more or less separate. The process of integrating my two realities, and the two distinct people who both think of me as the most important person in their lives, is harder than I thought. For instance, I even dress differently around my son than I do around my boyfriend, something he noticed, to his dismay. Around Alexander, I’m a dowdy soccer mom. Around The Cowboy, it’s cleavage and heels. When we were all together, I chose soccer mom.

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But it was two other lessons that stuck out as particularly vivid from the weekend, both equally important for me to address.

First, my son asked to call his father, but asked it in a whisper. “Is it a betrayal to call Dad from here?” he asked. “Can I like it here, and like it at my dad’s, too?” I was floored, but immediately understood that my son, who had never seen me with a man other than his father, was confused about the shifting dynamics. I reassured him as best I could. “You only have one father, and he will always be your father. No one is trying to replace him, and no one ever will. Of course you can call him from here!”

Second, after the day in Lincoln for the boys, we all returned, exhausted, to the ranch. As we cooked together, The Cowboy gave me a kiss on the cheek and said, “Maybe after dinner we could relax and watch a movie.” I interpreted this to mean all of us, kids included, and after dinner popped an animated film into the DVD player, settling in on the sofa with the boys to watch it. To my surprise, my boyfriend didn’t join us. Rather, he went to his bedroom to read. Later, I asked him what was wrong. Turns out, he’d meant me and him when he said “we,” not everyone. I, so used to “we” always including my son, hadn’t understood. “You know, it would have been okay to let them know that you and I were going to watch a movie and have grownup time together,” he said. “One of the biggest problems with our society today is that kids think it’s always all about them.” I knew this, of course. Logically. I’d read the reports about how kids who know their place as kids, and not as little adults, actually grow up happier and feel safer. The Cowboy hugged me, and pushed my bangs from my eyes, saying,”You totally change when he’s around. It made me wonder whether that’s what happens in lots of marriages when the couple has kids, that the mom just forgets about her own needs as a woman and becomes all about the kid.”

Of course, we all know this is a huge problem after couples have kids. This was the first time I realized “mommy-mode-itis” wasn’t limited to biological parents with babies, and could be a problem in my situation, too. I thought about his words for a long while. He was right, of course. As a single mother with one child and no relationships since my divorce five years ago, I have gotten used to being my son’s companion, and he mine. This is extremely unhealthy, on a variety of levels, and it needs to change.

Psychologist Stephen Stosny, PhD, says that one of the best things adults can do to help children develop self-esteem and healthy relationships when they grow up is to show the child that the adults in his life love and value one another. He also says that boys who see their mother’s male partner showing her affection will grow up to feel more loved themselves. Sometimes, the best thing a mom can do for her son is to just be a grownup, and let life be around her own needs for a while; but as most single moms know this is not as easy as it sounds. I have decided that the best I can do for my son is to stop thinking of him as the center of my universe. As The Cowboy says, it’s a huge burden for a child to be his mother’s companion. Moving forward as we integrate our households and families, I am going to work hard to allow things to be a little more about me, because in the long run, it’s going to be the best thing for us all.