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What It's Like To Date A Single Dad

Artwork by Anna Jay, Photograph by Lauren Perlstein
When I was 25, living fast and wearing glitter, I fell for a man with rad tattoos and a one-year-old son. Two years down the line, toy cars litter the living room floor in a way that I wish silver platforms would, and the daily poo report (size/shape/was it in the toilet?) is a thing. Still, somehow, we all sort of muddle along.

Today, young women are more likely to find themselves in my position than ever before. Single parent charity organisation Gingerbread estimates that there are two million lone parents in the UK – that’s parents who are the sole carer of their children – 10% of which are men. But that’s not including all those dads who, like my boyfriend, share care of the child with the mum who they’ve split from.

And the 17% or so male users of parenting advice website Mumsnet are more likely to be looking for advice on sex and relationships than the average woman user, says the company’s CEO, Justine Roberts. So what’s so difficult for single dads looking for love?

“It can be tough to explain to a child-free person just why you can't be spontaneous, or why your adult partner can almost never be your number one priority,” Roberts explains.

Emma, who recently married a man with a nine-year-old daughter, agrees. “The most difficult thing is understanding that you'll never be his number one priority. You'll come pretty close, but not quite first,” she says.

I always respected the fact that he wanted to be part of his kids’ lives

And Tracie, who was 36 when she started seeing a father-of-four (now her husband), points out that even if that is painful, you wouldn’t want to come before the kids.

“What I didn’t understand was the unique relationship that a parent has with a child,” she says. “One thing I was clear about was that Simon was a very dedicated and good dad, and I never wanted to stop him from being that. I always respected the fact that he wanted to be part of his kids’ lives.”

Because that’s the thing with dating a dad: there’s not just two of you in the relationship. It’s when you start hanging out with the children that things can get complicated.

The consensus from all is not to meet the child for a few months down the line, at least until you think the relationship is serious. “I never knew that meeting a three-year-old could be so nerve-wracking!” Emma remembers. And when you do, you are not necessarily going to bond straight away. During the first year with my boyfriend, his son – let’s call him Big T – would scream when I touched him or his toys, cry when I sat next to his dad on the sofa, cry when I passed him juice, cry when my legs got in the way of his racetrack, and refuse to say hello to me. I felt like Maleficent's evil step-sister, torturing myself over whether I was cut out for this.

According to NHS-qualified child psychotherapist Rachel Melville-Thomas, to understand these behaviours it’s important to put yourself in the shoes of a three-year-old, who are in a “magical thinking, romantic stage.”

She explains: “Think about The Little Mermaid. There’s a girl, and she meets a prince, and they get married and that’s it forever. That’s the template for your average three/four year old,” she says. “They can still be thinking, ‘True love will right itself and Daddy will find Mummy again.’ And the unconscious feeling is ‘You might take Daddy away from me.’”

So what does that mean for the new girlfriend?

Melville-Thomas says, “Don’t blame the children! As adults we have to be a bit grown up about it and give them time to figure it out, and everything you do, you have to do it a bit slower than you would think.”

It’s true: months after patiently letting Big T come to me when he felt like it, we have reached a truce. Now we bond over air guitar, and I find myself welling up when I watch him sleep.

Yet even if your relationship with the child goes swimmingly, there’s still a third player in this crowded party that you have to deal with: the mama.

Early on in our relationship, I had to block my boyfriend’s ex on Instagram after she would check my photos for signs of me hanging out with Big T.

“The mother wants to know what kind of woman is in the vicinity of my children,” explains Melville-Thomas. “I would say 100% try to develop a relationship with the mother. You want to be modest, respectful, and intelligent about it. Get to know them and show them that you are a reasonable human being,” she says.

That has worked well for Emma, who gets on with the mum, and even goes to school fairs and dance shows as “one big family unit.”

“I think we all got lucky that we like each other, which has made a big difference for his daughter. I suppose we've all got her best intentions at heart so wouldn't ever want her to feel unhappy,” she says.
But still, you’ve got to keep some boundaries. Tracie says that her relationship with the mum faltered after she made it clear she wouldn’t take sides in parenting decisions.

“I felt that I wasn’t a parent, and that wasn’t my job. But also, I felt my loyalties needed to be with my partner,” she says.

Dating a dad has been a tough lesson in growing up for me, despite the fact that his 50/50 care arrangement with the mother allows him a “normal” life some of the time.

But what I do have is a partner who doesn’t stress about anything, bakes dairy-free cakes like a fiend, and happily puts others’ needs before his own. It might mean cancelled weekends away, and walking really, really slowly, and watching the dance scene from Puss in Boots on repeat, but it’s a small price to pay for being with a great man.