Say hello to jam hands and a plushie avalanche
by Jordan Danger
What happens to kid-free individuals who meet, fall in love and forge relationships with single parents? We develop a bewildering condition called Instant Kids.
Many factors — education, career, travel, a carefree social life — may influence why a person sails through three or four decades without reproducing. It’s even possible to reach one’s 30s and 40s nowadays without finding a significant other, never mind discussing procreation. Me? I was kid-free by choice and had generally planned to stay that way. When I began dating a single dad, though, I knew there was going to be changes.
Surprise! I’ve survived a year of adventures with two kids under ten. From one culture-shocked kid-free gal to all the other kid-free comrades who may end up, at some point, in the jungle gym, here’s some advice.
Take it slow. Talk with your sweetheart and determine together at what point you will share with the kids that you’re dating. Sometimes you won’t be lucky enough to get that choice, since an eager relative may let it slip or one of the kids may overhear a conversation. But have a plan for those contingencies as well. We chose to be known as friends for a while first and this gave the kids a chance to decide for themselves if they liked me, without the pressure of knowing that dad was all twitterpated.
Expect jam hands. Kids are sticky. They smell like strawberry jam. If the ones you encounter do not smell like jam, they may smell like Cheerios, Kool-Aid or unclean diapers. My obsessive-compulsive disorder literally shorted out following just a few weeks around Max and Blueberry. I gave up dousing my hands in Purell after touching public doorknobs since I knew I’d been exposed to a thousand more germs from just 10 minutes playfighting. You might as well adopt the five-second rule.
There’s no such thing as “on time.” If you haven’t spent days at a time with kids before, you may think families with kids can keep a schedule. You will see calendars at the bookstore marketed towards mothers, with sheets of colour-coded stickers to help keep everyone punctual. These are marketing ploys designed to trick you and make you feel inferior when the schedule fails. That wonderful moment when you, a kid-free adult, realize you’ve spent too long reading articles on HuffPo, so you throw on your jacket and still manage to catch the bus? That is a scientific impossibility once kids are in the house. The upside? If you’re a task-oriented schedule fanatic, this experience can actually mellow you out. I was surprised just how little the world implodes if I’m not in line an hour before the movie starts.
Develop peer networks. Don’t be surprised if your struggles differ wildly from those of your parent-friends who have never been divorced. I’ve found many never-divorced parents seem leery of discussing some of the challenges you’ll have with a blended family. It’s good to surround yourself with experienced parents of all sorts, but put an effort into finding some single parents and other Instant Parents so you can talk freely.
Take your time jumping into the fray. The early days, before you’re swept up in the rainbows and unicorns of being in love, are crucial for self-reflection. Get a notebook and ask some questions of yourself: Do you want to be involved in actual parenting? Do kids fit into your life goals and plans? What are you willing to sacrifice? (Is it okay if your home office may one day become a kid’s room?) And what are you not willing to sacrifice? (Will you forgo a promotion to be home in time for dinner each night?) There are no wrong answers and, ultimately, many decisions will depend on the circumstances, such as custody schedules, finances and your partner’s wishes. But don’t lose sight of your own needs and wants. It’s in everyone’s best interests if you can be upfront about what you’re prepared to handle.
Pick your battles. There will undoubtedly be things that drive you crazy about how your sweetheart and “the ex” do the parenting thing. It’s also not uncommon to get swept up in parenting ideals. Rather than trying to rewrite the entire dynamic between adults and kids, I recommend taking baby steps. Focus on issues that are crucial to safety, health or household peace and work on those; everything else can probably wait.
Make space for yourself. If you’re cohabitating with your single-parent sweetheart, be careful not to lose yourself in the move. Remember that the size of the child is directly disproportionate to the amount of his or her stuff. For instance, a 10-yearold boy may come with a room full of action figures, whereas a two-year-old girl might literally bury your condo with just her plushie collection alone. Be sure to carve out a space where you can relax or work, and guard it against the household calamity that is children’s socks, hats, toys, dishes, and Nerf darts.
It’s not your divorce. Depending on the dynamics of your sweetheart’s previous relationship, there may be ongoing friction. Unlike a kid-free divorce, where both parties eventually run out of reasons to yell at each other, a divorce with kids means the parties will likely be in communication— friendly or nasty—on a regular basis. Be aware that the more invested you become in the lives of your sweetheart and his/her kids, the more you may find yourself affected by the vibes between your partner and the ex. Early on, establish personal boundaries and decide what issues merit comment and which ones would be better handled by offering a sympathetic shoulder for your sweetie.
Not all houses are the same. The daily routine at the ex’s place may be completely out of sync with what you and your sweetie do with your kid time. There’s nothing you can do about this, so don’t sweat it. Kids are adaptable. If the other parent lets them scribble on the walls and stay up watching movies every night, they’ll eventually learn it doesn’t happen at every house. You will experience a great moment of relief the day you accept this. It’s an otherworldly experience to suddenly have Instant Kids, particularly if you’re not naturally a kid person. But there’s a special feeling when you’re accepted into the life of a child; when they look to you for support or affection or a laugh, it can make you feel 100 feet tall. What’s awesome about step-parenting is that you often get to approach the whole parenting puzzle from a more objective and clearheaded standpoint—which can also be helpful to the kids. After all, they’ve undoubtedly seen some pretty emotional behaviour from their other adults while they were working through the divorce stuff.
The real trick to being a happy Instant Parent is to make sure your own life, goals and passions aren’t entirely buried in the ensuing chaos. Survival depends on flexibility, boundaries and a potent sense of humour. The rest will come together as you and your partner forge your path.