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Dear Care and Feeding,
A little over two months ago, I started dating a divorced man who has shared custody of his 4-year-old daughter. We were both looking for a serious relationship and things have been moving really fast with meeting families, integrating lives, and everything else … except when it comes to his daughter. He let me meet her briefly as his friend giving them a ride to the airport, but nothing more. I don’t see him at all during the times he has his daughter, and communication is much less frequent. I love his devotion as a father, and since I don’t have kids of my own, I can only imagine the pressures of needing to protect her, so I try to be completely understanding and respectful of these boundaries.
However, there are so many things that are off the table because of these restrictions, and I have no idea how long to expect this separation of church and state to go on. If I mention making plans even months away, the first thing he does is check to see if he has his daughter those days, and if so, it’s a no-go. I’m starting to worry that he’s never going to see me as a potential stepmom, or that I’m going to eventually carry a grudge because of the distance in our relationship.
His daughter is the most important thing to him, and I can’t imagine that he considers our relationship as serious as he claims to if I’m not allowed to be a part of that side of his life. It’s probably too soon to expect anything more for now, but is there some reasonable time frame I can expect? I don’t want to bombard him with these questions and make him think I’m demanding something of him that I’m not.
Is this a normal way to start a relationship with a single parent, or am I ignoring some red flags because of how much I like the guy? I love kids and can’t wait for the opportunity to be involved as much as he’s comfortable with, but I’m so afraid of crossing a line here. This is all new to me!
—Daddy’s (Other) Special Girl
Slow your roll, ladybug. Two months isn’t a long time in terms of most relationships—you two don’t seem to even have a title yet. There’s no official rule governing when a single parent should introduce a new partner to his child(ren), but many of us realize how important it is to be discerning and deliberate about doing so and would prefer to make these introductions only when we are certain that this person is going to be around long term. That isn’t to say this guy doesn’t see a possible future with you, but his child has had to deal with the breakup of her parents at a very young age—I’d hope he’d prefer to take his time before connecting her with a new woman too soon and having to, again, navigate the impact of a breakup on his own life and on hers.
You say that you moved quickly in terms of integrating lives. How so? If you’ve both been proactive about introducing friends and colleagues to one another, including each other in your activities, great! But make sure this isn’t you taking those steps and him going along with it to please you. His hesitancy to introduce you to his child is a function of being a responsible dad, but if it seems he may be dragging his feet otherwise, you may just be moving a bit fast for him.
If you’re going to date a parent, you have to get used to the need to check a calendar or plan things well in advance. You also cannot assume that an unwillingness to change his predetermined co-parenting schedule to accommodate you is a reflection of his feelings—sharing custody can be a delicate dance, even between amicable exes—nor can you take it personally that your gentleman friend gets quiet on you when he has his daughter. He’s busy spending time with a child that he likely saw seven days a week at one point, time that is infinitely more precious now.
The best way for this man to see you as a potential stepmom is for you to behave like someone who has the capacity to be empathetic, supportive, and thoughtful as it relates to his family situation while he weighs whether he will introduce you to his kid. If and when that happens, he’d likely be looking to see how you interact with her, how she takes to you, and if you are nurturing, kind, and interested in her beyond wanting to impress him.
Conversely, being thirsty to make that meeting happen or being unable to respect or understand the time limitations that come with dating a parent are bright red flags that could render you completely ineligible for the sort of relationship you want to have long term. Just as child-free singles may have a partner whom they adore but would not want to settle down with, single parents can date someone that they’d never consider introducing to their kids. How you behave in these early stages of courtship will likely determine where you fit in his future plans, if at all. You can’t compete where you don’t compare, so be mindful to always respect his relationship with his daughter as the definitive relationship in his life at this point.
Hopefully you are also making an ongoing assessment of this dude and figuring out if he’s what you truly, truly want, and that you aren’t so smitten by the first and second impressions that he’s made that you aren’t ignoring ways that you may be incompatible or things about his parenting that may turn you off. Don’t treat this time as an audition for stepmotherhood; instead, enjoy the process of getting to know a new guy, be forthcoming (yet not imposing) about your desire for a serious relationship, and hopefully, you two will end up on the same page.