Four years ago, I packed my Jeep with baby implements, bundled up my 11-week-old, said goodbye to my dogs, and left my husband in the middle of the night. It was an easy decision: No child could grow up to have healthy relationships in that house. In the past, I would tell friends who were divorcing that their job was now to show their kids healthy relationships. It was a formula: you date briefly, find someone better for you, and model good communication for your child. As a scientist, I planned to use my own formula. I had heard the phrase “a revolving door of men” to describe women who date freely post-divorce and knew to avoid that, even though my ex would probably not be held to the same standard. But dating post-divorce changed my perspective on how these relationships affect my daughter and me. I now believe that single moms who date men should embrace the “revolving door” mentality, balking single-mom stereotypes and welcoming the benefits that dating freely can bring to their family.
Predictably, the trope of the single mom who dates freely and to the assumed detriment of her children has no parallel when used to describe single dads. Perhaps it’s because fathers stereotypically have less custody time than mothers, and therefore more latitude to have partners coming and going. Or perhaps it’s because, as I’ve heard for as long as I can remember, there’s an idea that “men can’t be alone,” and so their dating is seen as more forgivable. To this point, shortly after separating, I got word that my child’s father was dating; he met his current partner quickly, and they have been together for most of my daughter’s life.
The effects of parental dating on children’s well-being haven’t been studied much. But research on single parenting in general supports the notion that single moms are judged more harshly than single dads. In one experiment, participants were asked to read a vignette about a hypothetical single parent mediating a conflict between their two school-age children. For half of the participants, researchers named the parent “Lisa,” and for the other half of the participants, they named the parent “Tim.” Researchers then asked participants to rate the parent on personal characteristics and parenting abilities. Participants who received the Lisa vignette rated her as less secure, less responsible, less satisfied with life, less moral, less reputable, and less of a good parent than participants who received the Tim vignette. Researchers surmised that single dads in these situations are seen as admirable, while single moms are seen as failing in their roles as mothers. These moms were somehow implicitly at fault for not keeping their families together in the first place.
Single moms like me don’t need research to tell us that these biases exist, and we anticipate similar sentiments from friends, family, and co-workers when entering the dating scene. This could be why single moms are 40 percent less likely to re-partner after divorce than their childless counterparts and are also less likely to re-partner than single dads are. If I am perceived as less moral in refereeing an argument over which cartoon my kid wants to watch, how harshly will I be judged if I choose to date three different men on three consecutive weekends?
And so, perhaps unsurprisingly, dating did not go as smoothly for me as for my ex. A confluence of deadly airborne virus, PTSD, and new family revelations rendered me pretty undatable. I also didn’t have a night alone until my daughter started overnights with her dad at age 3. At that point, I was simply too tired to be an engaged date. Once COVID-19 vaccines were readily available, and after almost three years of therapy, I did start dating. And surprisingly, it was really fun, but learning to navigate the revolving door was also hard.
Here are some things it taught me:
A revolving-door mentality allows you to find someone with emotional maturity. After coming out of a tumultuous relationship, I have high standards for everyone’s behavior (including my own). I have been through therapy and done endless self-reflection; unfortunately, much of the dating pool in my age group has not. Many potential partners have moved from marriage directly into new relationships without doing the work required to be a good partner. For example, a date once told me he didn’t need to “do any work” on himself post-divorce because the breakup hadn’t been his fault: His wife decided she was gay. On dating apps, I unmatch immediately with anyone who is passive-aggressive or possessive. A match got snippy when I didn’t text him for eight hours; there was no first date. A first date asked why I left my husband while I was still hormonal postpartum; there was no second date. Those early red flags come fast; I’m confident in accepting them and advancing the door.
A rigorous screening process means that relationships end with little drama. I date only good guys long-term, so when we break up, there’s no yelling or swearing or door-slamming. Someone (often me) isn’t ready for something serious. Or it’s bad timing. Or shockingly, the person is afraid of energetic black Labs. Or preschoolers. Sometimes I’m sad, but no drama means I’m not distracted from parenting, and eventually my daughter will appreciate the lesson that you don’t ever stay in a relationship that’s not right for you.
The revolving door has been good for my daughter. She benefits from my dating because the work required by each new relationship reveals a more evolved mom for her—a more self-aware, compassionate, empathetic mom—that she wouldn’t have if I had settled down immediately. I’m learning how to communicate within healthy relationships, so we share feelings freely and she knows I will always consider her perspective. I’m learning to express needs and so she is too. Most importantly, I have confronted communication dysfunction that I don’t accept from myself in relationships and that she consequently won’t observe and internalize.
To be sure, criticism of single moms who adopt a revolving-door mentality often references not just the number of dating partners but the number of partners a single mom introduces to her child. Some who levy these critiques express concern that kids can get attached to new partners only to lose them. But according to the research, few moms exhibit poor judgment in this area; in fact, single dads are much more likely than single moms to find both overnights and vacations away with a new partner and the kids to be acceptable. Maybe this is because single dads perceive themselves as held in high regard, report high levels of self-esteem, and don’t doubt their adequacy as parents. Their increased likeliness of finding a new partner is often called the “good father effect,” wherein potential partners see custodial dads as more attractive because of their commitment to family, whereas managing family life does not reap similar dating benefits for single moms. Those concerned about kids’ attachment to dating partners should also keep in mind that research going back to Darwin suggests that women are more discerning in choosing partners than men; in other words, if a woman introduces a partner to her child, we should trust her to know what is best for her family.
In my own dating life, my daughter’s hypothetical attachment to my dating partners has not factored heavily: As a 4-year-old, she doesn’t remember people she saw every day last school year, let alone a male friend she met a few times. But as she matures, I don’t plan to hide this part of my life from her. I will be open with her about my dating life because, as my research and the research of other family communication scholars consistently shows, open communication is good for families. Democratic communication between parents and children protects kids from negative outcomes and promotes positive outcomes such as well-being. This is especially true for families that might be considered “at-risk”: military families in which a parent is deployed, families in bad neighborhoods, and families of divorce. I worry less about the effects of dating openly in front of my daughter than I do about the consequences of leading a double life, although she would probably be a fan—she’s really into superheroes right now.
I remember the moment my friend dropped the news that my ex was dating. We were sitting in a food court while I balanced my 6-month-old in one hand and oatmeal in the other. (It seems as if I’ve been juggling some version of my child and quick, nutrient-dense food for the past four years.) If you had asked me then what I would learn when I finally started dating, I might have answered “I’ll learn to trust again” or “I’ll learn what it’s like to feel safe.” While these things have happened, dating has taught me more about communicating with my daughter than it has about relationships themselves. Now, when friends divorce, I tell them that the gift they are giving their children is that of a whole, healthy mother.