Eleven-year-old Dana Kaminski looks down into her hot chocolate, playing with it as she talks about the first time she met her father's girlfriend. It was a year ago, about six months after her parents divorced. And, while Dana had known for months that her father had a girlfriend, she says meeting her and actually seeing them together was hard for her and her 6-year-old sister, Jenna.
"That is when I knew that my dad really wasn't going to come back home to live with us," says Dana, of Plainfield. Her sister nods.
Millions of children are being raised in single-parent households and the numbers are on the rise. According to Parents Without Partners, by 2000 there were a staggering 13.5 million single parents caring for some 21.7 million children. At some point, many of these parents will re-enter the world of dating, only this time with kids.
It is a difficult world to be part of, says 25-year-old Patti Chiapetta of LaGrange Highlands. And, when you do finally find that someone special and it becomes time to merge your two worlds, it only gets more difficult.
When Chiapetta's son Anthony was 2, she found herself in a serious relationship, so serious that she took that leap and brought her boyfriend, a Chicago police officer, home to meet her son. "They hit it off," Chiapetta says. The twosome became a threesome, hanging out two to three times a week. "He'd bring Anthony all this cop stuff, like a Chicago cop jacket. He was a role model and Anthony wanted to be a cop just like him."
But in time the relationship ended and even a year later Anthony, now 4, still misses him and asks for him. "When I told Anthony we broke up, he ran in his room and hid under the blanket," says Chiapetta who is dating again. But this time she's keeping things casual and away from her son. "I don't want Anthony to get attached and go through that again."
But like other kids of single parents, Anthony will have to go through it again, maybe even several times.
Karen Gouze, a pediatric psychologist and the director of training and psychology at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, says that when a single parent finds themselves in a relationship that becomes serious, it is a good idea to make introductions, even if there are no plans for marriage.
"The only way a parent is going to know how this person is going to interact with their child is if they put them together. For many this will become the deciding factor."
How and when you introduce the person you are dating to your child will navigate the course their relationship will take. "Honesty is critical," Gouze says. "Don't pretend you are not more than friends if you are. You will just be setting yourself up for problems. Your kids will know and not appreciate the lack of honesty. It could make them less accepting."
Gouze says younger kids are usually accepting as long as the person their parent is dating makes an effort and is nice to them. The issue becomes more complicated with 9- to 11-year-olds because Gouze says they tend to be more closed minded to new people and even put off by open shows of affection such as hand holding.
It would be wise to take it slow with them. With older kids, how they react to the relationship usually depends on the relationship they have with that parent. The better the relationship the better chance the child will be accepting.
In some cases it is the other parent that influences how the child will react to a parent's dating. There will be more opposition if the child thinks the other parent has not moved on and is still crying over the breakup and hopeful of a reunion, Gouze says. If this is the case, the dating parent needs to talk to the other parent and involve them in the solution, she says. If the other parent is uncooperative, family counseling may become necessary.
Keep in mind that a new significant other in your life will mean big changes for your child. Dana says she and her sister were not sure what to expect when their father started dating and that was what scared them the most. But they knew exactly what to expect when their mother started.
"The girls and I had talked about Mike before we even started dating," says Annette Squillaci, Dana and Jenna's mom. "We had already been seeing each other as friends. When we started dating, I talked to the girls about it, but I didn't bring him around until we knew we were serious about each other."
Dana says all those conversations with her mom really helped. She says it can be scary for kids who have gone through a divorce and then watch as their parents move on. "And, not knowing what is going to happen next is the worst part of it," she says.
"It all boils down to communication and trust," says Annette's boyfriend, Mike Heilmann of Naperville. Heilmann is the non-custodial parent of three boys ages 10, 8 and 6. He is also newly divorced. "My oldest son noticed I was talking to Annette on the phone a lot. He had questions. I was very open with him and the other boys." Heilmann says that sometimes the younger ones have a hard time putting their feelings into words. "I don't wait for them to come to me with questions; I start a lot of the conversations. It is ongoing."
Gouze says parents may have to play detective and learn to read between the lines. If your child says something like "there isn't enough room on the couch for that guy," he probably isn't telling you there is a spatial issue. There may be non-verbal signs as well.
Patti says that as much as Anthony liked her ex, there were times she did see jealousy surface. "If I was giving my ex too much attention, Anthony would jump in between us. When that would happen, I'd just take a break from whatever we were doing and spend more time with him. That seemed to work."
Toddlers and preschool-aged kids often get clingy or regress if they are having problems coping, Gouze says. Children ages 7 to 11 will usually act out in line with their personalities-the quiet child will become depressed, the angry child will throw temper tantrums. And with older kids, whatever the relationship with them was, will just be magnified-whether good or bad.
"Most children just want to know that they are not going to lose their mom or dad to this new person, especially children of divorce," Gouze says. "They have already lost their ideal family and in many ways feel like they have lost one parent. Parents really need to be sensitive to this and try to spend more time with them to reassure them."
The parent's significant other also needs to be extremely sensitive and patient. They should take some time to get to know the child and look for common interests. They need to understand and accept that a child will probably not be won over in the first or maybe even the fifth meeting. But, over time, common ground can be found.
And if even after time the child still resists? Keep those lines of communication open and be willing to slow down. "While you don't want your child to rule your life, their feelings are important," Gouze says.
She stresses that forcing relationships and dating is likely to backfire. When a child completely closes their mind to the relationship and the parent takes a stand with a "like it or lump it" attitude, the relationship has little hope of surviving.
Dana and Jenna's father is now engaged, and with their new stepmother will come two older step sisters. Their mom and Heilmann have been dating for a year now. The girls are getting used to him and his three sons.
"More than anything, kids just want to always know what is coming," Dana says, "even if what is coming isn't what they were hoping for."
Jean Dunning is a mom of four who covers the South and Southwest suburbs of Chicago for Chicago Parent.