What didn’t happen right away: My divorce. There’d been a chalk outline around our marriage for years, but we officially became a statistic in June 2020. What did happen right away? My finding a new love, much quicker than I could ever have imagined.
This isn’t exactly covered in parenting books.
I executed it like Simone Biles on the vault, although I now know I didn’t exactly follow the recommended timetables for divulging such sensitive information.
Experts will tell you to wait until you’ve been divorced for a bit (oops) and until you’re certain she or he or they are the one (success!) before telling your kids that you’re dating. I tried to keep it under wraps, I swear. I did the right thing by sneaking around and lying to my daughters (this cannot actually be the ‘right thing,’ right?) to exit the house for dates. My Lyft side hustle provided an alibi but when they’d ask how I did — funny passengers? good tips? — the web I was weaving got more tangled. I couldn’t stomach it because, with the notable exceptions of Santa and the Tooth Fairy, I don’t lie to my girls. I couldn’t take it anymore, and so I spilled it: I met someone, I’m over-the-moon and I can’t wait for you to know her … but you’re going to have to wait.
In consultation with my ex-wife, we agreed I wouldn’t introduce them before the holidays. In the meantime, I asked my daughters where they’d like this to happen, and how. Every scenario was on the table so it’d be as perfect as possible because I knew what they didn’t yet: my new love would be in their lives from here on out.
Terry Gaspard, author of The Remarriage Manual says this first meeting, “should be brief, casual and in a neutral place — a café or park.” Welp, my girls recoiled in horror at the idea of doing it in public. They opted for their turf, a chill “hey, how are ya" and to show off their guinea pigs, bunnies and cats. Their only rule: eating was outlawed. They weren’t ready to sit across the table from dad’s new love and chitchat.
She arrived about 45 minutes before a movie we had tickets to see, intentionally providing a hard-out to avoid any lingering awkwardness, she met them and the animals, and everyone seemed good. Phew!
We created a relatively low-stress introduction but I was still on the verge of throwing up before and during it. Gaspard suggests our situation could have been more precarious and stomach-curdling if the kids were younger, the divorce acrimonious or my new relationship not yet solidified.
Because breakups are common when rebounding after divorce, children of all ages are susceptible to getting caught in the crossfire and feeling conflicting emotions about a new love.“Kids can easily experience sadness or rejection if the relationship doesn’t work out, therefore it’s a good idea to wait a least three months to determine if your partner is a ‘keeper’ before introducing them to your children,” Gaspard notes.
It’s the age of your kids that’ll be the primary factor in deciding when to make this introduction. If older, go for it once you think the relationship will last, but exercise caution if they’re young. Little kids may feel confused, angry or jealous, says Gaspard because, “They’ll likely view their parents’ dating behaviors as strange, tend to be possessive and may see your new love interest as a rival.” It’s critical to assuage their fears of your relationship with them changing and let them know your new partner isn’t replacing their other parent.
“Using simple and direct language with younger kids will eliminate confusion and leave less room for them to wonder or be scared,” says Prang Snitbhan, a licensed child psychologist and author of Kindness Cards for Kids. “Throughout this process, children want to know that they have a special place in your heart and mind.”
You’re naturally going to be excited to continue exploring your new relationship and spending time with your partner, but Gaspard urges that we avoid relying on babysitters or changing plans with your kids to do so. And, she adds, absolutely do not have sleepovers with your kids at home for at least a year. Instead, become a calendar wiz, planning dates that coincide with them being with their other parent. This will all but eliminate the need for the fibs I found myself telling.
I’m thankful that my girls were 15 and 12 when all this went down, not only because they were understanding of their parents’ marriage ending but also because they were accepting of my newfound happiness. “All kids want to see their parents happy, calm, and safe,” Prang says. “Once they can feel that they are still important, loved, and included, their heart will slowly open and soften.”
Teens are even more likely to ‘get it,’ because they themselves are becoming familiar with the desire for romantic love. Still, your new partner could be perceived as a threat to their relationship with you, therefore Prang says that, “The show of affection with your partner should be avoided at this stage. While we’re affectionate in front of them now, my new partner and I didn’t even hold hands when my daughters were around for the first few months for fear they’d be uncomfortable if there was any PDA between us.
After you make that big introduction, continue to be empathic toward your youngest children as Gaspard notes they may still harbor reconciliation fantasies. This hope for a parental reunion may make warming up to your new partner tricky and require extra compassion and patience from you.
It’s equally important to check in regularly with your older kids and ask them open-ended questions about, and listen intently to, the feelings they’re experiencing post-divorce. Prang reminds us that it’s important for all kids, psychologically, to be afforded the opportunity to, “Grieve, process their feelings, such as sadness, anger, hurt, loss, confusion and learn to understand and accept the fact that what they have known as ‘family’ may no longer be the same.”
Finally, as your children watch your new relationship blossom, consistently reiterate your love for them above all else.
Getting all of this right will go a long way toward strengthening the bond between you and your kids, and successfully transforming together as a family.
Jeff Bogle is a proud dad of two remarkable teenage daughters, a writer, photographer, and publisher and editor in chief of Stanchion, a literary and photography magazine. His book, 100 Questions for Dad, will be published by Callisto Media this summer. He lives in New York City with his now-wife, rescue pit bull, and four cats. Find him on Instagram and Twitter @OWTK.