The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After years as a single mom, adding a partner can be a challenge

Placeholder while article actions load

I never pictured having a wedding. But there I was, walking down the aisle with my 10-year-old daughter, whom I’d raised on my own since she was a baby. I was married once before, but we’d had a civil ceremony. After being single for many years, this wedding was a first for me and my new husband, Chris.

Chris caught everyone off-guard, especially me, when he turned to my daughter during the ceremony and looked at her as if they were alone in the sun. “You were a beautiful, unexpected surprise,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard to add someone to the mix, but I’m asking you to let me bring my chair to the table with you and your mom.”

He was right: It has been hard sometimes. I had parented solo for a decade, and my daughter and I speak a language that’s all our own. After moving through a life that didn’t include Chris, I’m set in my ways. Sometimes Chris feels as though I override him. Sometimes he feels left out. And sometimes it all feels impossible.

Two years after our wedding, Chris and I welcomed a baby girl, and he legally became my elder daughter’s father. Today our teenager and 5-year-old make each other laugh harder than anyone else can. But behind closed doors, Chris and I sometimes clash about the best way to parent, and we struggle to find time alone.

It takes a lot of planning and coordination to connect, just the two of us. And we value the moments we do get, often thanks to our elder daughter, who babysits. Early on, Chris started a new tradition in our family, by leaving love notes for his “girls” under our pillows. Now we all take turns doing this, to show how much we love one another.

Of course, our way isn’t the only way to blend a family. I spoke with some other single mothers from around the country about how they’ve brought a new partner into their families, how wonderful it can be, and also how challenging.

Jessica Ashley, a 44-year-old divorce coach in Chicago, talks about how she did an interview with Kimora Lee, a model and chief executive of Phat Fashions, who said she always had considered herself a single mom because it was the “best part” of who she was. “That resonated deeply with me, and I still think of it often,” Ashley said. “I had to get really good at asking for help, and I also had to get really good at just stepping up and taking care of all that business of raising a kid and running a home and business.”

Asking for assistance has meant leaning on her parents and other parents in Chicago to help care for Ashley’s son, Ethan, and drive him to activities when she gets sick. Ashley founded the website Single Mom Nation and its companion podcast, Single Mom Nation Radio, as a way for single parents nationwide to support one another.

“I hold that time really dear,” Ashley says about the years that she and Ethan had together, before she reconnected with a high school friend, Darren McGraw, who moved from San Francisco to be with Ashley after a three-year long-distance relationship.

“It took a good, long year of being together” before she introduced McGraw to Ethan. They took their relationship slowly because Ashley said she felt “protective” of her son. “We’d been through a lot. I thought we all needed space to heal and grow, and try out this relationship in little bursts.”

Today Ashley and McGraw have a 2-year-old daughter, and he opened his own restaurant in their neighborhood. “Grace and Ethan are almost exactly a decade apart,” Ashley said. “They are each other’s favorite people.” 

When you already have kids by the time you’re starting a new relationship, it’s hard to let your partner take charge on things you’re used to doing by yourself. Crystal Turnau, 36, works in publishing in the San Francisco Bay Area, and got remarried, to David, in 2010, when she was the single mom of a 2-year-old. “I’m still learning how to blend my style with my husband’s and let him take the reins,” Turnau says. “I don’t want him to feel like a powerless parent, but I also struggle with my own bad experience with a step-parent growing up.”

I have a similar history with a step-parent, so I was curious to know how Turnau deals with this. “Earlier on in our relationship, David offered up help with Jack periodically and/or reminded me to ask for his help as needed,” Turnau said. “That didn’t work very well because I just didn’t understand why I would ask him to do things that I had been capable of doing by myself up until that point.”

However, by not allowing her new husband to share some parenting responsibilities – from simple things such as diaper changes or laundry to more complicated things such as negotiating custody schedule changes with her ex-husband – Turnau says, “I wasn’t allowing him to develop as a parental figure to his stepson.”

Enter the whiteboard, one basic tool that helps them divide responsibilities. Every week, the couple makes lists to map out what needs to get done and then “we decide who does what,” Turnau said. “If I add too many things to my list because I think it’s just easier for me to handle those things, David can point out where he can help and why it’s just as easy for him to complete the task.”

Certain tasks, they try to do together, such as attending school meetings for their sons. But when they disagree about the best way to discipline, for example, working as a team isn’t easy. “This is a fairly basic principle for all parents, but it feels even more important in a family where there is a step-parent,” Turnau said. “This can mean that the issue doesn’t get resolved right away, or one parent has to defer to the other in the moment. It can make co-parenting more disjointed and difficult.”

Single parents who’ve been on their own don’t just have established routines, they also have established homes that they might not want to uproot from. My friend Tonya Delano, a 47-year-old writer in Dallas and the mother of two daughters, is also partnered with a high school friend after reconnecting on Facebook. 

Even though they don’t live together full-time – her partner also has shared custody of his younger son, which keeps in him in Louisiana – he and Delano are very much together. She adopted his 20-year-old son, and in addition to phone calls, they see each other at least twice a month. “We communicate clearly and often,” Delano said, “and we both get grumpy when if we haven’t seen each other for a long time.”

Delano isn’t interested in moving her daughters just because she’s in a committed relationship. She loves what she calls her “estrogen-filled household” where she and her daughters “watch chick flicks, sing show tunes loudly, dance in the kitchen … or talk about trending girl power.”

“Ben bonded with my daughters early on,” Delano added. “I do want us to parent together, especially when we’re all together. It’s important to me that my girls have respectful and honest relationships with father figures in their lives. It’ll affect their lives far beyond childhood.”

When their youngest children, who are now both 12, leave for college, Delano and Ben might cohabitate. “The details haven’t been hashed out, and we’re both worried about how it would look,” she says, but she envisions a time when they’re living together, and possibly married. “We both want that. So far, so good.”


My coffee date with my boyfriend’s ex-wife

I thought I was over my relationship — but then I did my taxes

She’s not my mother-in-law. What’s my role here?