Navigating the Tricky Waters of Kids and New Partners

Once you’re divorced with a child, that is a background fact for the rest of your life. Nothing will change it.

I was scheduling a business lunch when I saw it – a reminder I’d placed in my calendar 10 months ago. I hadn’t thought about her in a while.

I never write in capital letters, but there it was, all in caps. A note setting a reminder for me, in capitals, marking the first anniversary of our meeting. I didn’t know at the time that it would be reduced to a mere forgotten event, a part of my past, but that’s what had happened. My first post-divorce relationship of consequence, and like many such relationships, it had failed. In spectacular fashion.

That wasn’t really what I had in mind when things started up between us.

What would have been our one-year anniversary fell on Friday, October 13th. I guess if I’d looked ahead and noticed that, I may have had a better sense of what was coming.

It began with one of those meetings that felt like kismet. I had a buddy who worked in a men’s store that featured high-end watches and pens. His new boss was tall, polite, and lovely to behold. Her best friend was less tall, more my type, and taking photographs of an event I’d been invited to attend. I had my four-year-old daughter in my arms and the last thing on my mind that night was romance.

Of course, that’s always when those things happen.

We started to talk. She was not a photographer by trade but was helping out her best friend for just the one event. Conversation flowed naturally, and I could sense her innate intelligence. I introduced my daughter, who can be very shy, and that didn’t seem to put her off even though not everyone wants to date a single dad. So far, so good.

Three days later, we went out for the first time. It was a pleasant meeting that morphed into a five-hour conversation. Our dialogue wasn’t hard to keep up, just the opposite. That gave me a bit of hope. I left with her telephone number in my cell phone.

We met each other again for dinner and drinks in downtown St. Petersburg, taking a long walk afterwards. We stayed around the parking garage talking before we went our separate ways. After that, we spent a lot of time on the phone at night during the work week. All this was building up to something and, finally, it did.

I’d been so busy laying a foundation for a relationship, balancing it with my work and the rest of life being a single dad, that I hadn’t yet worked out the full implications of my new romance for my little daughter. Now, I had to pivot and think on the fly.

In one sense, nothing changes. You’re still you. You’re just you with a young child.

In another sense, this is the moment when the pas de trois begins. You, your significant other, and your child are together in an emotional ballet, striving for balance in a world of complexity. You’re not sure when your child should meet your new love interest for the first time. You’re not sure how that will go. Do the three of you stay over at her place? If so, when and under what circumstances? Will they like each other, or just tolerate each other, or neither? Will there be cooperation or competition? Will you be able to successfully triangulate any tense moments and convert them into domestic harmony?

Questions like these don’t normally come with easy, let alone definitive, answers. You feel your way through as you go along. Much depends on the personalities involved.

Culture can also play a role in today’s increasingly mixed society. I found myself eating Polish food, decorating a Christmas tree in the traditional red and white Polish colors, and otherwise pivoting towards a culture not my own as I performed my own parental and relationship balancing act. That I had a great-grandfather named Zubrzycki didn’t help. If anything, it probably raised expectations of a cultural fluency that I plainly did not possess. And there I was, in the middle.

Once you’re divorced with a child, that is a background fact for the rest of your life. Nothing will change it. Complexities may vary in their extent, but they’re always going to be there and will never go away. Your life is now officially complicated. By definition.

In this relationship, a pattern quickly emerged that was not of my making nor consistent with my intentions.

After an initial, apparently-positive acquaintance with my daughter, my girlfriend and I spent most of our time together without my daughter and very little time as a group of three. That didn’t strike me as much of a template for the future, even if I saw and recognized the value of our private time together. I couldn’t see why things evolved that way, and in the end I wasn’t able to fix it.

In my next relationship, my daughter got on famously with the lovely woman I was dating. That relationship didn’t work out either, but she and I remain good friends and always will, I suspect. You can have an abundant respect for a person and not have the chemistry with one another that will carry you through time and challenges for years to come. That’s just how it is.

Between the two relationships, I ask myself why the daddy-daughter combination didn’t work in one instance and posed no obstacle in the other. I don’t really have an answer.

One thing I do know: the best relationship will surmount any challenge. Life is long and filled with them. Being a single parent isn’t something you have to be nervous about. It may even be an advantage, when viewed in a certain light. The relationship that was not going to work will self-destruct faster when you have a child of your own. The less-than-meaningful-or-ideal partnership will conclude much more quickly that the game is not worth the candle, so to speak. You’ll be furnished with a pretext to depart even if there isn’t a good reason ready to hand. That can be really good for you. You won’t waste time on a person who wasn’t going to be right for you anyway, and you’ll just find out sooner. That leaves you free to seek a better destiny with the right person. Then, maybe, with a bit of luck, your family can grow and even blossom again.

There’s another thing I learned that I will never forget. My daughter has incredible radar. It’s spot-on. She has a better sense of who is a good person than I do. Perhaps that’s a benefit of the young, uncomplicated mind. I don’t know for certain. But the next time I see that radar go up, I’ll take notice. Adults should learn from children, most of all their own.