Post-divorce dating is a balancing act for parents

The cell-phone calls would start a couple hours after she left. "Mom, it's 10 o'clock, when are you coming home?"

And later, "Mom, where are you now, Mom?"

When Anita Garvey started dating a couple years after her divorce, her teen daughters said they were happy for her, but even so, it wasn't easy on the kids &

or Garvey.

"It was almost like I was a teenager. It was like a role reversal," said Garvey, who was divorced four years ago. It was perhaps made harder, she said, because she had been an at-home mom for most of her children's lives, leaving the house to work only six years ago.

"They were used to having me 24/7," said Garvey, of South Windsor, Conn . "Working was a little hard for them to digest, and then divorce was hard for them, and then when I started dating, I could sense they felt me pulling away."

Finally, one of her daughters said, "Mom, you know, I'm not liking this too much."

For parents who are navigating the dating scene in search of a new partner, the process of parenting while on the prowl is delicate at best.

The challenges for a single parent range from the practical &

finding the time, a sitter and a date &

to the complex: gauging whether you are ready for a relationship, what your child's emotional reaction is, whether the date has long-term potential. All of this may make it seem easier to simply wait until the kids are out of the house.

But even then there can be problems &

twentysomethings have been known to dislike mom's boyfriend as much as 12-year-olds &

so it's probably worth proceeding when you feel you're ready, experts say. With 25 percent of families with children in homes run by single parents, according to 2006 U.S. Census Bureau figures, you'll have plenty of company.

Here is some advice from experts and parents who have been there.

First, make sure you are ready to date, said Donna Ferber, a licensed professional counselor in Farmington, Conn., with a specialty in life transitions and author of "From Ex-Wife to Exceptional Life: A Woman's Journey through Divorce." When a marriage has ended in divorce, Ferber said, "It's good to take the time to learn what went wrong before anesthetizing with a new relationship."

Priscilla Dunstan, an Australia-based specialist on communication with children &

known internationally as the "baby listener" &

and a single mother herself, suggests setting up social and recreational times with friends from the beginning. This gives you social support, while also getting your children used to the idea that you need time for a social life, too. This way, Dunstan said, "when you start dating ... your children won't feel that your date is taking up their time with you, it's just a regular night out."

If there's one mistake that gets made too often, according to Ferber, it's introducing children to a partner before the child is ready or before the parent knows whether the person has much potential for a stable relationship.

"The child may not be through grieving," Ferber said . "The parent may feel like this is something new and exciting, but their child may not be on the same page."

"Secondly, if you do connect and then break up, the child experiences a loss all over again," Ferber said .

Dale Macken, who was divorced 14 years ago when his children were 4 and 1, said that over the years he'd never introduce a new girlfriend to his daughters until he was fairly certain the relationship would be long-term.

And when he did introduce a date to his daughter, he'd call the woman simply a "friend."

"But Dad, they are 'girls,' and they are 'friends,' so they are your 'girlfriends,'" he recalls his daughter once saying to him. "No, honey," he'd tell her, "they are friends who are girls."

Macken, who lives in Bristol, Conn., joined a singles group at his church. He liked it because he could get to know a woman first in a group setting before thinking about a romantic involvement. Macken and Garvey are now dating.

It's "a slippery slope" deciding when to introduce kids to a potential mate, Ferber said.

A Bristol mother, who did not want her name published, said she probably introduced her two young sons too early to one boyfriend. "In the beginning you are naive about dating, at least I was," she said. "This boyfriend, he made promises and then basically walked out. My children were kind of soured on me dating after that."

That was two years ago, and the Bristol mom has been more careful since then about whom she introduces to her sons. She said she senses that her sons, ages 17 and 14 now, "are comfortable with the way things are. ... They don't want to meet anyone unless it's serious, and they probably would prefer no one at all."

Dunstan said in an e-mail, "Your family home is a sanctuary, not only for you, but especially for your children. It is therefore extremely important that you are guarded with whom you let into that sanctuary."

If you're not sure where the relationship is headed, Dunstan suggests seeing the person when the children are not home or going somewhere else.

Jeff Palitz, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Diego, said he knew of some parents who wouldn't introduce the kids to a love interest until the relationship had lasted six months or longer. "I'm not sure that extreme is really necessary," Palitz said .

Therapists advise against inviting a date to sleep over when the kids are home. "This is their house, and they shouldn't be intruded upon," Garvey said . "I try to put myself in their shoes."

But what if, after all the conversations, your child doesn't want you to date or doesn't particularly like the person you are dating?

Usually this is less about the person and more about the child's grief about the divorce or a parent's death.

Palitz encourages parents to keep talking to children. It's natural for a child to act out or start to regress if they are going through a difficult time, he said. Keep open the possibility of getting therapy for the child.

There are some parents who say "if my kid doesn't like you, you're out," Palitz said . In general, most experts say that approach gives the child too much power.

Palitz said some parents talk about waiting until the child is "healed" from a divorce or a death before they begin to date.

"They could be waiting forever," he said. "So they may need to make a decision that they are going to start dating &

and that may actually help the child move forward."

If a child continues to hate the boyfriend or girlfriend, Palitz said, "parents have to be very careful to be respectful of children's feelings, to hear them and acknowledge them, but the child is also expected to treat the significant other with respect. They don't have to like them, but they need to be respectful."

However, if a child persists in disliking your love interest, Palitz said, it's worth looking closely at the relationship to make sure the child isn't picking up on something you've overlooked.

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