It’s 10.30pm on a cold and rainy Friday night and I’ve just been on a bad date. It’s a tale as old as time: he talked about himself relentlessly despite being incredibly dull, he said cruel things about his ex, he interrupted me whenever I tried to speak, and he flirted with the waitress right in front of me. In short (though it felt very, very long…), I’ve just spent about two hours of my life with a man wearing a dozen red flags.
And this date isn’t unusual. Anyone who has spent any energy attempting to connect with potential partners on the dating apps circuit will know the drill. If you do venture boldly onto a meeting IRL, you can expect to spend an evening mildly amused at best – and, well… I’ll save the worst for another time.
On this particular Friday, I leave the bar unsurprised and drive home through the drizzle. When I get in, I put four slices of bread in the toaster, line up four plates by the butter dish and within minutes I’m surrounded by my three teenagers, each offering me a hug and asking me how it went. I give them a summary; they ask Alexa to play my favourite post-bad-date music (Taylor Swift, naturally) and we sit on the sofa together, making jokes about another night thus spent.
It’s a ritual of sorts. One that just happens to manage, even after dates like this, to make me feel like one of the luckiest people in the world.
Last night, despite my general aversion to reality TV, I tuned into Davina McCall’s new dating programme, My Mum, Your Dad. I was intrigued by a show that foregrounds the pursuit of love and intimacy in the middle-aged years and which appears to celebrate the unique relationships single parents can foster with their children. Any single parent will know that raising kids without a partner at home is a feat of endurance; an act of incredible love, and, unavoidably, a relentless challenge. But it is a challenge that brings with it many unexpected bonuses, some of which were evident in the first episode.
Although the show probably won’t cure me of my general resistance to all things reality TV, I did find it refreshing to see on screen the familiar-to-me yet rarely shown hallmarks of the single-parent/child relationship. The banter; the shared hopes; the sweetly and deftly delivered truth bombs when it comes to hard subjects like love and grief that go hand-in-hand with single parenting. Watching the contestants’ children root for, and quite simply love, their parents in the context of their later-in-life search for romantic relationships is heartening – and evidence of the unique reward of the single-parent struggle. I know those kinds of bonds are hard-won and fiercely precious.
It hasn’t all been post-date toast and comfort, of course. Over the years that I’ve spent raising my kids while at times actively looking for love, I’ve inevitably made a lot of mistakes. I’ve been clueless and heartbroken and dramatic and love-bubbled and naïve and petty and vengeful and hapless and – every now and then – wise. But I’ve generally never hidden the headlines of my love life from my kids. After all, they live with me and they are intuitive and brilliant and, mercifully, they’re not in a world where meeting that one special person to be happy with forever and ever is the prize.
Divorce, singledom, dating, flirting, intimacy, loneliness – these are not side-lined words in our home, they are starting points for conversation; for the sharing of real-life experience. They are their own beginnings. I think it’s both a benefit and a credit to the older kids of single parents like the ones in My Mum, Your Dad that they understand so much of the real world of love and heartbreak.
None of those young people will start their own romantic journeys expecting the dated, toxic fairy tale that I began in my late teens. Indeed, I became a teenage parent – convinced as I was by the notion that marriage and motherhood would be my greatest achievements, so I may as well get them achieved as soon as possible.
— My Mum Your Dad UK (@MyMumYourDadUK) September 12, 2023
I’ve always been conscious of the caution that your children are not supposed to be your friends. And though, when they were younger, this felt like an important distinction, as they’ve grown up, it’s become much harder to tell the difference. Of course, my kids don’t know everything about me (I have a handful of die-hard best friends for that job), just as I don’t know everything about them. Luckily, in real life, the surveillance room doesn’t exist – although, in some ways, it does.
As any parent will know, our children are inevitably watching us live our lives. They’re often (always…) right about potential partners and their suitability for me and my heart. They have an ability to see things and people exactly as they are and they often surprise me with their insights. I never actively ask for their advice – but I don’t have to. I get their honest opinions, like it or not.
And so I should, because dating as a single parent is a uniquely complex endeavour. You’re not only considering someone’s suitability to be in your life; you’re also considering someone’s potential for entering the lives of the people you would willingly throw yourself under a bus for if circumstances demanded it, and so while I don’t give my kids the kind of power bestowed only by a TV production company, I do listen – carefully – to what they have to say. It’s usually wise, never filtered and always valuable.
In that spirit, I asked my now-adult daughter what she thinks she’s learned from being the daughter of a single/dating mum. She told me it means she’s in no rush to find romantic love; that seeing me alone for long periods means she’s learned it’s possible, even at times preferable, to be happy on your own. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a woman going into your twenties knowing the truth – that you’re enough, that you’re loved, that the world is waiting and there is no need to rush toward it.
As my kids begin on their own romantic endeavours, the most beautiful thing of all is that they know there is a love already waiting for them, standing at the toaster, ready to butter the toast and make jokes about how brilliantly awful it can be out there in the world of dating.