Ten years after a rancorous divorce, Tina Talbot, a 47-year-old San Francisco tax attorney, is marrying her boyfriend of five years. However the happiness of the occasion is muted. Talbot’s 14-year-old daughter is putting her mother "through the ringer," doing her best to ignore and irritate her stepfather-to-be. Says Talbot, "Pam walks out of the room when Sam comes in, and ignores all his efforts to befriend her. This has been going on for years. I basically have two separate relationships — one with my fiance and one with my daughter."
Talbot’s not the only single mother whose kid has clashed with mom’s date: Lara Tyler, in a similar situation, has chosen to end her relationship of two years "to the best guy in the world" due to her 12-year-old daughter’s "relentless mouthing off and disrespect" toward Tyler’s boyfriend. Tyler, a 45-year-old Chicago realtor sighs, "I feel such guilt at leaving her father way back when that I just can’t bring myself to do something that will upset her further."
What is wrong with this picture?
To be clear, I am not advocating that single mothers put their love life ahead of their children. Moms need to be sensitive to their kids’ feelings by not bringing a parade of "uncles" into the house — in other words, make sure you know your date very well before introducing him to your amazing and beloved offspring. And if said amazing and beloved offspring dislike your date, listen and carefully evaluate their reasons. Never force them to spend time alone with your date. Lisa Daily, author of How to Date Like a Grown-Up: Everything You Need to Know to Get Out There, Get Lucky, or Even Get Married in Your 40s, 50s, and Beyond, sums up, "Don’t sacrifice time with your kids for time with your dates. [Kids] need you more."
That is indisputable. You meet someone and you’re thrilled, happy, and excited. Rah, rah! Unfortunately your children become anxious and worried about what changes this new person will bring to the household. Be patient and understanding. Your job is to reassure them they will always be first.
However, that patience needn’t be unlimited. There is something skewed and sad about adolescents manipulating their mothers into giving up any semblance of a private life. New York-based psychologist Wendy Kaufman (balancinglifesissues.com), a specialist in helping people find balance in their lives, has seen this scenario time and again. A mother of three and stepmother to two, Kaufman knows this terrain firsthand. She explains, "Women struggle with expectations for how they should behave, being perfect, wanting to please everyone, especially their children. But it’s a disservice for children to get the message that being selfish is okay."
It’s the imperfections of life that allow us to grow, the struggle to rise to challenges that can transform us into strong, resilient, empathetic beings. Isn’t that what we ultimately want for our children?
Kids are all id: selfishness personified. It’s up to parents to empower their children to want their elders to be happy. Kaufman explains, "I advise single mothers to explain to their daughters — and it seems to be daughters rather than sons who do this sort of manipulation! — that just as kids have playdates and need companionship in their lives, so do parents. When they leave home one day do they want mom to be left all alone?"
It was a long process for Kaufman’s children to accept there was a man in their mother’s life. "I didn’t rush them. We had many discussions where I encouraged the kids to express their feelings. That didn’t mean I had to validate their feelings by giving in to them. I’d tell them, ‘It’s a two-way street. What are you doing to make things better with my fiance?’"
When your child has a physical boo-boo, the impulse is to kiss it and make it better. But the best medicine for an emotional strain isn’t to cover it up with a glow-in-the-dark Band-Aid. Rather, kiss your child, love your child, and help your child realize that sometimes life hurts a little. Once she accepts the reality and stops fighting for the fantasy embedded in her head, her ache will ease.
These days Tina Talbot is the one aching. She is seriously considering breaking off her engagement to give her daughter more time (apparently five years isn’t enough) to adjust to the idea of sharing her mother. Talbot says wanly, "Hey, in three years Pam will be off to college. Hopefully Sam will think I’m worth waiting for."
Do you have a tough question about dating or relationships?
E-mail Sherry at firstname.lastname@example.org and your question might be featured in an upcoming column.
About Sherry Amatenstein
Sherry Amatenstein, LMSW, is the author of Love Lessons from Bad Breakups and Q&A Dating Book. She runs dating seminars around the country and does private coaching — not to help singles marry in 60 days, but to uncover their blocks. She has given relationship advice on the Early Show, Regis, Inside Edition, CBS News, VH1, BBC, and many other programs. Her philosophy is that the most important relationship you’ll ever have is with yourself.
Originally published on MORE.com, October 2008.
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