When you think of a single mom on the dating scene, visions of a 20-something who can barely balance her own checkbook (guilty) probably don’t come to mind. But, believe it or not, not all of us single moms are recent divorcées scrolling through silver fox profiles on Match. There are plenty, like me, who are blissfully lacking in life experience, have yet to reach the big 3-0, and spend more time swiping left on Tinder instead.
Real talk: Considering the 200 different directions I’m pulled in each day—which include working full time; waking up with my six-month-old daughter at ungodly hours; cooking; cleaning; carpooling; bathing; co-parenting; dealing with temper tantrums; and still attempting to take care of myself—the mere thought of dating can sometimes seem nothing short of impossible. Not to mention that in the rare and precious moments I do have to myself, it feels like a major risk to spend that time with someone I might never see again rather than catching up with friends, reading, zoning out to Netflix, or, you know, sleeping.
The men I’d normally take an interest in are often just starting their careers, still in undergrad, or staying out until 3AM every chance they get—whereas I’m living the opposite lifestyle, and as a party of two, not one. And let’s not forget that I’m just a little out of touch with other 20-something’s when it comes to pop culture awareness; i.e. I can sing the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse theme song word for word, but couldn’t for the life of me name ONE song from Kanye’s latest album. Not. One.
In spite of this barrage of challenges, I still have hope. I mean, if I can manage to balance everything life throws my way while parenting an infant at my young age, I can certainly handle dating. Right? Still, to sharpen my skills before heading into the trenches, I asked a few experts for advice on navigating the dating scene as a single 20-something mom. Here are their top 11 tips.
Stop Swiping to Find Dates.
Sure, it used to seem like great fun to get tipsy and swipe right on potential hookups less than 10 miles away—20, if he or she is really hot—but apps like Tinder are more likely to land just that: A hookup and not a serious dating candidate. “Swiping apps shouldn’t be your screening process for dates,” says Dr. Jenn Mann, host and lead psychotherapist of VH1’s “Couples Therapy with Dr. Jenn,” and author of The Relationship Fix. For better results when checking out prospects online, “focus on characteristics, qualities, and life desires,” adds Clarissa Silva, behavioral scientist, clinician and author of the relationship wellness blog, You’re Just a Dumbass. That means that if they didn’t bother to include those interests in their profile, they’re probably not worth a date. (Unless, that is, you’re just looking for a hookup—even new moms need to blow off steam!)
Look for Prospects IRL.
To be fair, not everyone I’ve met on a dating app or website turned out to be a catfish (or serial killer). Still, the experts say single moms would do well to look for prospects in places other than our glowing screens. “We treat online dating like we do our social media streams and select only the images that stand out to us,” says Silva. “That creates a culture of immediate gratification, unwillingness to compromise, and objectification. We fool ourselves into thinking people, sex, or companionship is a message away—and relationships are, of course, a little harder than that.” As an alternative, Dr. Jenn suggests putting the word out to trustworthy people in your life, who can start the screening process for you: “Let family members, friends and co-workers know you’re looking to date again. You never know who might send someone great your way.”
Forget About the Days of “No Strings Attached.”
While your single girlfriends might be down for one-night stands, it’s not exactly at the top of most single moms’ to-do lists– regardless of how young we are. “You already have a family, so if you want more than a fun hookup, your focus should be on a man who’s clearly father material,” says Susan Winter, relationship expert and bestselling author of Older Women, Younger Men: New Options for Love and Romance. It makes perfect sense to me: My needs and desires have changed since having a child, so I want a more stable partner to be around regularly—not just for a booty call. If you do choose to have casual sex, Dr. Jenn strongly advises to be discreet. “Keeping your sex life separate from your child is crucial,” she says. “Having someone come in and out inconsistently isn’t good for any child, especially if they’re mourning the loss of two parents breaking up, or the absence of a parent in general.”
Older Isn’t Always Better.
As a young, single mom with a full plate, it’s a surprisingly common fantasy to seek out older partners for their wisdom and life experience—but experts advise not to date anyone just because he or she is your senior. “Take age off the table, entirely,” says Winter. “By locking into specific age, you may miss the perfect woman or man who’s right in front of you by applying these limitations.” Remember that age really doesn’t equal maturity. (Exhibit A: Me.) “It’s important for a single mother to find a partner who is at her level and has the maturity to be a step parent,” says Dr. Jenn. “He or she doesn’t have to be much older to be both of those things.”
Figure Out Who You are Prior to Meeting Someone New.
Known best for being the experimental and selfish decade, your twenties are certainly a time for exploration and growth – not only for your interests and travels, but for who you are as a person. When you’re a 20-something single mom, though, it can be a little tough to remember that …and even though you’re confident in your role as a mother, you still have a lot to learn about yourself. “When we’re young, we don’t have a ton of life experience,” says Dr. Jenn. “Not all 20-something’s are that way, but it does take a while for women to figure out who we are as a person, and develop the strength to assert ourselves and make good boundaries and know who – and what – we want.” Bottom line: Figuring out who you are is something you owe yourself, and something that will help you find a more suitable partner in the future.
Keep Your New (and Past) Relationships off Social Media.
It can be tempting to vent on Facebook about how stubborn an ex is being, or share how happy you are in if you’ve found a relationship with someone new. But Winter strongly feels that less pressure will be placed on you and your S.O. if you leave it off of social media—at least in the early stages. “Keep your blossoming relationship out of the eyes of ‘friends’ on social media,” she advises. “Well-meaning friends and family often can’t help but offer cautionary tales and unsolicited advice, projecting their own fears onto your new relationship,” she continues. “This can confuse you and add unnecessary tension with your mate.” Same goes for a spat with an ex (or your child’s father) on social media: “Don’t post anything negative on social media, since nothing good can come of it, especially now that you have a child to worry about.” says Dr. Jenn. “Take the high road and let it go.”
Wait it Out Before Making Introductions.
Knowing when to introduce a love interest to your child can be really tough, but when in doubt, wait it out. “Don’t involve children in your dating life until you’re relatively sure the person is a long-term keeper,” says Dr. Jenn. “I suggest single moms wait six to 12 months—that’s typically how long the ‘honeymoon phase’ lasts.” Holding off until then is a good way to minimize the risk of your child getting attached too soon. “Parents don’t always realize that when you go through a breakup, your child goes through it, too,” Dr. Jenn explains. Silva says you should also consider how involved your partner will be willing to be after meeting your child. “The most appropriate time is when you have a solid commitment that he or she will help change diapers, and cheer your child on,” says Silvia. “If that’s not there, there’s no need to introduce him or her to your family unit.”
Factor in Finances.
Money isn’t everything, but a potential date’s financial situation should matter to you when you’re a mother. “Financial stability in a prospective partner is a clear indicator that her or his life is in order,” explains Winter. “You have enough going on by yourself—you don’t need the burden of falling for someone who can’t take care of him or herself.” Serious prospects should show a balance between earning and saving before you consider moving forward romantically. Of course, you can’t expect everyone you date to make a triple-digit income, or alleviate your own financial burdens. “The key is to find someone who’s financially self sufficient, who can at the very least take care of him or herself without depending on you,” says Dr. Jenn.
Resolve Any Issues with Your Child’s Father.
If you had a child with someone you broke up with, learning how to co-parent will keep things positive and avoid any drama with new dating prospects who enter your life. It’s one of the housekeeping chores you should take care of before putting yourself out there, for the sake of healthy future relationships and the well-being of your children. “Keep the conversation with an ex restricted to parenting,” says Dr. Jenn. “Don’t get into the the he-said, she-said or delve back into why you broke up. Stay focused on the kids.” And, as the saying goes, know how to pick and choose your battles. “If you’re splitting your kids’ time between you, remember that what happens at your ex’s house is up to him or her, and what happens at your house is up to you, unless it’s a safety issue,” she says. “Let go of that control for a more peaceful relationship—and dating life!”
Beware Anyone Who’s Overly Interested in Your Child.
There’s a reason this too-true saying is overused: If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. If someone you met a month ago is suddenly super interested in coming over to meet your child, that could be a red flag. “Too fast, too soon is a dead giveaway for a player,” says Winter. “Avoid people who eagerly press to meet your children within the first couple of dates—it’s a known tactic to win your heart through winning theirs.” He or she should show a genuine interest in meeting your little one, but should also understand and respect that the process takes time. “If you’ve been seeing someone for a while and feel he or she is a serious prospect, start with short amounts of time together—breakfast on the weekend, a walk in the park, or a family function,” suggests Winter. And it goes without saying that as much as your dating life matters, your child is always the priority, so drop anyone who doesn’t seem to fit into your family, even if you’re not sure exactly why. Your gut usually won’t steer you wrong.