Think back to the beginning, when the break-up with your co-parent was still a raw, unhealed wound and everyone seemed to be taking turns throwing salt into it. Stormy predictions about your future were coming in from all sides, and, because this was all so new — pregnancy, co-parenting, and/or solo parenting, you weren’t sure how to come to your own defense — or if it would be possible to do so at all.
Back then, dating again wasn’t likely even back on your radar yet, but that didn’t stop your friends , family, and strangers from inundating you with admonition about how hard it would be, now that you were a single mother. They may have even bandied about terms like “used/discarded/damaged goods.” They might have forewarned that your partnering prospects were greatly diminished now, asserting that you could only healthfully date other single parents and if a childless man was somehow, miraculously interested in you, he should be given significant side-eye, his motives met with great suspicion.
If this hasn’t been your experience at all, consider yourself quite fortunate. Our community is full of anecdotes about hurtful statements loved ones and anonymous commenters have made about single mothers who hope to find love and relationship stability again. Just this morning, my personal Twitter account fielded a tweet from an unabashed single-mom troll, which said, “No man wants a ready-made family.” I started to engage, then checked the account (zero followers, of course, and just 62 tweets — all containing disparaging comments about unmarried mothers) and thought better of it, deciding to block instead.
But the comment reminded me of similar ones I’ve heard in the past, and I couldn’t let it stand without pushing back. Like “baby mama,” the term “ready-made family” carries a certain stigmatizing cachet. It’s usually evoked to paint a picture that overwhelms: the unmarried parent is immediately seen as a “package deal,” a family unit with the prime object of “looking for a new father/mother” for its children. Often it’s coupled with a joke like, “Run! You date her and you’ll find yourself saddled with a ready-made family.”
If you’ve seen the 1974 film Claudine, you’re familiar with the concept. Roop, a man with three children in other states who he struggles to support and never visits, begins to date single mother of six Claudine and feels immediate pressure to become a “father figure” to her children.
It’s just one story — and a fictional one at that — but you’d be surprised how many members of its audience have come to see it as the only possible truth: single mothers are looking to “trap” men and seize upon their income and authoritative influence to better manage their families.
In reality, a large cross-section of single mothers will attest to not introducing their children to suitors until their relationship seems to have gained its sea legs. This could take weeks or months or, in some cases, years; it’s up to every single parent’s discretion. The decision to introduce a child to a love interest is one many parents take very seriously. Some consider it a particular point of pride that their children haven’t met everyone (or anyone) they’ve decided to date. Others find it more difficult to avoid keeping their dating lives and their home lives entirely separate, but still don’t include their children on all or the majority of their outings.
Regardless of the stage at which children meet suitor, the relationship being fostered between them is usually tentative and measured. There’s nothing “instant” or “ready-made” about families, regardless of how they’re formed. And to be sure, meeting or hanging out with a single parent and his/her children doesn’t make you a family. Family-building is an ongoing and intentional practice, cultivated through healthy conversation, trial, and error.
The idea that a childless person who dates a single parent is “getting a ready-made family” is a false one. He is dating someone who has a family; that family is not his. Until he and the parent he’s dating agree to embark on the unending journey that is family-building together, he’s just a man getting to know a woman who happens to have children.
People often quip, “You don’t marry the (single) mother; you marry the family.” Some couples go as far as to illustrate this during their wedding ceremonies, with the groom presenting a ring to the daughter he’s inheriting or making a public vow to the son as well as the bride. At this stage, it’s true that he’s choosing to become part of a pre-existing family unit, but there’s still nothing “ready-made” about it.
In truth, a childless person can be married to a single parent for years and never fully commit to the idea of “family.” Or the children might resist to him/her as a stepparent. Or the biological parent tries to keep peace between a feuding spouse and dissatisfied kids by trying to compartmentalize her relationships to all parties. Marriages and remarriages and long-term dating relationships are never sustained by a belief in the instantaneous. Neither “instant” attraction to a mother nor an “instant” rapport with her children means “one big happy family” or “one family” at all. The union of lives is always more complex than that.
The next time someone comes at you with a “ready-made family” meme, refute it. Anyone who’d approach a relationship with you with this phrase in mind isn’t prepared to date a single parent. And the potential suitor who hears “single mother” and thinks “discarded” or “damaged” or “looking for a father for her kids” isn’t someone you can afford to spend time trying to convince otherwise. You’d be doing so not just at your own expense but also your children’s.
Just know that it’s entirely false that “no man/woman wants a partner who has a family.” There are plenty of unmarried people in this world who don’t insist on treating everyone like a trope. And there are people who understand that dating you does not mean immediate access or the immediate sharing of any responsibility for your children. And the ideal partner knows that both access to and responsibility for anyone’s children should be earned.
Here’s hoping you find an ideal partner, if you want one. Until then, enjoy the ever-evolving process of building the family you have.