Stigma, mansplaining and safety worries — the (many) challenges of dating as a single parent

 (Rebecca Cox)
(Rebecca Cox)

‘No second-hand kids’. This was the (entire) bio of one Tinder user I came across recently. I swiped left.

Rude but concise; surely this type of anti-single parent sentiment was a one-off and not to be found on the other dating apps? Especially the fancy ones, where you can match by star sign or political preference? Wrong. Dating as a single parent, I quickly learned, is a minefield, where the explosions encountered are usually not the good kind.

When I entered the dating pool following a significant timeout after splitting from the father of my child, who I had been with for twelve years, I wasn’t exactly hopeful. But what awaited me was worse than I feared. Dating after any long hiatus is tricky, and if you’re also navigating childcare issues, single parent stigma and coming from an experience of abuse or adultery, these are particularly rocky waters.

I learnt my lesson from ‘no second hand kids’ guy that leading with your child on your online profile isn’t the best idea. So, when to reveal your ‘baggage’ to a potential partner? Once, I waited until mid-way through date two to divulge my single parent status. Taking a nonchalant approach, after my date had finished reeling off the details of his six housemates, he asked me ‘so, who do you live with?’. ‘My son’, I casually replied. He coughed/choked on his wine, excused himself and left the table. (I thought) never to be seen again, but he returned several minutes later and opened a new topic of conversation.

I continued this casual approach when, in my house several dates later, he stumbled across a wedding photo of my ex and me and shouted from the kitchen: ‘Were you married?!’ I shouted back, ‘mm-hmm, can you grab me some water?’ The very next morning both my ex-husband and my child turned up unexpectedly at my door as we were enjoying a leisurely morning in bed. If this spelled disaster for him, he took his time thinking about it, eventually ghosting me after nine months together which included a holiday to Jamaica (arranged by me). Thankfully, I never introduced him to my son.

Rebecca Cox with her son (Rebecca Cox)
Rebecca Cox with her son (Rebecca Cox)

A male model I once went on a date with spent the entire evening lecturing me about how my son needs a dad (side-note: he has one) and women who thought they could ‘go it alone’ were sadly mistaken. It was about 45 minutes into his monologue that he revealed he had a daughter he sees once every three weeks ‘because he’s busy’ (man-splaining parenting to single mums, evidently).

And it’s not just the men. If you’re a single mum who also dates women, you’ll also be treated to biphobia from (some) women and being fetishized by (some) men. One man messaged me on Hinge to tell me his ‘wife saw me on her Tinder’ therefore ‘did I want a threesome?’ (no, thank you). One woman’s bio stated simply: ‘No bis. No mums.’ Ouch.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with not wanting kids or having preferences and voicing them in your bio, but since many of the single mums I know are not single by choice, and all of them have had to overcome some form of stigma or struggle, going on the apps can truly start to feel like an exercise in voluntary torture.

So why continue to put yourself out there? It’s a question almost every single mum I know has asked herself. Single parenting is by far the most relentless but rewarding job I’ve ever undertaken. My life is full of love and laughter, but it’s lonely at times, too. In the evenings, once my son is tucked up in bed, the house can feel quiet and empty. Being a single mum can also feel all-consuming, it can become your entire identity if you let it, and dating is just one of the ways I can be something other than just ‘mum’.

On a date you can be the other you, the one you were before you had kids, or the one you’re becoming as you learn just how strong you are, how much you’re capable of. The next challenge comes in merging the two worlds. However separate the ‘you’ on a date is from the one tucking your child in at night, at some point you may want to integrate the two. Where do you even start when it comes to meeting someone you feel comfortable introducing your child to, in any capacity, let alone as your partner?

Rebecca Cox has found dating as a single parent challenging (Rebecca Cox)
Rebecca Cox has found dating as a single parent challenging (Rebecca Cox)

Indeed, there is an extra layer of stress when it comes to keeping yourself and your kids safe. I spoke to sex & dating educator and single mum Lalalaletmeexplain whose book Block, Delete, Move On is due to be published in 2022, about how single parents can stay safe when dating. She says: “For starters, don’t state that you’re a single parent on your profile because unfortunately single mothers can be targeted by people who specifically want to date mothers in order to gain access to their children. Drop it into conversation early on, just don’t advertise it on the profile.” Lala has vital advice about keeping yourself and your children safe when you’re considering dating as a single parent on her Instagram page.

In order to negate these risks, it can be tempting to completely separate your dating from your parenting, only dating people you know you’ll never be able to integrate into your home life. I’ve done this a number of ways: by choosing a string of people who were completely emotionally unavailable (mostly good fun) and even picking people who lived in entirely different countries (nothing quite like international travel to really prevent yourself getting too close to someone). One of my single mum friends (from the juiciest Whatsapp group on my phone) just came home from an impromptu trip to Tenerife to see a man she met at a festival, reporting back that she had ‘the best 5-day rollercoaster of intense emotions’, (returning with nothing but cystitis). Who said romance was dead?

Pre-Covid I frequently ditched the apps altogether and only dated people I met in the real world at bars and parties. And, from a Parisian artist to a boat-dwelling pirate (yes, really), they’ve all been glorious (in a wholly unsuitable way). But if meeting someone compatible in real life feels unlikely for you, hope is on the horizon. Frolo Dating, the world’s first user verified dating app for single parents is launching soon. The award-winning Frolo app has been connecting single parents for two years, and according to founder Zoë Desmond, several single parents have already found love via the community, with some even getting engaged.

The Frolo dating app launches early 2022 (Frolo app)
The Frolo dating app launches early 2022 (Frolo app)

“Frolo Dating has been created with feedback from the existing community every step of the way,” says Desmond. “First-hand online dating experiences from single parents have been considered and remedied within the Frolo Dating offering, including a “no ghosting” feature.” Access to the founding member version of the app begins Wednesday 24 November, allowing members to create their profiles and get one month free following the launch in January 2022.

Hopeless romantic (read: glutton for punishment) that I am, I have dipped in and out of the dating pool for the last four years. And while I remain a tireless cheerleader for the happily single, I met my gorgeous girlfriend (drunk in a bar, the old-fashioned way) this summer and am slowly convincing her that I’m the single mum she never knew she was looking for.

If you’re looking to find your perfect match, Frolo Dating sounds like the app I wish I’d had four years ago. So if you don’t meet your perfect partner under the mistletoe this party season, 2022 is looking up. Until then, ‘no-second-hand-kids-man’ is probably still on the market.

How to date as a single parent

1. Never apologise for being a single mum. If you’re ashamed of your single parent status, you’re not ready to date.

2. Find a reliable babysitter that you trust. If you have a single mum friend close-by (find one on Frolo) with kids a similar age, trade off sleepovers so you have space in your schedule to date. The Bubble app connects you to nannies and babysitters nearby.

3. Never go on a date with someone you haven’t at least facetimed with. Not only is this a saftey precaution to check they are who they say they are, but your time is precious, and you don’t want to waste it on someone there’s obviously no spark with.

4. Check out Gingerbread Charity for single parents. They have a host of information and guides on their website as well as a forum to connect you with other parents going through the same things as you.

5. Don’t invite someone to your home, especially if your kids are there. @LaLaLaLetMeExplain has more safety advice on her Instagram page and answers questions sent in on her Insta lives.

6. Read Helen Thorn’s Get Divorced Be Happy, and remember that an ending is also a beginning.

7. Remember you’re dating for you, not your child, so first and foremost think about what you’re looking for, not just who would make a good step-parent, especially if you’re looking for something long-term. Your kids will grow up and leave home eventually. (/Hopefully.)

8. (But it massively helps if your kid likes them too, so don’t pick a monster.)

9. Dating is all about the journey, you can figure out the destination when you get there, and settle down if and when you find your oasis. But until then, a few racy nights in Tenerife can be pretty bloody fun (cystitis aside).