dating with kids

If dating seems like a sporting event requiring Olympic-level skills to navigate the minefield, you’re not alone. In a post-COVID world, work-from-home statuses, the diminished desire to sit in a bar on a weeknight, and the smaller number of friends in your bubble all contribute to this very difficult dating scenario — your soulmate isn’t going to knock on your door. That leaves a lot of us resorting to the apps; a game of sorts where swiping becomes habitual and getting past the initial two messages with someone is a long shot. But say you swipe right, it’s a mutual like, and you start chatting with a guy who seems to check every box: a great personality, good job, no fish pictures, and appears to own more than one pillow.

But say you’re about to exchange phone numbers and plan to get together for coffee and he tells you that he has two kids. He’s divorced, has been for a couple years now, and wanted to let you know before things progressed any further. Would this stop you in your tracks? Would you seriously think twice before meeting him for coffee or a drink later in the week? Are you ready to be a stepmom? OK, there’s a big jump between getting coffee and raising kids that aren’t yours, but it’s completely fair to ask such big questions when weighing your options. Luckily, we’re here to help. Here’s everything you need to know before dating a man with kids.

You’ll need to have a frank discussion about schedules

couple talking

Getting together for an introductory coffee while the kids are at school is one thing, but if you’re going to seriously date a man with children, a discussion about schedules will need to happen sooner rather than later. Any parent will tell you that their life is geared towards their kids in every capacity — school pick up, soccer practice drop off, violin lessons every other Tuesday, school trips where they need a chaperone — the list goes on, not to mention the very real tasks of picking up toys at the end of the night, cooking dinner for the kids and actually getting them to eat it, shocking them with the fact they have to wear pajamas (it’s never-ending). You, a single person with a career and maybe a cat, have far fewer schedule-dictating responsibilities to account for. This will require a thorough discussion about when you can actually spend time together, and this amount of time will probably be less than you think.

"Be flexible," Kala Gower, a dating coach for Relationship Hero, told PureWow about this element of the relationship in question. "Find a schedule that works for both of you to set time aside specifically for your relationship, but also be understanding when things come up — as long as your partner still makes time for you. Know that for someone with kids, who’s that busy, their time means a lot."

He will need to have uncomfortable conversations with his kids about boundaries

dad talking with kid

When we think about all the things you need to know before dating a man with kids, it should be absolutely noted that not all the hard work, adjustments, and compromises fall on your shoulders. Yes, he has kids that will 100% come first, but that doesn’t mean your needs should fall to the back burner, either. With this in mind, your new man will likely have to get comfortable with the idea of having uncomfortable conversations with his kids about his boundaries, his wishes to enter a relationship with someone new, and beyond. This conversation will vary in severity depending on his kids’ ages, but it will still need to be prioritized.

"Life is hard enough," Rebecca Hendrix, an LMFT therapist, told Women’s Health. "So being with somebody who also has the baggage of children who aren’t yours — in addition to an ex-relationship with some sort of conflict — you’re already going to have some potential challenges."

Dr. Chloe Carmichael told Women’s Health that your man will need to get comfortable stepping into uncomfortable scenarios, especially if his kids are "disrespectful of you." Depending on their ages, this could be indicative of a bigger issue. "You have to make sure that he is capable of setting a good and respectful tone, not just for you toward the kids, but the kids toward you," she said.

The people in your life might not support you dating a man with kids

women disagreeing

We all have that one person in our life who loves to share their opinion even when it’s not asked for. People in your life will almost certainly have opinions about the person you get into a relationship with, so be prepared for extra scrutiny if you decide to seriously date a man with kids, as some people in your life may see his children, his divorce, and his status as a single parent as hurdles that cannot be overcome. You must establish boundaries, advocate for yourself and your relationship, and stick to your convictions even when it’s hard. Step-mom Ashley, who wrote an entry for the website Step Momming relived what it was like to introduce the idea of dating a man with kids into her life and own social circles.

"When I first started dating my now-husband, I had people in my life on all points of the supportive Likert scale. I had relatives who immediately welcomed him with open arms and others who outright opposed the relationship," Ashley attested. "A quote from a relative that stays with me is this: ‘Ashley… you don’t want to raise someone else’s kids.’ That quote came from someone who raised me, which may be why it stung so badly. … Four years into my relationship with my now-husband, I can confirm that some of my friends’ and family members’ warnings were valid, and some were not."

The time you get to spend with his kids will be very special

woman reading to kid

It’s important to remember that you could become a very important figure in your boyfriend’s kids’ lives, which shouldn’t be overlooked! While the time you spend with them may be limited — especially if the kids’ parents have joint custody — it can transform into something extraordinary. As noted by eHarmony, stepping into a child’s life when they’re a little bit older and out of the infant/toddler stage can allow a beautiful relationship to form — plus, you get to spend time with this special kiddo without having to do 3 a.m. feedings, bedtime, and all the less glamorous aspects that come with being a parent.

"Although the end product is worth it, it’s no denying that growing a baby is a lot of work," eHarmony details — and if any dating site knows what’s up, it’s them. "Dating a man with kids means that — if you’re a kid person — you get to spend time with kids without having your sleep schedule completely destroyed."

So many of us love the idea of being the "cool parent," and if you do date a man with kids and eventually assume the role of a step-parent, you do have the potential to form more of a friendship and playful dynamic than the strict parent-child relationship.

Ask if he has the time and emotional space for a partner

couple standing

Picture it — this guy is the one for you. He’s everything you’ve been looking for throughout all these years of brutal online and app dating, but of course, his kids have to be the No. 1 priority in his life. This is a given and is right, but should prompt you to ask a very important question early on: Does he have enough time and the emotional space for a relationship right now?

Parents who are still married and work together to raise their kids know that getting your children from sun up to sun down is not easy. From school drop-off to potty training to trying not to lose your mind when your kiddo won’t eat anything you put in front of them, parenting is a full-time job. Put a single parent in the mix, and their plate could not just be full but overwhelmed. Before anything gets too serious between you and your potential new man, ask him if he has the space in his life — this isn’t a confrontation, but a much-needed line of inquiry that could save both of you a lot of heartache and frustration down the line.

"As a woman dating a man with kids, you don’t always have to assume you’re going to come second fiddle to the kids," licensed psychologist Dr. Chloe Carmichael told Women’s Health, as that consideration should be on your list of concerns.

If you don’t see the relationship working out, end it

couple at odds

Dating a man with kids is a balancing act — you know that kids come first, but don’t want to play second fiddle daily. This could get difficult, and it will require some conversations with your boyfriend, even if you think your concerns are invalid, given his primary role as a parent.

"You may have a fear that’s not valid at all, but if you don’t discuss it, it can build up and turn into anxiety," therapist Rebecca Hendrix told Women’s Health. "When somebody has children, most likely they’re either single parenting or sharing custody with someone else, which means that a lot of their free time could be spent traveling to have weekend visits or Wednesday night dinners," she continued, noting that the amount of quality time you may get with your new man may be a lot more limited. If this is not what you signed up for, we’re here to tell you that it’s OK to break things off — just try to do it sooner rather than later.

Echoed by step-mom Allison, who spoke to PureWow about her experience, the 34-year-old attested, "Before you move in as a stable part of your partner’s life, you should have that discussion. … It’s not good for a child to watch their parents go through a breakup, and on top of that, to lose someone they saw as a support, too."

Meet his kids on his terms

stepmom and child

Say you start dating this great guy and are eager to meet his kids. While you may feel ready to take this step, meeting his kids absolutely has to be on his terms. Your enthusiasm will definitely be appreciated, but officially bringing his kids into the mix could come with some challenges and heightened emotions, so it’s best to save that introduction for when he thinks it’s time — after all, he knows his kids a lot better than you do. Remember, this is not a personal attack or reflection on you as a girlfriend or potential parental figure, but rather personal timing on his part that needs to feel right. These kids have either gone through a divorce, breakup, or some sort of loss — timing is everything.

"Allowing someone into your kids’ lives is a big deal, and your partner could have a ton of reasons for not being ready," Kala Gower, a dating coach for Relationship Hero, told PureWow. "The best way to help him feel more ready is by being respectful of his decision. If you ask to meet them and he tells you he isn’t ready yet, smile and say something like, ‘I understand. I know they are important to you, and you want to make sure you protect them. Just know that I’m ready when you are, and it’s important to me too that they don’t get hurt by this.’"

Have a conversation about his relationships

Couple talking

Prepare for the conversation about exes if you and your new man see your connection turning into something more. Given that there are kids in the mix, there’s a good chance he’s divorced, meaning that his ex is almost guaranteed to be a part of his life, given their likely co-parenting arrangement. The more comfortable you get with being uncomfortable about this element of your relationship, the better.

"If they had an amicable divorce, similar to conscious uncoupling, then it’s probably not going to affect your relationship all that much," therapist Rebecca Hendrix told Women’s Health before noting that this best-case scenario could create a positive co-parenting relationship between all three of you. However, if your man went through what Hendrix calls a "high-conflict divorce," things could get complicated quickly. Having a frank conversation about the realities of his split and its dynamic will only help you both in the long run.

Further reflecting on this potentially stressful dynamic, eHarmony notes that getting along with his ex for the sake of the kids involved could be an element of your relationship that you need to come to terms with. Just remember that there are children who love both parents and want as stable of a childhood as possible.

Being spontaneous while dating likely won’t be a part of your relationship

couple on date

A great thing about dating someone — even if you’ve been together for a while — is that spontaneity can exist in your relationship. Feel like going to a movie all of a sudden? It’s easy to drop your dinner plans and catch a film. What are you going to do this Saturday? Stay in bed until noon and figure it out as the day comes? Sounds excellent. But if children are involved, you can forget about being spontaneous. Any parent will tell you that a regimented schedule is standard in their house. Even if the details aren’t ironed out, there are naptimes that need to be accomplished, dinner schedules, and a strict bedtime so a meltdown doesn’t ensue. With such significant bookmarked times throughout the day, it’s going to be extremely hard to drop everything and catch a concert or hang out with friends. That will take some planning, and it’s an element of your new relationship that you’ll have to get used to.

As noted by eHarmony, running errands or grabbing a coffee with a friend might not seem like a lot of effort right now, but if you and your man want to go out on a date or have a little weekend getaway, family members who are willing to help out or babysitters will have to be employed — this takes planning, money, and a couple weeks of notice.

Discuss the role you want to take in the kids’ lives

stepmom and child arguing

No matter how close you might get to the kids over time, you are not their parent, and when you and your boyfriend have different ideas of what kind of influence you have in the kiddos’ day-to-day, problems can arise quickly. Dr. Chloe Carmichael told Women’s Health that just as your new man mustn’t "expect you to take responsibility for raising the kids, making rules, or holding boundaries" except in cases where you’ve both discussed this and are on the same page, it’s just as crucial that you don’t overstep. Having too heavy of a hand early on could result in some serious rebellion on the kids’ part, and that’ll make everything far more stressful for everyone than it needs to be.

Reflecting on her role as a step-mom, Lauri Mattenson wrote for the Los Angeles Times that the role she takes in her step-kids’ lives respects their privacy and often requires her to limit what she shares with them. She respects their space with their dad and allows them to voice their concerns. Most importantly, she leaves any disciple to their dad.

"They bicker and I remain silent, allowing him to parent as he sees fit. This is not to say I’m invisible, merely respectful. It’s a conscious choice. I resist my own nature and slow down, try to remain responsive to the girls’ needs, subordinate my own," Mattenson noted.

The normal honeymoon stage may not apply

couple movie night

Of all the phases of a relationship — from the early flirting to the established routines — nothing beats the honeymoon stage. Full of romantic getaways, dinner dates, charming social circles, and little gifts here and there, the honeymoon phase is all about fantasy and should be embraced with both arms. But you might want to reevaluate just how important said phase is to you if you’re considering dating a man with kids because chances are it won’t look like what you might be used to. That’s not to say that a honeymoon phase is completely out of the question; it just might look different.

As detailed by Step Momming, a date night amid the honeymoon phase that may have been a romantic evening out on the town and drinks at a cool new spot might look like sitting on the couch with the kids watching cartoons and picking up their toys once they’ve gone to bed. Spontaneously catching a new jazz act might look like baking brownies and chatting into the late hours of the evening after the kids are asleep. These are not bad experiences, and the honeymoon phase of getting to know each other and blissfully enjoying each other’s company will certainly still be present, but it’s important to curb your expectations accordingly.

His kids will likely need some time to warm up to you

child with parents

This one goes hand in hand with meeting the kids on their dad’s terms as well as their own, but if you’re dating a man with children, be prepared for it to take some time for the kids to warm up to you. Given that their dad is single, these kids have likely experienced a tragic death or a divorce — which can be incredibly brutal. The chances of some trauma experienced on their part are high, and the last thing they’re going to want is a newcomer telling them what to do, assuming the role of a parent, and dictating their lives in a way that feels uncomfortable and unfair. Remember, they’re also kids — their whole worlds have likely been turned upside down in this process, so give them the benefit of the doubt if they’re cold, doubtful, and hesitant around you. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

Further commenting on the matter is eHarmony, noting that respecting the kids’ boundaries while not taking their potentially distant behavior personally is the way to go. There’s no doubt that this will be difficult, but time will slowly thaw relationships, and the kids will come around if you see them for who they are, leave the parenting to their parents (unless otherwise discussed), and respect who they are as individuals.