Lust and the single mother


Suzanne Harrington

No, it's not impossible. Divorced mums can have a sex life – it's just that they have to jump through a few hoops.

Not jumping for joy: coitus interruptus takes on a new meaning for single mums.

Not jumping for joy: coitus interruptus takes on a new meaning for single mums. Photo: Getty Images

So you're a single parent and you'd quite like to have sex, please. Specifically, you're a single mother, and you know the rules for single fathers are, like the rules for men in general, different and more advantageous. But this is not about men. It's about you, the single mother. Where do you exist on the socio-sexual spectrum? Perhaps somewhere between nun, eunuch and self-pollinating flower?

It's not that single mothers are not sexually alluring. You are a woman, after all, and therefore desirable. It's just that the logistics are not in your favour. As well as taking a village to raise a child, it is also far easier to do it with two incomes, so as a single mother – already paid less than your male colleagues at the best of times – you'll be both cash-poor and time-poor. That means skint and running ragged. Add to this the scapegoating of single mothers by the patriarchy – because everything from male crime statistics to the recession is your fault – and you may not be feeling too sexy, even if you had any energy or cash left over from working and parenting unaided, seven days a week.

But hey, you're a woman, right? And women, despite what you've read, like sex as much as the next man. Plus, it was women who invented multitasking, so maybe it's time to get back in the pool.

You and your kids' dad are no longer together. Rumour has it that there are lots of available people out there also looking for sex, love and relationships. All you have to do is connect with one you like who likes you back. What could be easier? Apart from maybe finding a needle in a haystack during a blackout?


Welcome to the psychological warfare that is online dating. If you are 23, hot, and like to par-tay all night long, you will be inundated. If you are 43, and more Ikea than Ibiza, perhaps not so much, except by people who wear golf jumpers and enjoy bridge and a bit of light opera.

This is not to put anyone off online dating. It's the best way to meet people, unless you are a 23-year-old clubber, but gird your loins in preparation, single mother. You will encounter a bewildering cross-section of dating humanity, from those who are dead keen then vanish as though abducted by aliens, to those who seem to need a psychiatrist rather than an online subscription, via all the fantasists who turn up 10 years older, 40 kilograms heavier and a foot shorter than advertised. Take none of it personally. It is all par for the course.

But having waded through the slug-infested dating pool, you may finally encounter someone you like who also likes you (the ratio seems to be that the older you are, and the more kids you have, the longer this process takes).

You've hit it off, and start dating exclusively. You have dinner, see a film, go for walks, visit galleries, all the usual datey stuff. And as you are both adults, you will sooner or later want to be adults together. Nakedly. And here begins the minefield.

Even if he doesn't have kids himself, it's still complicated. Where do you go to become intimate, to get to know each other in privacy and have some uninterrupted adult time? His place? Fine if you can get child care, which is usually pricey and means you have to schedule your intimacy time the way you schedule the dentist. Not very sexy. And as a single parent rather than a co-parent, can you ever truly turn your phone off?

So. Your place? Even if the kids are with their other parent (if they have one, that is), or with friends or family, the psychological clang of bringing a lover home for the first time can feel a bit weird. Even if your house is empty, it is still the house where you live with your kids (and possibly your pets/lodger/au pair/granny/foreign students). Can you navigate the overlap between family life and your re-emerging private life?

Here's some free advice: have a tidy-up beforehand. You don't want to be getting cosy on the sofa with your five-year-old's toy trucks in your peripheral vision. Really, you don't.

Coitus interruptus takes on a whole new perspective when it comes to single mothers and sex. From getting a phone call from the babysitter to tell you that little Johnny has a fever just as things are also heating up at your new chap's place, to having your kids bang on the bedroom door because they are psychic and know that right now you are desperate for some privacy, be prepared for a plethora of interruptions.

If Mr Loverman reacts badly, he's not a keeper; if he's human, he'll understand. Humour is essential throughout. And it's not just your kids who will interrupt. If he has kids, they may prove equally tricky. I've had dinner cancelled at the last moment because of a teenage daughter throwing a tantrum; his, not mine. She didn't want to share her dad with anyone. You absolutely cannot compete, nor should you even try.

"Friends and family come first in terms of practicalities," says University of Sussex sociologist Charlotte Morris. A single mother herself, Morris's PhD research is titled "Unsettled Scripts: Intimacy Narratives of Heterosexual Single Mothers". She has interviewed dozens of women, and their stories all have one thing in common: balancing single motherhood with a lively private life is not for the faint-hearted.

"Most of the women I spoke with wanted to repartner, and got into internet dating," she says. "But it turned out to be more complicated for many reasons: men who didn't want commitment, who didn't want to make room in their lives for children, or some who even thought the women were after their money. Other women who had been in long-term relationships found their new single status an opportunity to have fun, to experiment, to try different ways of being with other people.

"Some had 'f... buddy' relationships because it was easier: there were no strings attached, and it removed complication. Some tried same-sex relationships, and one woman realised after 20 years of marriage that she was gay. Other women loved the opportunity of pursuing sexual pleasure, and getting away from the motherhood identity, while others struggled and felt guilty."

This guilt, she said, centred around the dual identities of woman and mother. Do fathers ever struggle with this kind of sexual guilt? None that I have ever heard of, ever, in my whole life. Not even slightly. Which is why many single mothers are fussy about who they connect with; not just to protect their children from any potential unpleasantness, but because maturity and experience may have made us pickier.

"The more professional end of the women I interviewed had less need for a man," says Morris. "They were emotionally fulfilled by their kids, and economically independent, so meeting a man was really just for pleasure. This was a very positive finding, the enjoyment of the single life, especially when you consider the Bridget Jones phenomenon." (That being single is not v good.)

The most important thing to come out of this research, Morris says, is that "as a woman, you are allowed to have a good time". Which may sound obvious, but see "guilt, feelings of", above. If your kids are a bit older, single-mother sex becomes a different kind of minefield. "My defining image of single-parent sex is sneaking someone into the house so that they don't bump into your kids, just as teenagers would try to sneak people past their parents," says Morris.

Which is probably why it's not a great idea to bring a sex partner home if your kids are also home. Two reasons: it's very hard to swing from the chandeliers when there are family members nearby, and also, while you may be very comfortable with no-strings sex, that's because you are experienced and emotionally mature. Your kids may interpret things differently, although this is not to say that you take a vow of celibacy. Rather, acknowledge to them that you are as red-blooded as they are.

And what if your no-strings thing goes on to develop strings? When do you introduce your new man to your kids? When they have left home themselves? Never? Of course not. Just don't make a big thing of it. Be neutral, relaxed, un-jittery. Don't, whatever you do, smooch with him in front of them. It will give them the dry heaves. And don't spring him on them: "Hey kids, this is X, we're in love!" Ease him in gently.

Even if your kids have a healthy reaction to him, this may not be the case with his kids to you. They may hate you on sight, simply because you are not their mum. Remember, children's culture is littered with wicked stepmothers. There's little point in trying to ingratiate yourself with your lover's kids; providing they are reasonably well adjusted, they will get used to you. Eventually.

One woman I know had her pot of face cream refilled with hair removal cream by a resentful teenage stepdaughter; what was worse than the resulting burns on her face was the fact that her boyfriend, the kid's dad, pretended it hadn't happened rather than confront the issue. Never force a parent to take sides; the child will always win. Would you ever consider a partner who tried to come between you and your children? Of course you wouldn't.

But it's not an either/or. Being a single mother does not mean you have to let go of your sexual self. Far from it. In her book Mating in Captivity, psychotherapist Esther Perel discusses how to maintain sexual heat in long-term relationships by carving out boundried erotic space; as a single parent, you have to do the same.

Make space, make time. As a mother, you are constantly thinking of your kids; to be the best mother you can be, put your own needs in front as well. Being sexually fulfilled will make you a better parent than being a martyred or overly self-sacrificing one. If you don't know how to go about getting sexual fulfilled, ask someone who does. That's what girlfriends are for.

Also, by maintaining what sociologist Catherine Hakim terms your "erotic capital" – that is, looking after yourself physically, mentally and emotionally – you will feel as good as you possibly can, and that is what you will transmit.

Ignore the naysayers, whether they are in the media or in your vicinity. Forget lazy, misogynistic terms on either end of the lazy, misogynistic term spectrum – from MILF and cougar to frumpy and mumsy – and instead get out there and live your life. Mother, lover, worker, the lot. We are all of these and more.

The Irish Independent.