Until recently, I had two red cards when it came to dating – smokers and fathers. That was until I found myself face-to-face with a wonderful guy who's bringing up a small human.
Shrewdly, this Dad omitted to declare his 7-year-old progeny in his online dating profile. He revealed her existence at exactly the right moment on our first date, so that such a revelation meant I didn’t excuse myself to the bathroom never to return.
While this was my third time on the online dating merry-go-around it was his first. Later he admitted that he really didn't know whether to tick the ‘kids’ box on his profile and decided that if he liked a person enough he’d tell them. He had four dates, and he only told me.
I’m wasn't alone when it came to preferring my dates to be childless – if the number of guys on Tinder who go to the effort of explaining that the kids in their pictures aren’t theirs is anything to go by. You could be mistaken for thinking that Tinder was where all the cool uncles hung out.
In the days following our first date, I could literally feel my brain recalibrate my previously held manifesto. Perhaps I’d been short-sighted in my automatic vetoing of fathers from my ‘ideal man’ profile. Perhaps for years I’d overlooked the advantages of dating a person who was a living breathing demonstration of parenting skills, values and temperament. Rather than crashing into parenthood with another novice, a pre-loved father came with the benefit of experience.
This one had gotten through to the keeper - after weeks of fun, actual calls on the phone and a ridiculous level of instantaneously feeling comfortable with each other, he was generally displaying characteristics of being ‘the real thing’. So, I rolled with my newly acquired cognitive flexibility and embarked on a ‘package deal’ relationship.
Notable in this decision was that his daughter lived in another city and that his relationship with her mother was, by his description, totally over. I learned quickly how ‘totally over’ is impossible when a child is involved. I recognised that my reluctance wasn’t about him having a child, but apprehension over the ongoing bond her mother would have to him. That link, however irrevocably damaged, seemingly dependent and outwardly dysfunctional, was something that constantly hooked him back to her. Being away from his daughter meant the demands of his ex-partner were amplified as he sought to vicariously support the little one via emotional and financial ties to her mother. My rational brain urged him to be more supportive and sided with the challenges of being a single Mum, but a primal whisper had me fearing I’d always struggle to have my own needs met, and constantly be in rivalry with theirs.
I was under no delusions I was ever going to be first priority in his life. This worked for me and my independence. I was content with a clear second place, especially knowing first went to a gorgeous bundle of blonde. But this was hardly a competition. I was grateful I got to see him a good chunk of the week and pondered what a feat dating a bloke with more than one child and fortnightly access must be.
Talking to kids is something that comes naturally to me. My day job is doing just that. So when I first saw them together I attempted not to be mesmerised, scrutinising how similar they were, their shared features, the way they laughed. I’ve seen dads with their daughters before, but in the backyard by the pool I felt like a spy undertaking an important espionage operation. While I knew factually he was a dad, until I saw them interact, him comfort her, cajole her into eating lunch - it wasn't tangible to me. When he gently called her Ladybug my heart resembled molten lava, not just for the man, but for my imagined future with him reprising the role of Papa Bear somewhere around winter 2015.
I realised my trepidation at our first meeting wasn't whether she’d let me brush her hair or help her practice handstands (she did), but over the precursory conversation which every blog about dating guys with kids told me I had to have – the one about the seriousness and stability of our relationship.
I wanted a child, but more than that I wanted a family. I’d spent almost 20 years making sure I didn't accidentally get pregnant, now was time I found someone who didn't care if I accidentally (or on purpose) did. The ‘commitment’ conversation prompted the ‘children’ question. While early on this came up, I’d never directly asked if he wanted another. When I did, his answer was ‘not definitely not’. I heard a double negative and my brain automatically made a positive out of it.
I’d love for the next part of this story to be about how we all shared Christmas together and lived happily ever after. But that wasn't to be.
In the middle of a casual chat about communication he revealed that the ‘not definitely not’ had lost one of its nots. Along the road to bringing up Ladybug he’d surrendered a lot, and now with his career back on track, going through ‘it’ all again was just too much to consider even in the distant future. Like real grown ups, we had a big raw conversation where the only outcome could be moving on in our diverging directions. My ego required silencing as it internally babbled a sales pitch on how I was going to revolutionise his preconceptions of parenting with my pragmatism.
Instead I stubbornly packed up my vision of my future family and slowly restarted a new adventure to discover my Baby’s Daddy. Possibly the hardest break up of my life - letting go of the plans, projects and escapades we’d mused over was like extricating splinters. But one by one they were gone and in their place was the realisation my baby would always have an awesome faux-uncle/not-daddy to play with.