After I said “I do” back in 2008, I never imagined I’d date again. I said the vows, made the promises, and planned a life that looked a lot like happily ever after.
But life doesn’t always happen as you planned. I’d even argue that life rarely happens as you plan.
And a few years after my husband died, after that happily ever after was shattered by an impossibly fast-moving cancer, the idea of dating went from “never again” to “maybe someday.” And then maybe someday became today.
And then suddenly I was a thirty-something-year-old widowed mother of two thinking about dating again after more than a decade of being out of it.
There was a lot I expected — that immeasurable grief that comes with holding onto the past and reaching for the future at once. And a lot I didn’t expect — like the reliance on apps. (Apparently meet-cutes are only a thing in movies these days?) But mostly, what I didn’t expect, and am still bewildered to see happen, is how my children act around my boyfriend. My nine-year-old son turns absolutely feral around him. Particularly at the dinner table.
I was cautious in introducing my kids to him. Before my boyfriend and I even met, I discussed with my kids that I was going to begin dating. We talked about what that would look like—logistically. I assured them they would always be the priority and that I would never stop loving Daddy or let them forget him. They were excited about the idea of my dating — nervous, sure, but mostly excited. After my boyfriend and I met and became serious, they were begging to meet him. I waited for the right time, and prepared myself for an awkward meeting or two or twelve. As it turned out, awkward was the least of my worries.
The first meal we (my children, my boyfriend, and I) shared together was spaghetti. Rather than grabbing a fork and twirling up a bite, maybe slurping up a noodle or two, my son held a string of spaghetti in either fist and first licked the sauce off the noodle and then bit into it, leaving two limp little strands in either hand. Since that first fateful meeting set the mealtime tone, he’s eaten rice with no hands, put his feet up on the table, and showed off what his food looks like when chewed.
While my tween daughter remembers her table manners, she can also be found often jumping off furniture and egging her brother on and acting up in ways I’ve never seen from her before.
Too many times I put them to bed absolutely bewildered by the behavior I’d just seen from them. I swear I taught them both how to behave in polite company, but you wouldn’t know it from watching them at these meetings. Truly, I can’t believe my boyfriend hasn’t run away screaming yet.
For my part, I do try to stop the behavior as it’s happening. I give stern warnings and furious looks. I’ve threatened to take away Fortnite when the behavior is particularly egregious, and that works well. But I don’t discipline either of them harshly in those moments. Maybe I’m a pushover. (Probably I am.) But I’d rather talk to them after the moment has passed, when they’ve had a chance to process the evening. When I know they won’t be embarrassed by being lectured in front of someone who is still a stranger to them.
Because the truth is, I understand why they are acting up. They aren’t acting up because they don’t want him there. They’re acting up because their emotions are too big for their bodies. They have too many feelings they can’t put into words. For that reason, I don’t want to punish them for their antics — even when my son uses spaghetti like a piece of floss.
I know my son, and even my daughter, are not using the logic part of their brains, or even the part that knows to use a fork and keep their feet on the floor. They’re reacting. They’re being ruled by heightened emotions that they don’t know how to define. Because they like the guy sitting across from him at the table, but that guy isn’t their father — and that’s incredibly confusing. Because even though they like the guy sitting across from them, maybe even want to show off a little for him, that guy also represents a change, and we (our little family of three) have finally settled into a groove we’re comfortable with. So change, even potentially good changes, are frightening.
As time has passed, their behavior has settled. They still act in ways that have me whispering apologies to the man by my side, who’s taking it all in stride and seems to believe me when I promise him that they aren’t always so wild.
What they need during these meetings, more than reminders on manners and good behavior, is a little grace and a little space to sort out those big emotions. Early on in this second-time around dating world, I promised my kids they would always be the priority. And that means giving them that grace and space. (With limits — not an absolute free-for-all, though admittedly it looks like a free-for-all at times).
I know the manners will come. I know my boyfriend will get to know my kids, who are sweet and kind-hearted and fun and yes, well-mannered most of the time, when they are ready for him to get to know that part of them. And in the meantime, I probably won’t be serving spaghetti again any time soon.