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5 Things I Wish I'd Known Before Dating a Single Parent in My Early 20s

You might not be the top priority, and that's OK.

image Getty/Nastia Kobza

Sometimes you meet someone and can just tell right away that they're going to absolutely turn your world upside down and inside out...which is exactly what happened when I met Eric*, a 29-year-old single dad from Brooklyn.

Eric was everything I wanted and more: handsome, intelligent, funny, and passionate. But like everything that seems too good to be true, he came with a big catch: His ex-girlfriend had just had their baby a few months before he and I met. This major detail maybe should’ve caused me, a 22-year-old, to run away and never look back. But I’ve always loved kids, and it seemed like a small factor in an otherwise dreamy relationship...

...or so I thought. Although I grew up with single parents, I had no idea just how complicated, exhausting, and stressful it is to raise a child, never mind attempt a relationship with someone at the same time. The year Eric and I were together was a rapid crash-course in the up and downs of dating a single parent (something I wildly underestimated).

The relationship didn’t stick, and now that I’m single, I’m passing along some lessons I learned for others to consider, because there’s so much I wish I could’ve known before diving in myself.

1. Put your jealousy in serious check.

Everyone has baggage, and when you date a single parent, some of that baggage will be their ex, aka the other parent—which is totally understandable if both parents want to be involved in the child’s life.

For me, that meant Eric's son's mom was often around. From coordinating weekend visits to fighting about doctor’s appointments, she was a constant topic of conversation in our relationship. It was something I could never quite get used to, and there was more than one occasion when I'd turn down a yoga class with friends to stay in and help Eric deal with their custody case and/or talk about his son's mom.

2. You have to be cool with not being the top priority.

Most parents will tell you their kid always comes first. This is especially true when you date a single parent because they don’t have a backup to rely on. It took me some time to learn that no matter what I was going through, my issues—like drama at work or with friends—were never going to take precedence over issues involving Eric’s son. It wasn't long before I realized I probably need someone who had the bandwidth to give me a bit more support.

If you know you need someone who’s going to drop everything and be there for you with emotional support when Sarah in accounting sends you another terse email, then know you might not be able to get that in a single parent.

3. Buckle up for a way messier breakup.

When I fell in love with Eric, I didn’t plan to also fall in love with his son. What I now know is that when you date a single parent, these two people go hand-in-hand. From Saturdays at the playground spent going down the slide to mornings watching Sesame Street snuggled up on the couch before anybody else woke up, the moments that I spent with Eric’s son are some of my fondest memories from our relationship.

But they are not your child, regardless of how much time you spend with them (which for me, was more than I should have). And the reality is, if you break up with their parent, you also have to break up with them. And yes, it's just as difficult.

4. It’s a crash-course in putting other people first.

While I was pretty confident in my kid skills before dating Eric (I babysat and worked at summer camps with children for years), I quickly realized I don’t actually know anything about what it takes to *be* a parent. One day, Eric's son caught a stomach bug and cried whenever he wasn’t being held, which included bath time. Instead of just letting him cry in the bath, Eric got in the shower, fully clothed, and just held him. There were so many other things he had to do that day (like go to work), but nothing was more important than holding his sick kid until he was better.

I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, but there are just some things about parenting that no one can know or experience until you have a small life in your hands. One thing you can’t teach in a babysitting certification course is what it actually feels like to look down at your kid and know you’d do absolutely anything for them—and that’s something I found out from being with Eric.

5. Needing "some alone time" takes on a whole new meaning.

A few months into the relationship, I had one particularly stressful day at work and there was nothing I wanted more than to curl up on the couch with Eric and watch TV. But it was his only night off without work or his son, and he just didn't have it in him to spend it with anyone but himself.

As someone with an anxious attachment style, this was the most difficult part of dating a single parent. I assumed that every time Eric’s son was with his mom, we’d have a bunch of really great alone time. Wrong. I took it personally when he needed time to debrief and be by himself. I couldn’t understand how crucial that was for him.

If having regular one-on-one facetime with your partner is crucial for you to feel acknowledged and validated, then it's important to consider that some people, like single parents, just might not have that in them at the end of the day.

All this said, if you've gotten to the end of this list and you're like, "Hell yes, this isn't anything I can't handle," then you should go forth in considering dating a single parent. Just because it didn't work out for me doesn't mean it won't work out for you. But now, at least you know what it takes.

*Name has been changed.