Getting back into the dating game is hard enough for anyone who's been single for a while, but it's trickiest of all for parents. Whether you're alone through separation, divorce or bereavement – or if you were a lone parent from pregnancy – the idea of dating when you have kids can be daunting, impractical or just too exhausting to even think about.
When your children live with you, of course they take priority over everything, especially when they're young and dependent. And by the time they're ready to break away a bit and you find yourself with time on your hands, chances are you'll have got so used to not being in a relationship that you can't imagine starting over. But it's not impossible to find romance again, as these two mums have found.
'I just wasn't ready before'
'Annie's dad and I split 12 up years ago, when she was two,' says Debs. 'It was a horrible decision but he always had been a bit of a "bad boy", and I realised there was no way he was going to stop partying and take responsibility. I decided I'd be better off bringing Annie up alone than worrying about an adult kid as well.
'I needed to work full-time so Annie and I spent all the rest of our time together - until this year, when she turned 14 and her social life took off. She was never opposed to another man coming into our lives and I'd been thinking for a couple of years how nice it would be to have a partner. I'd joined a couple of dating websites but not found anyone I wanted to meet. I think I was subconsciously finding reasons to reject them because it all seemed too complicated.
'A couple of months ago my office merged with another and I kept running into this guy, Rob, I'd only seen once or twice previously. One day he suggested lunch, and it just felt right – I wasn't even nervous, just excited. Then we discovered we both like running, so he came back after work with me on a day when Annie was at my mum's for tea, and we went for a run. I felt really relaxed with him.
'Now we meet for a drink whenever Annie goes out after school or for sleepovers. I'm always home by 8pm in the week for when she gets back and Rob hasn't met her yet. I want to be really sure of him before she gets involved, but she knows I'm dating and she's really happy for me as well as curious about him. This has come at just the right time because I think Annie was worrying about me getting lonely now she's a teenager and going out more. This way we both get our freedom and fun independently!'
'I'd given up all hope'
'Charlotte was four and Sian was two when their dad met someone else,' says Elaine. 'I was devastated, but even as he was moving out I was determined I'd find a new dad for the girls. Looking back I can see I was motivated by anger as I started on a mission to find a man.
Luckily I have a great bunch of friends and family who were happy to babysit so I could go out over the odd weekend. I met a few blokes, but it wasn't long before I came to my senses and thought about the impact on the girls of me rushing headlong into a half-baked "relationship". After about a year I stopped looking and resigned myself to being a lone parent.
'My girls are 15 and 13 now, and both of them have lots of interests outside of home. Last year I joined a singles group and went on a few outings. I met some decent guys, but no one who was interested in getting involved with a mum of two teenagers – and who could blame them? But then, out of the blue, I got an email from a chap who said that one of the guys I'd met through the group had put him in touch, thinking we'd get on. He was in the building trade and was called Gary. I have to admit I was quick to imagine a tattooed geezer with a liking for the ladies, but something made me curious, so I gave him my mobile number and he called me that evening. It turned out he's into restoration, has his own business and works on some fascinating buildings. He also has a teenage daughter and has been on his own almost as long as I have.
'Our first date was in London and we went on a tour of some of the buildings Gary's restored. The romance has been a bit of a whirlwind, but I was sure enough of him after about a month to introduce him to the girls. Their reaction was to be really protective of me, and to become really quite difficult whenever Gary was around. I realised that they were worrying I might replace them with Gary in my affections, so we slowed things down for a while, and Gary made a real effort to get to know them whenever he was around.
Six months on and he's now accepted enough to come and stay weekends, which I honestly thought would never happen. Now we're making arrangements for a day out with our three girls to see how they all get on. I really think I've met my soulmate – just when I'd given up all hope. Well, they do say the best things come to you when you're not looking!'
A specialist's view
Jeremy Todd, Chief Executive of Parentline Plus, a charity supporting anyone who cares for children, says: 'There is so much more to think about when it's not just your own needs to consider. It's vital that you feel your children are protected, but it's also important to feel able to start again with a new partner.
'There are no guarantees that a relationship is going to last, and deciding on the right time to bring a new partner into your children's lives is a delicate issue and will be a decision that only you can make, when all of you feel ready to take this next step.
'If your child does react in a negative way towards your new partner, it isn't necessarily because they don't like them. It may be that they are simply finding it difficult to adjust to the changes that are taking place. It may be best not to try and rush things.
'It's understandable that children may feel insecure or miss their other parent or your ex-partner. Accepting this is the case and offering your child support and understanding is all part of the process.'
Have you recently starting dating again? Any advice you'd like to give?