Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Four years ago, a new match from Bumble sent me the following text: “I have something to tell you.”
For me, this has never been a good thing. What was it going to be this time — that he “wasn’t exactly” single? That his definition of a full-time job was “loose”? That his profile pictures were from 2007? I braced myself.
To my surprise, what followed was a huge block of text containing the phrases “I have two young children” and “they are my world” and “no time for a real relationship” and “my divorce was finalized last year.” It ended with, “This is usually where the conversation ends, so if you don’t want to meet up, it’s okay. I get it.”
“Cool. What should we have on Thursday — arepas or Korean barbecue?” I texted back.
“Wait … You still want to have dinner with me?” he asked.
I did. I didn’t care that he was divorced and had kids, I told him. But I did care where we ate.
Things didn’t end up working out with this particular man, but the date sparked a realization: By and large, divorced dads just have their shit together so much more than their childless, never-married peers. In my experience, never-married guys without kids do things like get a four-leaf clover tattoo on their leg, decide they don’t like it, and then follow it up with the rest of the Lucky Charms to make it “better.” Or send jerk-off videos that look like they were shot in a McDonald’s bathroom, or ghost but still watch your Instagram stories. Maybe a guy who had a little more responsibility in his life would be less, well, stupid about the whole dating thing.
Since then, recently divorced men with kids have been pretty much the only men I date. It is now a running joke among my friends, who will tag me in photos on Instagram of men wearing T-shirts that say “Zaddy” or text me things like “Saw a dad wearing a Baby Bjorn and jean shorts at work today. Thought of you.” They’ll send me pictures of dads they covertly snap on the Trader Joe’s checkout line.
“New Balances?!” I’ll write back. “Are you trying to kill me?”
When my friends’ teasing made me a little self-conscious, I tried to expand my dating pool. But all it took was another dude holding a toddler in his Tinder profile pic and no trace of the words “not my kid” in his bio, and I came crawling back. I have just two rules: First, I don’t date men who trash-talk the mother of their children, regardless of the circumstances. And second, I define a recently divorced man as someone whose divorce occurred over six months but less than three years ago. (I stay far away from men in the immediate aftermath of a breakup following any long-term relationship, divorce or not. It’s too messy.)
DDs (divorced dads) in that six-month-to-three-year window are ideal for independent people like myself. Between prepping lunches, putting together goody bags for their child’s birthday at school (“Why does everyone in the class have to get one?” one divorced dad once said to me), and folding mountains of tiny Sesame Street underwear, DDs will not be texting all the time. The demands of their life require that they give me breathing space, because they don’t have time for an alternative. I’m someone who, in the past, would lose her identity over the course of dating a new person. I’m smarter and wiser now, hellbent on never letting that happen again, and so when distance is built into my dating life by default, it makes everything less stressful.
For the same reason, it feels like a blessing, not an insult, to be told that I’m not the No. 1 person in their life. I would never want to date someone who would want to put me before their children, and establishing this boundary helps keep myself in check and not allow my relationship to define me. When there is a mutual understanding that we are not each other’s first priority, I can focus my energy on my friends, career, family, hobbies, and, most importantly, myself — all things that usually fall by the wayside when I start dating someone new.
And it’s easy with DDs to know where you stand. They’re protective of their free time because they have so little of it. They know how to budget their time and don’t flake (mostly because they’ve already had to hire and pay a babysitter in order to show up to the date). They’re there because they’ve jumped through some hoops and want to be there, which is flattering. If you’ve made it past a first date and are on to the next, you can trust that they actually like you; otherwise, they wouldn’t have made the necessary arrangements in order to show up.
The hands-down best part about dating DDs, though, is that coming out of long-term relationships, most of them are down to experiment with all kinds of crazy stuff in bed: Whether it was trying out new nipple clamps, do a Great British Bakeoff–style flavored condom taste test, or having sex to a playlist of the absolute worst songs to have sex to (including “Barbie Girl,” “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go,” and Whitney Houston singing the national anthem — he came while Whitney belted out “And the home of the brave!” and I’ve never felt more American), divorced dads were game.
A caveat: I’ve found myself having to give remedial sex-ed classes to any man who’s been in a monogamous relationship for an extended period of time. They forget basic things like pinching the tip of a condom before putting it on, or the fact that you have to ask your doctor to be tested for herpes and HIV because they won’t test for it automatically. Also, after sleeping with the same woman for years, they can sometimes forget that their sexual techniques are not one-size-fits-all.
Sex stuff aside, okay, fine, the actual best part about dating DDs is that they’re kinder, more empathetic, and more patient — all traits they had to learn or strengthen from having children. And that forces me to be more of those things, too. So as long as I’m dating casually with zero agenda or expectations, I will continue to date recently divorced dads. I am endlessly charmed by their car seats with crushed up cheddar bunnies in them when they pick me up for a date, their pictures from Epcot, and the fact that they all somehow have Androids.
One of the guys I went on date with recently texted me a picture of his laptop screen instead of sending me a screenshot. “You are such a dad,” I texted back.