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"Would he be a good father to my daughter?" This, my single-mom friends insist, is what I have to ask myself at the end of every first date. After two years of parenting solo, I'd decided to enter the dating scene again. But I wasn't yet ready to dive in, maybe just splash in the shallows.
Thing is, I was never very good at this pairing-off thing. Pre-child, I'd ignored red flags and often confused lust with love. On top of that, I no longer knew how to meet men. Sure, I saw single guys in the grocery aisles, but I was always more focused on picking up organic almond butter.
Online dating seemed like an easy, uncomplicated way to meet guys. Still, I'd only used my computer for word processing, never man hunting. So I did nothing -- until one night, when I was eating dinner with my two single-mom friends and our daughters, as we do every Tuesday. I was complaining, again, about how hard it was to meet available men.
"Why don't you try Match.com?" one friend asked. "If you do, I will."
I shook my head. No way.
"Just try it," she said.
We had a photo session the next week. I put on hot-pink lipstick and attempted to look natural, lounging in my friend's armchair, wearing a blue sweatshirt and jeans. What I really wanted was a nap.
But I followed through, posting the photos alongside my profile, which included, "Are you an honest, big-hearted man with no addictions, except coffee?"
The responses poured in. At first I fell in love with the anonymity of the whole thing. I was seeing all the guys at their best. And they couldn't see me hunched over the computer with my spaghetti-stained shirt and shaggy hair.
I dared to wade in a bit deeper, and actually met with some of them. And sure enough, motherhood must have matured me, because all the little things I used to overlook had become deal breakers. Like the men who were "separated." Or the ones who talked endlessly but didn't know how to listen. Or the ones who never asked one tiny question about my child.
Finally, I was keeping my eyes wide open, looking for red flags, and turning away when I spotted one. If a guy had just broken up with his girlfriend, he was probably on the rebound. If he seemed hectic and super-busy, his red flag was waving in big, bold letters, "unavailable." And a man who did not laugh was not going to bond with my fun-loving daughter.
It's not that I'd suddenly become an angel. I kissed men I'd never see again. I got wooed by one guy's beautiful deep voice, and ignored the fact that he was bouncing back from a recent breakup. But I learned to sense trouble with my eyes closed -- even when I didn't want to.
Did I sometimes feel no man would ever clear the hurdles? Of course. But I learned that how a date ended wasn't important; what really mattered was coming home to my daughter. Thanks to her, I was smarter. Stronger. Satisfied. A mother. And there was just one question left to be answered: "Would he be a good father to my daughter?" My friends were right. That's the true test.
Rachel Sarah is the author of Single Mom Seeking: Play Dates, Blind Dates, and Other Dispatches from the Dating World (Avalon/Seal Press) and creator of the Web site singlemomseeking.com.
Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the March 2008 issue of Family Circle magazine.