‘My Dad is a superhero’ my five-year-old son said during bath time, about a year after his father had died. As all single parents know, particularly parents who have been bereaved, it is in the evenings, when you are struggling alone with the childcare tasks that you used to be able to share, that emotions (for both parent and child) are at their most heightened. Something about the rituals of bath and story and bed emphasise all that has been lost.
‘Well, he was a very, very wonderful man,’ I replied, loving my son’s sturdy little body in the water and his damp, flushed face, but at the same time wondering how long it would be before I would be able to escape to a glass of wine and the sofa.
‘He can climb up the sides of buildings,’ he said, submerging a dinosaur with a satisfying gurgle.
‘Can he?’ I asked, my heart twisting at his words. It was clear that in the gap between my son’s loss and the present he had created a new story and in this version of events, my late husband had become someone more than human – someone heroic and untouchable and far better than other men and other fathers.
This bath-time conversation coincided with the beginning of my emergence from the first acute pain of loss. There were steps forward and many more steps back in the months and years afterwards, but I had started to notice the world again. It felt as if I hadn’t looked at anything at all for the two years since my 29-year-old husband had been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour. It also marked the time when I had begun to think that there could, just possibly, be another man in the world that I might be able to spend time with.
It is always tricky as a single parent to re-enter the dating world whether this follows the breakdown of a relationship or the death of a partner. Spontaneity is a luxury enjoyed by those who don’t have curfews and clock-watching baby sitters. The chance to make off for a cheeky weekend or simply to sit around talking until dawn in the way that you do when everything about another person is fascinating, is for people without responsibilities.
‘When I go on a date with someone it requires the planning skills of a general,’ my divorced friend Rachel says about her own early forays into the battleground of dating. With three children under the age of 10 and an ex who decided to move to New Zealand with a dental assistant, the prospect of sex or even just a drink somewhere wearing a dress without food on it seems too exhausting a fight to embark upon.
Aside from having the necessary energy, the dating scene for the single parent is fraught with a whole new level of complication. For another acquaintance, who is still too raw to even be mentioned by name, it is the fact that the terms of engagement have so significantly changed that she finds difficult.
‘It’s no longer enough just to think that someone looks fit in their online profile or that you share a love of music or Russian novels. You have to very quickly assess their suitability as a potential new father figure. With a daughter of nine, it’s not just two hearts involved, but three.’
I couldn’t risk allowing him to become attached to a new person, only for the relationship to falter and for another person to disappear from his already bewildering life
In my case it was the heart aspect of things that I found the most challenging. With my son reimagining his father as a cloak-wearing hero, climbing up the sides of tower blocks, I knew that any future man had big tights to fill. Not only that, but I was resolute in my desire to ensure that my son was not hurt again. I knew that I couldn’t run the risk of allowing him to become attached to a new person, only for the relationship to falter and for another person to disappear from his already bewildering life.
As a result of this caution, the men I was introduced to by well-meaning friends, who, sensing that I had begun to put my head up above the parapet, eagerly sat me next to single men at the dinner table, were dismissed without even getting the chance to talk about their love of fell walking or the fact that they had regular movie nights in with their twins.
There came a time though, because I am more fortunate that I deserve, when I met someone who seemed not a replacement for the husband I had lost, but a whole new person in his own right. A person that I could imagine might stick around even with a woman with a patched-up heart and a small boy who woke in the night thinking there were bad things behind the curtains.
To say I was tentative about this relationship is an understatement. At first my son practically had to be on another continent for me to go anywhere with this man, and then as our relationship developed, David had to be hustled out of the house at dawn to avoid being around at breakfast time. There were times when I dared to let my son be present when there was a group of people, but David was never introduced as anything more than a friend.
It is fortunate that he had the patience of an ant who persists over the most inhospitable of terrain with a piece of leaf twice the size of his body, because most other men would have given up long before. Whilst I had got myself to the point when I thought I might be able to commit, I still couldn’t, quite, commit my son.
Eventually (and we are talking two years later here) at another bath time my son said ‘Is David your boyfriend?’ in that carefully casual way he still has when he wants to get to the heart of the matter.
‘Yes, he is,’ I said. It seemed suddenly foolish to give him anything other than the truth.
‘Well, I like him,’ he said. It was as complicated and as simple as that. I learnt at the advanced age of 32 that children are much wiser than we give them credit for.
My son is now 30 years old and has just had a child of his own. David and I had a son together who has recently left home. We are childless for the first time since we got together and although not perhaps as nimble as we once were, are open at last to the prospect of spontaneity. Although I was perhaps absurdly careful of both my heart and that of my son’s, I still think it was my finest hour as a mother.