Photo: Johannah Hetherington
I recently took a plunge into online dating for my first time -- as a single mom.
"I am a warm and generous single mom seeking a respectful and cooperative man who dreams big with both feet on the ground."
I've been raising my six-year-old single-handedly since she was an infant, after my boyfriend -- who was bipolar and an alcoholic -- walked out the door. His whereabouts? Unknown. In hindsight, I feel lucky to be free of him, but I wasn't exactly prepared to be the single mom of a seventh-month-old baby.
This is one of the first men who writes:
"I am a warm and generous single dad who is seeking a respectful and cooperative woman who dreams with both feet on the ground, too!"
I'm impressed. Here is a man who pays close attention to details.
When I click on his profile, Ronaldo seems to be looking right at me, his lips formed into a flirtatious smile. A six-foot-tall, Latino father of two, he's completing his dissertation in psychology at UC Berkeley.
Hmmm, a psychology major. The skeptic in me wonders if this means he'll play mind games or manipulate me with psychological tricks.
I stop caring altogether about tricks when I scroll down to the second photo Ronaldo has posted. He has caramel skin, short black hair, defined cheekbones, and wire-rimmed glasses.
I feel my cheeks flush, as I sit in my T-shirt and panties shopping for a man on my computer.
Brainy and bold women turn him on. Well, that works well for me, I think.
Then I read this line: "I don't really do things, I delegate them." I pause.
What is he getting at? Is he good at giving orders and assigning tasks? Or is he raising his kids to be conscientious decision-makers? Maybe he just means that he's very responsible and trustworthy?
He goes on to say that he enjoys simplicity—a red glass of wine, a soft kiss, and easy conversation.
So, who cares if he likes to give orders once in a while? In my own sometimes-chaotic and cluttered life, I could use a little delegation. I write back to Ronaldo, thanking him for the note.
A week later, we're at a cozy teahouse, swapping life stories. His ex-wife decided to go to medical school out of state, and gave him sole custody of the kids. I'm impressed by his devotion to his children and the fact that he's doing it on his own, like me.
After our comfortable first date, we keep emailing. Ronaldo sends me some photos of his beautiful son and daughter, ages nine and ten, and I find myself taking mental notes of the background in every picture: His kitchen counter is spotless, books are neatly lined up on the shelf, and wine bottles are stacked on a rack in his living room, divided by red and white. This is nothing like my house. Haven't I always wanted to be that organized? But I also feel apprehensive. There's a red-flag alert, but I ignore it.
We make plans to see each other again. But that morning, his baby sitter calls in sick with the flu, and I suggest we get together for the afternoon at the Marina—with all the kids—to fly kites. He offers to pick us up at home.
I know this is against every single-parent dating rule.
I've only been on one date with this guy; it's too early to drag my three-year-old daughter into the mix. Selfishly, I don't want to call the date off.
"We're going to see one of mama's specials friends, honey," I tell my daughter, Mae. "He has kids, too. We're going to fly kites."
When I get into his shiny black Jetta, the first thing I notice is that he is impeccably dressed—button-down shirt, khakis, and leather belt. I sigh, an uncomfortable sigh.
Sure, Mae and I are pulled together. We're both in calf-high pedal pushers and sweatshirts. But Ronaldo's daughter wears a flowery summer dress, obviously just ironed; and his son has on a button-down shirt, too.
The second thing I notice is that the leather seats in his car are immaculate, in sharp contrast to the back seat of my Toyota, where an orange crayon has melted into the fabric and cookie crumbs are strewn everywhere. No empty water bottles roll under his seats, either. I breathe in the scent of sandalwood, not the permanent stench of urine that seems to inhabit my car.
"I'm hungry!" Mae whines as I strap her into the car seat.
Ronaldo's daughter giggles until her brother nudges her in the ribs. He's eyeing Mae like she's weird.
I fumble around in my backpack for a cracker, but Ronaldo says, "I'm sorry, we don't eat in my car."
I must look confused because he goes on to explain, as if I'm one of his children, "The car is for driving and talking. Eating is done at the table."
Is he busting me?
Then I feel a gentle jab in my ribs. "Relax!" Ronaldo tells me.
The truth is, sometimes I wish I had more rules. I don't mean to sound conventional, but setting limits just isn't my forte. Our home is based on everything feminine: nurturing and taking care of others have always been my strong points. Caring for Mae is my strong point; laying down the law is not. Yes, a lot of my strengths and weaknesses seem to fall along stereotypical gender lines. But they are who I am.
Imagine how clean my own car would be if I didn't allow anyone to eat in it! Just yesterday, I found a line of ants crawling over the sticky straps of Mae's car seat. I wouldn't win a Good Housekeeping Seal, but there's no lack of fun, or love, or estrogen for that matter, in our house of girls.
At the marina, Mae quickly gives up kite-flying in order to roll down the steep hillside. She begs me to join her, and I end up in a dizzy jumble at the bottom. There is grass in my mouth, and suddenly, I can't stop laughing. Our elbows are brown with dirt.
When I look up, Ronaldo is standing at the top of the hill, looking unsure. I can't tell if he's disapproving or sorry that he's missing out. "Let more string out!" he directs his son, who obediently unravels the kite.
An hour later, it's time to cram back into Ronaldo's car. In the parking lot, I'm doing my best to brush the grass off Mae's clothes; his children are already strapped into their seat belts. I slip off Mae's muddy sneakers and hold them on my lap for the ride home.
As we roll back through the city, Mae looks out the window. Suddenly, she blurts out a line from one of her favorite TV shows to herself: "We were as pleased as punch!"
I chuckle a lonesome laugh that seems to resonate by itself against the shiny seats. I wonder if I can be with a man whose parenting style is so radically different from mine.
I'm not looking for someone who parents like I do, but he's got to complement me, at the very least. Sure, my life could use a better system of cleaning and organizing. But I like how messy our family is. I don't need a man to fix the parts of my life I don't like. He needs to like me for who I am.
If Ronaldo were in my life, I might be tidier and more efficient; but after today, I can tell that he's not right for us. When I look back at our lives ten years from now, I doubt I'll remember the dirt stains I couldn't scrub out of Mae's jeans.
Instead, I will hold on to the two of us rolling down the hill, my head woozy, as Mae jumps up, screaming, "Let's do it again!"
I know I won't see Ronaldo again, and that suits me fine.
Photo: Rachel Sarah and her 3-year-old daughter, by Johannah Hetherington
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