Coming in Third: Truths About Dating a Solo Parent
There’s no sugarcoating this, but you won’t be our top priority
After my divorce, I decided to put myself first. It felt like the natural first step to freedom. For many years my natural inclination to nurture showed up in romantic relationships as enabling. I lost myself in the emotionally draining problems of lovers who depended on my presence — or so I believed. I was stuck so deep in the muck that break-ups felt like I was losing a child. Without the repetition of my care, I was convinced my past loves would be lost without me.
But, alas, they were fine. Moved on. Lived happy lives. Running into a fully transformed ex, enamored with another, is the perfect cure for a broken heart. It’s the necessary realization that their world never truly revolved around me. I was vital when we were dating, and my lingering pain should perish as quickly as they liquidated the idea of us.
There was a lot I never understood about motherhood. Though I was raised by a very dedicated mother, friends always made it clear to me that she was unconventional. My mother worked full-time and pursued her interests, whether that was a degree, singing, or starting a business. Her pursuits sometimes left me and my sister hanging, but with a supportive husband by her side, I’m sure she knew it was safe to chase her dreams. I always admired her hustle. She was my first model of womanhood. Even in retirement, she hustles. It’s a slowed-down hustle, but she continues to think big.
She would never admit it, but my mother never put us first. She was a present, thoughtful, caring mother, but she put herself first. And in hindsight, I ain’t mad at her. Being a mother is like steering a large ship over rocky waters, desperately working to keep everyone afloat. If the mother isn’t well, what happens to the ship?
So many of my friends had kids before me. Understandably, their lives were transformed. But, they were also inclined to lose themselves in motherhood, like an automatic mandate set in stone by the parenting Gods. When I was about to deliver, a friend told me to make sure I showered while I was on maternity leave because so many women tend to completely forget about themselves when the kid shows up. I’m sure I laughed off her sincere suggestion because I had been showering every day since I was a kid. Why would that change?
After four days in the hospital, under the watchful care of doctors and nurses, the kid and I were sent home. I quickly realized why someone might skip a shower. Not only was I now responsible for feeding, washing, and holding this baby, I had to keep her safe. I had to keep her alive. The weight of that was too much to bear, at times, and there was no one carrying that weight with me. I was barely sleeping, running on fumes I was surprised I still had. But, I forced myself to shower every day.
I had a meltdown a few weeks into my mommyhood. At a check-up with my OBGYN, she ordered me to step outside, alone, for a few minutes a day. She assured me the kid would be fine for a few minutes. My kid’s Godfather told me to bring her to him and ordered me to go do something — anything that had nothing to do with my kid. I was to do something for myself. I drove to the mall and sat in the parking lot for a while. The huge Target sign glared at me, quietly persuading me to buy diapers and formula. How my life had changed in such a short amount of time bewildered me.
I had always moved how and when I wanted to, and in that moment, I felt trapped. I loved Target, but it was no longer the place where I splurged on a cute purse or a random throw pillow. It was the baby market, full of baby stuff, that would monopolize my wallet and my existence. I looked at my empty backseat, the little animal mirror on the headrest. I felt guilty, but I decided to see a fun, silly movie that allowed me to escape for a few hours. And, of course, the kid was fine. She was fine while I showered. She was fine while I took in the air from my porch. And she was fine when I munched on popcorn instead of focusing on her needs for a few hours.
Those newborn lessons stuck with me as she grew. I figured out how to take naps, write, dream and plan. Maternity leave was the second time in my adult life where I had the mental space to really figure myself out, get deep in my wants and needs, and map out my future. I knew I wanted to write, and I knew I wanted to go to grad school. Having a truly fulfilled life would only strengthen my daughter’s life because I am her first model of womanhood.
I think confidence and ambition are super sexy. People with shared characteristics tend to gravitate toward each other. As I was putting myself first in my mommyhood and womanhood, confident, ambitious men were on my line, hoping they could share the spotlight.
I hung out with an old flame when the kid was many months old. I focused on him and our hang time as much as I could, but understandably, my mind was elsewhere. He told me I’d changed, and not in a good way. I wrestled with this slap in the face. I was no longer drinking or smoking weed, and sex was the last thing on my mind, but my insides were the same. My heart and my mind. I was different only because this new responsibility matured my perspective.
This moment made me realize that figuring out where to position dating and romantic relationships would now be a struggle. Where I had once given more to mates that I sometimes gave to myself, I was now unwilling to step down from — or even share — the throne. So, if I came first, and the kid was a close second, love could only come third.
I spent three years focusing on my self-care and got myself into grad school. At the same time I was beaming over getting into my dream grad program, I met a cute, confident, ambitious man. School was now the new baby in my life, battling with the kid for my attention. How in God’s name was I going to focus on a man? Like a skilled circus performer, I tried juggling it all. I’d drop the kid at my parents’ or my sister’s, so I could have a proper date. I’d do my homework in the wee hours of the morning. I made sure I kept up with text and phone calls, and played hooky from work as much as I could. It was overwhelming, to say the least. I tried, and I failed.
As the kid grew, her independence grew, and my ability to focus on myself shifted. Once she could use the bathroom on her own, having a sitter or dropping her with friends became easy. Again, I met interesting men and figured out where to place them, but they were now in competition with my marriage to writing. And this was a union I would be in for the rest of my life. My relationship with writing is one that I need more than dating, or romance, or sex, or drugs. It fulfills me in a way where I’m, at times, indifferent to companionship. Writing may annoy me, cause me unbearable stress and frustration, but it’s the dependable cheerleader who will never leave my side. Writing comforts my sadness, and feeds my thoughts.
Recently, I’ve been coming to terms with being alone. I’m fully aware I’m an awesome catch, but I’m just as aware that only a special, humble soul would be okay with coming in third. I’m the poster-child for needing tons of attention, and I’ve fought tooth and nail in my relationships when I didn’t feel prioritized. So, I understand anyone’s hesitation about dating a person who tells you upfront that you will never be number one. That’s some cold shit, but that’s my truth. As harsh as the truth can sometimes be, it is the purest form of love.
Rahima Rice is an award-winning playwright and founder of The 4208 Group, which showcases the creativity of women writers, with the goal to cultivate their growth and development. Her work includes the short film Making & Breaking (People’s Choice Award Winner, 2020 OLA Film Festival), the web series Room 513, and the one-act play The Eight (2018 Anacostia Playhouse Visions/Revisions New Works Festival, 2020 Pro-Black One Acts Festival).