Girl Talk: Accidental Lessons In Love From My Mother

My mom has a boyfriend.

For most children of divorce this is nothing new–or perhaps all too common–but for me, this is big. Really big. You see, my mother has been single for most of my life. She has great friends, a close-knit family, and a job she feels passionate about, but she’s never really had a guy in her life since my parents divorced.

A typical Friday for her involves her bathrobe, the couch, our dog, and “The Daily Show” accompanied by the phrase “I like my life just the way it is!” Now, I realize that this sounds like the ideal Friday night for many people, myself included. But, it’s not really about the bathrobe or the TV shows or even the fact that it’s a Friday night. It’s about seeing some variation of this over and over again: My mother, alone.

There are some things about the dating world that never seem to change, whether you’re starting college or eyeing retirement.

When she turned 55 last year, I had a realization that hit me like a lightening bolt: “She really is never going to get re-married.” This was a holdover from my childhood. My parents divorced when I was four and for years afterward I’d daydream about whom my mom was going to marry next. This was an exciting prospect at the time because I assumed I’d get to go to the wedding. I also assumed she would have another baby, giving me the sibling I’d always wanted. It was my dad who managed to do both things by the time I was 12.

For mom’s part, there were a couple guys here and there, but nothing serious. The older I got, the less interest she seemed to have in dating—possibly because I had started dating. I never wanted her to have a boyfriend more than during that time. Only children get a bad rap for being spoiled—and, quite frankly, it’s true. But, there’s a catch: You get all of your parent’s attention—especially when you don’t want it. Granted, we had a dog that took some of the pressure off, but the dog doesn’t borrow your car until 1 am or ask to go on birth control. In hindsight, I can understand why my mother couldn’t be bothered with men while she was dealing with me. However, I’m twenty-five now. I moved out years ago, and I no longer need to borrow the car.

My mother hasn’t given me too much love advice directly, aside from the time she told me and my high school boyfriend that we weren’t “mature enough to have a physical relationship, even if you think you are.” (Note to parents: nothing makes your teenager want to do it more than telling them they can’t handle it.) That being said, I’ve learned a lot from from watching her wade back into the dating pool after far too long spent on a deck chair — mostly that she has no idea what she’s doing, but also that there are some things about the dating world that never seem to change, whether you’re starting college or eyeing retirement.

Single men don’t want to be “just friends.” Just because you were never interested to have sex with him doesn’t mean he feels the same way. In fact, chances are he doesn’t. I’ve watched grown men come to the house and make my mother and me a three-course dinner. From scratch. I’ve also heard men offer to take her to Europe. Paris, in particular. It’s usually not until the third or fourth home-cooked meal that my mom realizes he doesn’t just want to try out his new wok or has always harbored a dream of going to the City of Lights with a platonic friend. My mom would always act bewildered, as if it was completely ridiculous that she should want to date any of these men. “I have two brothers,” she’d explain. “I’m used to having friendships with men.”

Yes, but in those cases genetics and the law are standing between you.

If you feel like a dude is acting creepy, trust your instincts. My mother hired a man to do some landscaping around the house. She came home one day to find him packing up after mowing the lawn. Being the outgoing redhead she is, my mom introduced herself and chatted with him for a few minutes before he left. Half an hour later he called her up and asked what she was doing. Caught off guard, my mother answered honestly: “Uh … I’m watching Jon Stewart.” Before she knew it, the lawn guy was at our front door. Then, he was sitting on the couch next to her. While he slowly inched closer to her, my mom instinctively moved away until he finally asked jokingly if she was afraid of him. My mom answered in the affirmative, not sure if it was because of his behavior or because he was only 27. He left shortly after. Two weeks later, our next-door neighbor, who had originally recommended the lawn guy, called my mom up and said that he had asked her if she wanted a massage. He still mows the lawn, but he hasn’t been invited indoors since.

Don’t get serious about someone who isn’t responsible. My mother has a very, very low tolerance for irresponsibility. She pretty much divorced my father because he kept forgetting to mail the electric bill. She claims that this comes from growing up with a stern, German father. Hey, those trains don’t run on time over there by themselves! I suppose that watching my grandfather take care of things instilled in her certain ideals regarding what makes a man, well, a man. My first boyfriend really just wanted a mother. And I, then 21, really just wanted a boyfriend. Eventually I decided that enough was enough and we broke up. Now, I’m dating a man who is super-responsible—something many of my peers overlook when picking potential mates. Granted, it’s not a huge deal if the guy you’re casually sleeping with has a bad credit score, but if you eventually decide to take things further, there can be real consequences for you because of his irresponsibility.

Don’t settle. Ever. My mother was single for a long time before she found someone she liked. And despite those visions of Friday nights on the couch, I can see the value in truly waiting for someone to come along that you just can’t ignore. But, most of all, I’m reminded of a conversation I had with my mother’s mother, Grandma Theresa, before her death in 2007: “I just hope she finds someone that makes her happy.” This, really, is what matters most in a relationship–whether it happens when you’re 26 or 56. If not, there’s always Jon Stewart.

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