As a single dad wading back into the dating pool, Daniel Ruyter was surprised how many women lost interest when he revealed, always in the first conversation, that he had a son.
"At first I took it personally," said the Orlando, Fla., information technology analyst, who was 32 when he divorced and got joint custody of his then 5-year-old son. "I found it very arbitrary that before they got to know me, they had decided against me."
But as Ruyter cycled through "close to 100" first dates and a few long-term girlfriends (a scheduling feat, considering half his week was devoted to his son), his romantic standards heightened in ways they may not have pre-fatherhood. He broke off one relationship because her dream of a downtown condo didn't fit with his need for a yard and swing set. "I think sometimes the women I dated didn't realize that single dads still have parenting obligations that, for me, came first," said Ruyter, now 36, who maintains the blog "Memoirs of a Single Dad" (memoirsofasingledad.com) and recently self-published the book "Memoirs of a Dating Dad."
As fathers grow more engaged in child rearing, and courts more willing to grant them custody, single dads increasingly are dating with kids in tow — in heart if not in hand.
Some 2.8 million single dads live with their kids, up 27 percent from 10 years ago and nearly double the number in 1990, according to Matthew Weinshenker, assistant sociology professor at Fordham University, who analyzed 2010 census data. (The number likely includes many joint custody arrangements.) While single dads face many of the same dating challenges as single moms, there are some differences:
In a survey of 100 single fathers, the vast majority preferred to date women with children, thinking she would be more selfless and understanding of his commitment as a father, said Ellie Slott Fisher, who conducted the survey as research for her book "Dating for Dads: The Single Father's Guide to Dating Well Without Parenting Poorly" (Bantam). Single moms, in contrast, preferred dating men without kids to reduce complications.
Single fathers have a tendency, more than single moms, to "feel incomplete" without a partner in the house, so they risk rushing into a new relationship that may not be right, said single dad Armin Brott, author of several books on fatherhood including "The Single Father: A Dad's Guide to Parenting Without a Partner" (Abbeville).
Proceed with caution
Whether divorced, widowed or never married, single dads have to date with care.
That means telling a date immediately, alongside name and occupation, that you have children, and gauging early whether she respects how much time you spend with them, Fisher said.
It means only introducing your children to girlfriends when you're confident that your relationship is on its way to long-term or permanent status — and, if you're cordial, giving your ex a heads-up.
It means not underestimating your kids' intelligence when you try to pull off sleepovers on the sly. "Every kid I interviewed, at least those 10 and older, told me a story about how their dad had this person stay over and they were supposed to believe she was sleeping in a separate room," Fisher said. Leave the sneaking around to teens, she said, and don't have a girlfriend sleep over while your kids are over, particularly when the relationship is casual and short-term.
A tough hurdle is when your kids dislike your new love interest. As you determine the source of the hostility, be patient and constantly reaffirm your love for your kids, Fisher said. They may just be hurt and angry that their parents' relationship is over, in which case they may need counseling, she said. Or they may notice that dad's new girlfriend becomes nasty as soon as he leaves the room, in which case dad might do well to take their concerns seriously.
Sometimes the kids will love a new girlfriend until she moves in or you get engaged, because you've dashed their hope that their parents will get back together.
But they may also become attached to her, which creates different challenges. Brott's children were "furious" at him, he said, when he broke off a two-year relationship without consulting them first. The moral, he said: Keep everyone's expectations low.
A single father's love life is a balancing act, with a lot of time spent mediating from the middle, Brott said. A common mistake men make is to neglect to have regular conversations with the new girlfriend to explain why he makes choices favoring the children. She can end up feeling unimportant.
While kids remain the priority, don't ignore the needs of the relationship, Fisher said. If your girlfriend has an important family wedding she wants you to attend, that takes precedence over a kid's hockey game, she said.
"Life is meant to be lived," Fisher said, "and in the end, your kids want you to be happy."
Fatherly advice for anyone dating a guy with kids
Dating a single dad has its perks. He's often more responsible and less selfish than his child-free counterparts, said Christie Hartman, a research psychologist, dating coach and author of "Dating the Divorced Man: Sort Through the Baggage to Decide If He's Right for You" (Adams Media). And you have an excuse to see animated movies.
But it also comes with complications. Here are 10 things to keep in mind when your love interest has kids, according to Hartman:
Go slow and leave it up to him to decide it's time to introduce you to the kids, which shouldn't happen until you're moving toward a committed relationship.
Be realistic about his parenting duties and the limits those place on his time and financial freedom. Impromptu weekend trips to the mountains may not be happening.
Once you are in a more serious relationship, allow him to have alone time with his children. They need to bond, and it helps them see you're not taking him away.
Be wary if he doesn't have your back against disrespectful kids. While it's understandable that kids might be hostile at first, you don't want a weak-willed partner who doesn't stand up for you (or himself).
Be wary if he's prioritizing your relationship over his kids. They'll resent him and you, and do you really want to be with someone who isn't a dedicated father?
Be wary if he hasn't introduced you to his kids well into a serious relationship. Compartmentalizing his life might mean he's not ready to move forward. Bring it up nonconfrontationally.
Don't try too hard to make the kids love you. Be a cool friend and show interest in their lives, but give them space, and don't step on their mom's toes.
Consider whether you want kids of your own. Sometime after you've established that it's a serious relationship but before you're madly in love is the sweet spot for asking if he wants more kids. If he says he doesn't, don't expect to change his mind.
If you're looking for a relationship, it's generally best not to date a dad who is still separated because usually he's not finished grieving. There's no rule, but six months after divorce is a safe bet.
Know yourself. If you like to party a lot, or insist on leisurely Sunday brunch, or if you'll feel slighted to not be included in everything, save everyone heartache and don't date a dad.