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Dating, with children

I've been single for more than five years, and my married friends are getting restless. They ply me with blind date offers and invite me to dinner parties, where I am seated next to available men. When I mention a man's name in conversation -- John or Nick -- they ask about him with rising excitement. It must be hard to be alone, they croon. Your children need a father. It is a truth universally acknowledged, as Jane Austen might have written, that a woman in possession of children is in want of a husband.

My children, on the other hand, are horrified by the very idea. They routinely yank me out of the way of oncoming heterosexual males. They don't think they need a new father; they have perfectly good fathers already.

At parties, if I happen to flirt for more than a few minutes, one of them is suddenly nauseated and has to be taken home. When I go out on a date, my normally self-sufficient children call the cell phone with frequent "emergencies." If a man happens to visit me -- and only the very brave or the very foolish do that -- he often finds himself treated as invisible. If he relaxes and slips off a loafer, he may find that my children's adorable dachshund has left him a pungent "gift" in the empty shoe.

My children insist that all visitors play with their white mice, Romulus and Remus, and my daughter loves to tell my suitors that I won't sleep with anyone who hasn't read Middlemarch by George Eliot. A recent caller was chatting with me on the sofa when my 5-foot-8-inch tall 15-year-old silently entered the room and lay on the floor in front of us. "Can I help you?" I asked. "No, I just like it here," my son answered. The man left a few minutes later.

At first I thought my children were being loyal to their fathers. How sweet. Then I remembered that, even as infants, they did everything possible to keep me from having private moments with the man to whom I was married. Somehow, they always needed to be cuddled, or they woke up screaming with a nightmare at exactly the wrong time.

Children are Darwinian creatures. They know it's in their best interest to keep their parents from ever having sex again with anyone. They're right. The birth of a new child is not a good thing for the existing children -- emotional and financial resources will be spread thinner when a family grows. With flawless instinct and canny intellect they find ways to make it almost impossible to enjoy the very act to which they owe their existence. Maybe it was easier in the old days, when women were expected to be attractive to men only until they got married. Then they were supposed to devote themselves to their children. They went from being babes to being moms, and everyone knew what each one meant. Now they often have to do both. It's a stretch. Is this the body that is built for bearing and feeding children, or is it the body men long for?

Children and men are not interested in the same things, or rather they are interested in the same things but for very different reasons. My passionate love for my children often seemed to conflict directly with my love for their fathers. If I had to name one reason for the failure of marriage, it would be children. How could I be interested in an adult male when my adorable, endlessly fascinating baby needed me?

My children are getting older, though. They have lives of their own. My 22-year-old daughter lives in Washington, D.C. I can almost feel my own life floating away from theirs minute by minute. My days with them feel less like a juggling act and more like a friendly game of catch. This is painful. I miss the joys of mothering, I miss being desperately needed -- but it is also liberating. Men have come to seem more fascinating as my obsession with school admissions and afternoon sports begins to fade, and I spend fewer mornings getting my son ready for school and fewer evenings sweating over his homework.

The other day when a man asked me out, I didn't invite him to my place. I met him at a restaurant. I took my cell phone, of course. Did my son call? No, not once. I told him I was going to a parents' meeting. Hey, two can play this game.

-- Susan Cheever is a columnist at Newsday. "Domestic Bliss" will return next week.

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