By Guest Blogger Stacy Leighton

I sat at the university coffee shop, waiting for my son. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop on the sorority-age girls behind me. I swear! Sometimes though, you can’t look, but you can’t look away. They were listing the top 5 characteristics of the perfect future husband. I wondered idly if their criteria might be different in 10, or even 20, years from now. By then they would probably have a few children, some stretchmarks and more life experiences. Their perfect future husband would embody these traits:

1.) He HAD to be tall, dark and handsome.

2.) His hair and physique had to be perfect. This topic warranted much detailed description and, I admit it, I sort of tuned out.

3.) His education, career and political leanings had to be his number 1 priority.

4.) Everyone will be impressed by him; public perception of their intended was critical, “I mean, what will the neighbors think?”

5.) He has to have a lot of money.

Before having children, our mutual compatibility was our only consideration. If our date made the first cut, it was a bonus if our friends and family also liked them. But that was not necessarily a deal breaker. After that, it was only a matter of perfecting our dance and learning to live together. Of course, that’s not as easy as it sounds, but building a relationship between two people is infinitely less complicated than relationships between blended families.

I decided that dating before, and after, children would be two completely different adventures. I tried to remember my own criteria for the perfect future husband. It has been 29 years since I dated and, well, I just don’t remember. What I do know is that life experience and parenting changes things. I am different now, so my dating criteria would be, too. Many of my contemporaries have dated post-children. They tell me it is more complicated. But to them I say, it is no less important. After all, how can we take care of others if we don’t take care of ourselves? What are we teaching them?

Once my friends were ready to start dating again, their criteria were nothing like they had been 20 years before. They tell me that tall, dark and handsome is less about their date’s physical appearance, and more about their character. Sure he needs to be attractive to you, but attractive to others? Not so much. After all, crow’s feet are laugh lines and stretch marks are trophies. His education and career aspirations are important, but never more important than family. And keeping up with what the neighbors think? They laughed and said, “Oh, we’ve outgrown that.”

Dating with children also implies that you are a part of a package deal. Many have said they prefer to date someone who has children. There are, however, some single-never-married-no-kids prospects who understand what it’s like to live inside a popcorn popper. Which, let’s face it, having kids can be like. They are used to living alone and knowing everything will be exactly where they left it, and still they don’t mind confusion. If you find one of those people, keep them. But being up front with your date about your family priorities and peccadillos is always a good idea.

Lastly, if they make the first cut, when you are really ready to see a future with this person, only then should you introduce him or her to your children. Explain to your children that this person has made you happy and that their happiness is also important to you. If you are planning a future together, explain to the children that this is not a replacement parent; they are not taking someone’s chair at the table; you are simply asking them to add another chair. I am told, and I have seen, that where there is love, friendship and acceptance, after-children dating and blended families can be a beautiful thing.

*The article previously ran in Forsyth Family magazine, and was republished here with permission.