Ben Westwood: For some women, the fact I was a widower with two children was clearly a deal-breaker
Two years after losing his wife to cancer, Ben Westwood is ready to think about meeting someone else. But it turns out that, on the modern dating scene, being a widower and single father of two is fraught with many difficulties.
The request came out of the blue from my seven-year-old daughter, Isabella. "Dad, I really want a stepmum," she said. But then, little about our recent family life had been expected.
My children lost their mother, Carolina, to breast cancer in June 2013. She was 37. When she was terminally ill, we left our house, jobs and schools and moved back to the UK from abroad. People say that the death of a loved one, loss of a job and moving house are three of the most stressful situations - and we had to endure all three at the same time.
I'm 39, and like many younger bereaved people, I've had to get used to a word I never thought would apply to me: widower. I discovered quite quickly that I hated the word, as it emphasised what I've lost. Nevertheless, in the months after my wife's death, a grieving widower was exactly what I was, all the while trying to keep things together to be a good father. Dealing with the loss of a spouse is bad enough, but seeing your children suffer - waking from nightmares about their mum, crying uncontrollably without warning, getting upset at school at the slightest trigger - is even worse.
Mother's Day became the most dreaded day of the year. The heart of our family had been ripped away from us, and as much as counselling helped me come to terms with the reality, the gaping hole remained.
After a while, though, I realised that eventually I would have to try to fill the gaping hole and I began to think about another aspect of my situation - being single again after 14 years of marriage.
My children were actually way ahead of me. One day, my daughter asked me if I was going to get a girlfriend. I tentatively said I hoped so. After a pause, she asked with a hint of excitement: "Will we get a baby brother or sister?" My son, Jake, nine, shot an angry look at me and said: "I hope not because I'll get jealous." My son's candour illustrated the difference in my children's attitudes towards the idea of me getting another partner - my daughter seemed to welcome it, perhaps excited at the prospect of gaining a feminine role model and companion, while my son already saw it as a threat and potential barrier between him and his father.
Jake had previously said to me that he didn't want a stepmother - the word probably conjured images of wicked characters in Disney films. And this is exactly what I didn't want, and indeed an issue my wife raised towards the end of her life. "I want you to find someone else, but only if they are good for the children," she told me.
I got married very young, at 22, back in 1999, when people met their partners the old-fashioned way - down the pub or at parties. Online dating was about as stigmatised as putting an ad in the lonely hearts column of the local paper, but from conversations with friends, it was clear that this was the way to go now. And so I launched myself tentatively into the online dating scene, a brave new world to me.
There are so many dating sites out there and it became obvious that there is something for all objectives.
I found swiping left or right at photos on Tinder incredibly superficial and gave that up after a few days. Plenty of Fish was a marginal improvement and, like Tinder, free of charge, but from comments on women's profiles, the amount of weirdo men was ruining it for the rest of us. The paying sites such as Match, Zoosk and Soulmates seemed far better in terms of the quality of conversation and there was a greater level of trust, gained by the security of knowing everyone had entered credit card details.
However, the difficulties of online dating in my situation were apparent very quickly: marital status is very prominent on the sites. Initially, I put "prefer not to say" and wondered why I got very little response.
Then a friend pointed out that it came across as cagey and a cover for cheating spouses, of which apparently there are many online. I didn't want to put "widowed", as it seemed the equivalent of walking into a speed dating party wearing a black veil. Eventually, I decided on "single with children" and decided to address the details of my situation after exchanging a few messages.
For some women, the discovery of my widowed status was clearly a deal-breaker; the communication dried up, and I could understand why.
After all, it's a very crowded dating market out there - and grief is a long way from romance. It was obvious that for many single women, my situation was way too complicated. After a while, this series of let-downs became rather depressing. I particularly grew tired of the phrase "no baggage, please" on dating profiles. Surely only sociopaths don't have emotional baggage? Then there were the high expectations - women writing that they were looking for a "knight in shining armour" (I'll get my sword and shield), "Mr Darcy" (I'll get my top hat and tails), "Mr Grey" (I'll get my riding crop and restraints).
Reactions to my situation online were as varied as in real life - ranging from sympathy to avoidance, inquisitiveness and morbid curiosity. The questions came: how long ago was it? What did she die of? Are you really over it? Don't you compare other women to her? Hardly the stuff of romantic courtship, but nettles that needed to be grasped. I began to see patterns - for women without kids, my situation was often too much to handle. If they didn't want kids, then why would they take on mine? And if they did want kids, there must be plenty more eligible bachelors out there.
It was also impossible for me to resist thinking ahead - would they get on with my children? And do I really want any more children, considering how a baby could impact on my children's world, which has already been turned upside down? If the complexity of my situation put doubts in my own mind, no wonder it was ringing alarm bells among the women I was chatting with online.
Fellow single parents were those I seemed to have most in common with, because divorce and separation involve a kind of grieving process.
The loss of the family unit, sense of abandonment, complications with how the kids deal with the situation - there was plenty of common ground. I met several single mothers, some of whom became friends, others brief, unsuccessful relationships, and I began to feel a bit like Hugh Grant in the film About a Boy - only I hadn't invented my children.
As any single parent will tell you, simply having the time to meet, and organising two babysitting schedules to coincide, is an achievement in itself. Play dates became a solution to this when I began dating a younger single mother.
Organising babysitting was so difficult that we ended up meeting up in the park, avoiding any physical contact so that my children would think we were just friends. I had already thought carefully about this and decided that I didn't want to get my children's hopes up that their dad had finally found someone. In particular, I didn't want my daughter to begin to fantasise that she'd found a maternal figure. It was definitely the right decision, because the relationship didn't last anyway.
Nobody can ever replace my children's mum, but at present I'm trying to find the next best thing by building up platonic relationships with women that do not depend on romance - the mothers of my children's friends, and neighbours.
After a year or so of dating, I've met a lot of people, made friends and had short relationships, but I'm not sure I'm closer to finding the right person. It doesn't seem difficult to find a girlfriend, but finding a stepmother for my children is certainly a tall order.
Friends say I should stop looking so hard, that maybe she'll just appear when I least expect it. Here's hoping.