Like most people who had never dated a single parent but saw plenty of movies and television shows that dealt with the subject, I long believed that the only thing kids hate more than brussels sprouts and "Masterpiece Theatre" is anyone who presumes to take time away from their mom or dad by dating them. As the media would have it, kids have b.s. detectors keener than bloodhounds'. And when it comes to new romantic partners in their parents' lives, all it takes is one awkward moment at Red Lobster for Mom or Dad's new "friend" to be classified as total b.s.

From young-adult novels to prime-time TV dramas to movies like "Stepmom," the relationship between kids and their divorced parents' love interests is almost always presented as an occasion for neuroses, bad behavior, and that staple of the family drama, resentment issues. The implication is that no matter how responsible and loving the parents are, no matter how careful and thoughtful the new boyfriend or girlfriend is, there's something a little repugnant--and ultimately immoral--about dating someone's folks.

So, six months ago, when I began dating Paul, a single father, I expected to find myself caught in the middle of some potentially thorny "issues." Paul and his ex-wife, Sandy, have three young boys, Marcus, Henry, and Max, ages 13, 10, and 5, respectively. They are extraordinary parents who avoid squabbling, share financial responsibilities, and remain such good friends that it's not uncommon for all of them to spend a Sunday afternoon taking a walk in the country with Sandy's new husband and his kids.

Recently, I've been included in these jaunts, and, as a childless, never-married person, I'm shocked at how little this scenario resembles anything I've seen on television or read in books. In other words, the family dynamic is marked by a happy nonchalance. There's no animosity, no jealousy, no resentment. It's hardly the stuff of prime-time drama.

My caution with Paul's sons were fueled entirely by fictional scenes in which kids storm out of restaurants screaming, "You're not my mom--just leave us alone!"

I put off meeting the boys until I'd been dating Paul for a few months. Although they were aware of my existence, I figured that by establishing my willingness to let them spend weekends with their dad alone, I would mitigate potential feelings that I was taking him away from them. Paul insisted that they were curious about me and actually wanted to meet me, but in my imagination, which had been fueled entirely by fictional scenes in which kids storm out of restaurants screaming, "You're not my mom--just leave us alone!" the more I held back, the better.

When I finally met the boys, they were quiet and relaxed and regarded me no differently than they would any friend of their father's. For all they cared, I could have been Dad's boss, haircutter, or long-lost cousin; my girlfriend status elicited no special eye rolling or neurotic outbursts. Since then, I have attended their basketball games, gone out for pizza with them, and watched such fine video rentals as "Lake Placid" and "The Haunted."

Moreover, I have a very friendly relationship with their mother, who, unlike divorced mothers on television, neither treats me coldly when I'm around nor privately grills the kids for sordid details when I'm gone. On Christmas, Paul and I went to Sandy's house, where the kids live most of the time, and spent a delightful day opening presents and eating turkey. No one put coal in my stocking. No one sulked in the corner and whined because they wanted their parents to get back together.

Still, I find myself trying to balance friendliness with comfortable distance. When we take walks, I sometimes try to hang back a little, letting Paul have time alone with one or more of his sons. For a while, I believed that by being aloof I was doing the right thing. I was letting the kids know that their relationship with their dad was, ultimately, more important than my relationship with him. To me, this seemed like moral behavior. But kids don't interpret aloofness as respectfulness. More often, they just think you're not interested in them.

And the kids aren't the only ones who feel snubbed by my overzealous boundary awareness. When Paul puts his hand on my shoulder or sneaks a kiss around the kids, I'll often whisper, "Ka-ching," a joke referring to my stubborn suspicion that every open display of affection will result in another expensive therapy session for one of the boys when he's grown up and decides that his parents have made a mess of his life. "It's not like that," Paul tells me again and again. "They're always happy to have you along." And even though all the evidence suggests he's right, I can't shake pop culture's incessant messages to the contrary. Even though his view of child rearing comes from firsthand experience and mine comes from the movies, I'm still convinced that my version is more accurate.

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