Love & Wisdom

Summer of Swipe

A newly divorced mom recounts her first attempts at online dating

By Julie Zack June 30, 2023

Online dating

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

“Persians love white girls,” he said before kissing my clavicle.

His assertion took me by surprise. The whole situation did. I couldn’t have imagined I’d be necking with a 28-year-old, part-time DJ as a 36-year-old all-the-time mom. How did I get here?

A few months before, a wild Saturday night might have involved a babysitter and an early dinner with my then-husband, struggling to stay out past eight so we didn’t have to put the kids to bed. The shift from seemingly happily married to separated and single was as swift as it was overdue.

It’s as amicable a split as I could hope for, but it still sucks. Getting divorced reminds me of childbirth or getting a rotting tooth pulled. The process is painful, but the outcome is worth it.

Inside a week of the breakup, I searched “best dating apps for single parents,” and my foray into online dating began. I spent the summer going out, flirting, meeting new people and trying to figure out who the hell I was in the wake of my split.

In a summer of dating, my experiences were surprising, but not unique. One man asked for pictures of my feet. Another showed up to a date and told me he was married but his wife was cool with it. I received maybe half a dozen pictures of penises from men I never met. I learned that MILF kinks are real. I kissed a man who had surgically split his tongue like a snake. It was a wild ride that feels like watching a movie in my memory.

Each app has its own shtick, something to make it stand out as less of a tangled mess than its competitors in the app store. The truth is, for most of the popular dating apps, the differences are window dressings. Given enough swipes, frequent users will feel a sense of déjà vu as the same faces pop up across platforms. Nobody, it seems, is on just one dating app. And while most dating companies don’t publish statistics or membership demographics, a study by Datingadvice.com found that on every app, men outnumbered women, sometimes by wide margins.

I tried a few apps but focused most of my time on Tinder, Bumble and eventually Hinge. Scrolling through profiles became my pastime in all those little moments that could have gone toward useful but avoidable tasks, like matching tiny pairs of socks or loading the dishwasher. Instead of filling that time with quizzes to assess the exact type of ’90s kid I am, I swiped through dating profiles, often giddy with the sense of power and control it gave me.

Swiping is addictive. There’s some science behind that, though I’m not qualified to quantify it. I got a little high each time I matched with someone, combined with a sense of validation that I might actually be lovable after my marriage had crumpled.

A few weeks into my swiping, I made plans to go on my first date in more than a decade. It went terribly. He was 30 minutes late and I somehow forgot the formula for small talk. (I blame the pandemic.) I got an awkward side-body hug and a free appetizer out of the encounter. Not exactly an auspicious start, but I had ripped off the proverbial Band-Aid, and I felt a little more comfortable trying again.

Is it possible to go on a date with someone you met on an app without discussing the oddity of meeting someone through an app? I wouldn’t know. Underlying all online dating is the tacit — or sometimes explicit — understanding that everyone you go out with or talk to is simultaneously dating or chatting with multiple other people. Nobody owes you anything, and they’re often happy to point it out.

I struggled with this. The last time I was single more than a decade ago, people focused on a single suitor. That’s not to say nobody hooked up or dated multiple people at once, but most of my social circle tended to date one person at a time.

Dating a few guys while messaging a cadre of dudes felt downright weird. How was I supposed to keep them straight? How were they keeping me straight, for that matter? I’ve heard of guys compiling spreadsheets with names, phone numbers, dating sites and small personal details to help keep track. I imagine myself listed as: “Julie; Tinder; runs marathons; great abs.”

Personally, I devised a series of code names with my girlfriends as a kind of shorthand. There was Hot Scott, who had visible muscles I didn’t know existed; The Reporter, who wrote for a newspaper I’d worked with; The Drummer, who had great rhythm; and The Guy with the Split Tongue, who was honestly a lovely human and maybe the most normal of the bunch.

The guys were fun, and more than anything, it felt good to be desired. It’s so different from feeling constantly needed as a mom. And while my children will always be the true loves of my life, I needed to feel wanted for more than my uncanny ability to kiss away boo-boos and locate missing toys.

My first kiss after the separation took place outside of a dive bar in Stanwood that specializes in oysters and Tater tot nachos. The guy was half a foot taller than me, and I craned my neck standing on tiptoes, something I’d never needed to do with my ex.

It felt salacious, kissing someone new. Exciting and sexy, but also a little sad. With each dating milestone I hit, the reality of divorce sank in a bit deeper. Knowing something is for the best and trying to move on doesn’t make the process any easier. Admittedly, I didn’t give myself a lot of time to pause and reflect. That meant falling into the gravity of change, and I wasn’t ready. I craved excitement and adventure.

As I continued to date, I noticed a trend. Almost everyone I met swooped in for a kiss at the end of an encounter, sometimes taking me off guard. If dating in my 20s was all bars and split checks, dating in my 30s seemed to revolve around being taken out for a decent dinner followed by an obligatory smooch in the parking lot.

Most of my dates were one-offs. I just didn’t find many people all that interesting. A few guys made it to a second or third date, but not many. It was a bit of fun, a distraction to help me through.

In a lot of ways, I’m extremely lucky. Nobody harassed me. I never felt unsafe in any of my meetings. My experiences were largely positive. I would be remiss in telling my story without acknowledging that this, if anything, may be the most outlandish part of my tale: I didn’t have any truly scary encounters. That may be because I was in the affluent greater Seattle area, or perhaps a reflection of my discernment, though I’d hazard that more than anything it was luck.

At the start of August, I had a four-hour virtual leadership training that I was dedicated to ignoring. Simultaneously, a man was updating software on his computer and checking his phone. We started chatting on Hinge, an app I’d only downloaded because another guy I was dating recommended it. (Thanks, Hot Scott.)

Dating a few guys while messaging a cadre of dudes felt downright weird. How was I supposed to keep them straight? How were they keeping me straight, for that matter?

He wasn’t my usual type. He wasn’t tall and was six years my senior. But I was bored, and he was cute. We chatted off and on throughout the afternoon. He called me that night and we talked for an hour. We met for drinks the following evening. A week later, I realized I was in love. The feeling was mutual. He never got a code name.

It was as much chance as it was algorithms. We happened to both be free in the middle of a Monday to connect. It was also a week before his birthday would have aged him out of my auto-generated age filters. There was some chance that led to our coupling, in the same way coincidence might make strangers both reach for the same box of cereal at a store or share a bench at a bus stop. We got lucky.

Will it last? Who knows? I thought my marriage would last a lifetime. I never dreamed I’d hook up with a DJ, part-time or otherwise, let alone have that be one story in a slew of adventures.

Maybe it doesn’t matter how long we’re together. A few weeks ago, we drove to Bellingham, and I saw my 90-year-old great-aunt.  She told me life is like a roll of toilet paper:  It goes faster toward the end. My roll isn’t up so I’m living each square as if it could be the last. If today I’m happy and my kids are content, that’s enough for me.   

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