Q&A: toddler preference and blended families

Greeting from blazing hot San Antonio. Anon has a tough two-parter today and I hope we can help her. As painful and frustrating as this divorce process for me has been, I've always felt lucky that my kids' dad is his best self with/for them. My heart really goes out to those of you with dicey father situations. I hope we can help Anon:

The talk about toddler preferences for parents really hit a nervethis week, and I wonder of some of the other single or almost-single parents out there may be able to offer some wisdom.  I am a single parent of an 18-month-old boy, and have been thinking about this topic a lot lately.  My son's dad plays with him about twice a week at my house, but isn't emotionally stable or organized enough to take him anywhere alone.  We haven't been a couple since I was three months' pregnant, so this is all DS knows.  He LOVES his dada and is so excited when he comes to play, and they have a great time together.  His father doesn't come over when he isn't doing well, and hasn't made an effort to have longer or more independent visits, so DS hasn't been exposed to the scary temper or other issues that kept me from marrying his dad.  As far as he knows, dada is an awesome loving wonderful presence in his life.  Since DS was born I have worked hard to find the good in his dad and find ways to facilitate their relationship under the circumstances.  I know that eventually DS will become aware of some of the problems his dad struggles with, and I can't fully protect him from that, but I can and do strive to keep him safe from the physically scary stuff.  So question # 1 is, is anyone else out there in a similar situation, and do they have any advice or thoughts about how to make this work?  On my very best days, I can imagine that with a lot of structure and some limits, they will have a mostly positive, joyful relationship, and I will be somehow able to move on in my own life and build a family around me and DS.  On my bad days, it seems impossible to figure out how we will all get through this. 

My other, related question is about stepfathers and how they figure into a boy toddler's life.  I have been thinking I would like to start dating, but I'm having trouble envisioning the role a new man would play in my son's life.  Another father?  An uncle?  Does step-dad always play second fiddle when there is a bio-dad in the picture?  My son's father is emotionally impaired in ways that I think will make it hard for him to have a primary care relation-giver relationship with DS unless something drastically changes or he marries a very stable woman who can help.  And I really feel as if DS needs fathering his bio-dad can't provide, but every time I try to imagine a new boyfriend, in my mind he turns into chopped liver whenever bio-dad shows up.  Not really a great bonding scenario for a new guy.  I am so ready for a partner, friend and lover to share this life with, but I keep getting stuck when I try to visualize it. Can kids really have more than two parents?  Do they always feel like they have to choose (I know I did)? Can step-parents be "real" parents or are they always secondary? Is it already too late for my son to fully bond with another parent?  If they never deeply bond, how on earth could we ever be a real family?

Help! I want to move forward but I'm getting stuck on this.  Can anyone out there offer me some hope for how a blended family like this might work?

I know it doesn't seem like it now, but you will be able to get through this. For two reasons: 1) You have to, and 2) You're smart and resourceful and you'll do what you need to for your son to be safe and also have as much of a relationship with his father as he can. I'm going to tell you what my mom has said to me dozens of times over the past year and a half:

"Thousands of women have done this, even when they didn't think they could. You can do this, too, honey, and I'm so proud of you."

I may have slightly better advice about the second half of your questions, about a hypothetical future stepdad (HFS). Kids have room in their minds and hearts and lives for all kinds of adults in all kinds of roles. Many kids grow up with two grandmothers and don't confuse them. Some kids grow up with four or more grandmothers! Kids have room for full-time babysitters in their hearts along with moms and dads, custodial aunts and moms in jail, grandparents they never see because they live around the world, and blended families of all kinds.

As long as an adult loves your child and respects him as a person, they'll be able to form a relationship.

HFS is going to understand that you and your son are a package, and that loving you means loving him, so you'll be able to work it out. It may not be super-easy, but is love and forming a family ever easy? There are tons and tons of resources out there for blending families and step-parenting to help you. (I'm not there yet, but once I start dating again I'll do some real research and report back.)

They are going to end up working out the dynamics of their own relationship, which is what you want for them to be able to have a true relationship without you as the gatekeeper, anyway.

Also, and this is merely anecdotal, I haven't found that men (the good ones anyway) seem to shy away from a woman with a child (or two). Even long before I was even thinking about getting back out there I started getting approached by guys for whom my being a mom seemed to be part of the attraction. So don't feel like this is going to limit the future you're going to have.

Any advice from women who have been in either or both situation?