Part 1: The Sexy, Sad French Dads
I date a lot. In fact, I love dating! (Until I don’t.) I’m also an “older” dater—I turn 40 this year.
But in my two decades of dating and never marrying, I’ve become someone who gathers up interesting stories of men in different countries (if I’m being honest, mainly France and, of course, the US). And then these men become a “type.” I smoosh them into a category, tell a funny story to my friends, eat at a nice restaurant or two, glean a little wisdom, have sex or don’t, and it amounts to very little love but often a nice friendship.
So what’s it like looking for a relationship that fits my lifestyle as a peripatetic, avoidantly attached, freedom-loving, ultra-independent 39-year-old? I’ll tell you!
But first, a disclaimer: I recognize that it’s not cool to stereotype a whole culture into two or three men. I realize that every man is his own cute, complex, sometimes sexy amalgamation of insecurities, strengths, and history. But for the sake of the story, I have to do a little smooshing. I have to say what I see, the touching similarities.
In general, the men I date are dads in their 50s. And the dads are sad.
It’s common for me to meet men in their 50s or late 40s, divorced, most of whom were left by their wives years ago and are a little angry about it still (they are, ahem, quite often the victims). They’re sharing joint custody of 1-3 kids. These men have jobs—although in France a few of them are “in between” jobs, which is weird in your 50s, right?—and they usually don’t have a lot of friends. Where are the friends of the dads?!
Women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, whether they’re divorced or still married, tend to have, um, a lot of friends. The single dads are spending time with their kids, and are YES very good dads, but many have fully admitted to me that their friendships suffered during their husband-and-dad era.
I dated a stunningly beautiful 52-year-old French dad who my mom referred to as “Prince Charming” (I mean, he really looked like a grown-up Disney prince). And although he’d lived in Paris for his whole life, I was the one showing him places, introducing him to cocktails (yeah, actual cocktails, not just cocktail bars), poetry readings, Anglophone events. We joked about it, and he said dating me was like “studying abroad in his own city.” It was as if for 25 years, as a devoted husband and father, he had his head buried in the sand of the 5th arrondissement. Now here he was, poking his head out of the sand, matching with an American on Bumble, realizing his city is no longer the same city he grew up in, and having what he called his “renaissance” (a cuter way of saying mid-life crisis).
Dads! Make sure you have friends! Because when your marriage ends (like it probably will, sorry), you’re going to need those guys and gals. Have female friends! Keep trying new things! Develop hobbies! Stay open, stay flexible in body and mind—because remaining open as you age is pretty damn sexy, and if you remain open, maybe your marriage has a slightly bigger chance of surviving.
Also, this is obviously not a purely French thing. My 50-something single girlfriend in New Orleans encounters sad dads. And the band The National has made it a whole genre, according to this article in the New Yorker.
The dads don’t have a lot going on. They want a new, slightly younger girlfriend to bring a little razzle-dazzle to their worlds.
But when you invite someone into your world, she’s going to ask a lot of questions. Moi, I’m always very curious about what happened in your marriage. I’m going to ask prying questions. Is this not the best approach for dating? Sure. Does it set these men up for failure? Yeah. Probably the best thing a French dad can say in reply to my questions is:
(A) that the divorce was amicable
(B) that he and his ex-wife are still friends
(C) that he’s done a lot of therapy since the divorce
(D) all of the above!
But so few of the dads have done any therapy. (Many are, eek, not even divorced yet—or out of the shared apartment but “bird-nesting” instead!) Therapy is not a big thing in French culture, and that’s too bad. Because most American women want a man who has done “the work” (whatever that means).
Crazy thought, but: If you hate your ex-wife, you probably aren’t ready to begin a new relationship! A girlfriend should not be your therapist—even though we’ll ask questions that suggest we want to be your pseudo therapist. And if you do want to date, you might click more with an also-divorced woman raising kids, who knows what you’ve gone through. (Which is not to say that a never-married woman and a divorced dad can’t find love—they can!)
So why do I keep dating the sad dads? Why have I resigned myself to accepting their baggage: divorces, lawsuits, children, angry ex-wives? In part because I think older men are sexy, and wisdom is sexy, and I respect these lovely humans for committing to a marriage, for believing in marriage in the first place, for believing in love, for being fallible. I adore them for trying.
I haven’t really tried.
But I would like to. I really plan on it. One day. After more dating. After I’ve written all the stories. And found the right person, who is happy, who is sustained by his passions, even after his heart—like all of our hearts—has broken.
Because the sad dads are really just heartbroken, and scared. Like we all are. They didn’t want to be divorced, they didn’t want to be starting over, they didn’t want the relationship to sour.
How do we manage to stay in monogamous relationships and not become kind of dead inside, not become so codependent that we lose our passions, our friendships, our independent community, our sense of self? That, to me, is the scariest thing and the reason why I’m a commitment-phobe: I see the way relationships can provide love, support, security, and comfort, but also sometimes this inner death—which can then contribute to the end of the relationship. And to the sadness of the dads!
(The moms, the ex-wives, don’t seem that sad; I don’t know what their secret is… more friendships, community, therapy? They’ve done “the work”? All of which is interesting, given that many mothers (subconsciously or through societal pressure) shape their identities around their children, but that’s rarely the case for men. As one woman in this article on mothers regretting motherhood points out, “Some men may feel their children are central to their identity but I’ve never seen it.” Ouch. Too true!)
In related news, I recently had a poem about my experience being the new girlfriend of divorced dads, “I Thought the Ex-Wives Would be Nicer,” published in the very hip journal HAD. You can read it here.
The single men I know who aren’t sad are the ones who’ve retained their passion for their careers or their art, and they’re still pursuing those passions, feeling that they’re making a contribution to their community or the world. Or they’ve gotten sober. Or they have a robust social network—whether it’s writers or high school friends, they have people with whom they talk often and can be vulnerable. Or they’re just open to surprisingly good things still happening to them, albeit with a touch of yearning, and that combo keeps them alive inside.
They believe, perhaps subconsciously, what I do: There is always another love.
It’s out there for you, even if you are sad.
Originally from Santa Maria, California, Kristin Sanders is a writer living in Paris. She is the author of Country (Trembling Pillow Press, 2017), two poetry chapbooks, and an e-book for freelancing women. Her work has been included in Prose Poetry: An Introduction (Princeton University Press, 2020) and the poetry anthologies Alcatraz (Gazebo Books, 2022) and Dancing About Architecture (MadHat Press, 2024).
Her essays, fiction, and reviews have been published in Hobart, Longreads, Literary Hub, Columbia Journal, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Guardian, Bitch Magazine, HTMLGIANT, and forthcoming in the Weird Sister Anthology (Feminist Press, 2024). She holds an MFA from Louisiana State University and has taught writing for over 15 years, most recently at the University of Arizona Global Campus. You can follow along on her Substack, “Part Poet, Part Guide” or find her on IG: @kristindianesanders.