A buddy of mine is more or less involved with a woman who has children. The more or less part is way complex, her being guilt-ridden and controlling. The children part is much simpler: They don’t like him. The woman and her ex-husband are freshly divorced, and the children are not quite ready to accept Mom swapping body fluids with a stranger.

My friend is in a tough spot, and a common one. I’ve been there myself. Beginning in my 30s, any woman I ran across seemed to have children. For many of the others, her not having children was probably the best thing for all concerned, especially the children.

Single moms are tough. Dealing with any woman is hard enough for the average guy. Adding a child increases the complexity exponentially, and if Mom is still seething with resentment at an absent dad, good luck.

My first serious mother-and-child duo were affiliated with a ne’er-do-well drug addict when I met them, and I suppose I looked like Prince Charming—don’t you dare laugh—next to him. I had no children and was essentially clueless. I’d never had a serious relationship with a woman who had a child. Marriage wasn’t up for consideration, so there had been no reason to think of the two of them as a family kit.

The child was usually asleep when I got there, or at grandma’s, or just somewhere—anywhere—else. I loved this mother, though, so I gave her daughter stuff—her first wagon and bicycle and, later, books up the wazoo. That’s one approach.

Then I met my wife. She had an 8-year-old and was still involved with his father, and I found myself unarmed in a minefield with snipers in the trees. If his sire hadn’t been so close by, my stepson and I would’ve had a better chance at a workable relationship. Maybe.

His mother wanted me to act like a father, but that was a waste of time—he already had a father. So I spent a few years trying to be a live-in enforcer, a role I loathed. Children may or may not need discipline, but they do need lots of love, and I just didn’t have that visceral devotion and compassion that showed up when I became a father.

After my sons were born, I started to recognize some of my blunders, and eventually my stepson and I came to accept each other as permanent elements of our environment. I shuttled him to and from school and went to his science fairs and music lessons and open houses and band concerts, so I was at least marginally useful.

I learned later that things didn’t improve for him the way they did for me. In a few years, he’d gone from being crown prince to also-ran in a house where everybody was named Porter but him. New brothers made him feel like an outsider in his own home, and he left as soon as he could. I’m still sorry about that.