Reminder: This is the final week to send in your stories for my final widower relationship book. Learn more about the stories I’m seeking here.
Last week I answered an email from a GOW who was worried about the parenting skills (or lack thereof) of the widower she was dating. This week I want talk about widowers who find themselves raising minor children alone. I don’t want to talk about granular examples of good or bad parenting because that differs from family to family. Rather, I want to offer some suggestions on what widowers can do to help them with the challenges of being a single parent and bring stability and direction to a home that’s been rocked by the death of one parent.
I write this as a parent of 5.5 kids and one who was a single dad (if you can really call it that) for all of nine days after my late wife died. And though I didn't have the responsibilities of taking Hope to school, feeding her, changing her diaper, or other parental activities during that time, the burden I felt on my shoulders was tremendous. In the early days when I thought Hope might actually have a chance of pulling through, I felt completely overwhelmed at the thought of raising her alone. That was something I was going to do with Krista. Never in my life did I fathom having to do such an important job by myself. So I sympathize with the struggles that widowers feel as they find themselves as the only parent for their kid(s). If Marathon Girl were to pass on today, the weight of responsibility that would come with raising three boys and two girls alone would probably crush me.
That being said, just because life throws you a curve ball doesn't give you an excuse to abdicate your duties as a father. I’ve seen too many emails from women who want to stay in the relationship because of the kids. They see kids basically raising themselves because they stew in their grief and can’t be bothered to be a dad anymore. (And as much as my heart breaks for these kids, I usually tell these women that unless the widower’s willing to come around, these relationships where they become a “single parent” because the widower won’t help out aren’t worth it.)
So here are some high-level suggestions for those who find themselves struggling to be a single dad.
- Stop lying to your kids. Lying to your kids is when you tell your kids something and then don’t do it. For example, you tell Junior that he can’t have desert because he didn’t do his home work. Dinner is finished and the ice cream is passed out and Junior starts to throw a fit that he doesn't get any. You give in and give Junior some ice cream so he’ll shut up. Congratulations, you've just lied to Junior. Think he’s going to believe you next time you say something? Mean what you say and say what you mean.
- Let the kids share in the responsibility around the house. As a single dad you can’t do everything by yourself. The kids need to help out. How much they help out depends on their age and ability. Whether it’s setting the table, cooking dinner once a week, mowing the lawn, or cleaning the bathrooms, they need to shoulder some of the responsibility to keep the house running as smoothly as possible.
- Don’t make excuses for them because of their loss. There’s a tendency to let kids get away with bad behavior when they or the family goes through a big, traumatic event (death of a family member, job loss, etc.) Bad behavior is bad behavior. Don’t let them get away with things you wouldn't normally let them do simply because they’ve lost their mom. If you let “mom’s death” become an excuse for acting out, getting bad grades, or staying out past curfew, you’re doing to end up dealing with a self-centered brat very quickly. Quash it before it spirals out of control.
- You’re a parent first and foremost. Don’t fall into the trap of being their friend to help them move on. You’re a parent. You need to stay no and give your kids an environment where they can feel safe. But being a parent also includes creating a place where they can talk openly to you and know that you’ll listen or even cry on your shoulder. But you’ve got to remember your role is that of dad and not best friend. Don’t slip out of it.
- Read Jenn’s comment on my last post. Jennings a regular reader to this site. Until last week I had no idea she was the child of a widow. She describes her experience being raised by a widow as follows. I think it provides a good perspective on what our kids really want.
I am the child of a widow (my father died when I was 8), and my mother was guilty of over-indulging us. It was awful. I felt guilty every time she gave us anything, because I knew she was doing it in an attempt to compensate for the loss of my father. It didn’t work – there isn’t anything that can make up for a loss so significant. Indulging a child on occasion is okay, doing it as a way of parenting on a regular basis is not. My brother was younger when my father died, so he pretty much grew up with an attitude of expecting to get everything he wanted, whenever he wanted it. He is still this way.
What kids need when a parent dies is consistency, understanding, and for the remaining parent to actually BE a parent, not a friend. Whatever rules were in place BEFORE the mother died, should be in place now. I understand being more flexible at first – when your whole world has been turned upside down. But you cannot live, and you definitely cannot thrive, in the upside down world. Kids need to know that even though there has been an ENORMOUS change, that some things are still unchanged. I would have felt safer if my mom had still been the same mom (regarding her rules and expectations of me) after my father’s death as she was before.
I know that it can’t be easy (my mother definitely struggled) to say ‘no’ to a child who has lost a parent, but they need it. Otherwise, it’s like losing 2 parents. As a kid who was over-indulged after losing her father, all I can tell you is that what I wanted was for my mother to be my mother. I NEEDED restrictions, I NEEDED proper nutrition, I NEEDED a bedtime, and I NEEDED to hear no. All kids do. Would I have whined and been upset at times? I’m sure I would have, but all kids do – it’s a normal part of growing up. I ended up parenting myself for the remainder of my childhood, and while it definitely made me more mature, I admit that I still feel resentment toward my mother for her “softness” after my father died.
You can read her entire comment here.
No parent is perfect. I certainly don’t claim to be one. But whether you’re a single parent or have a spouse to help you out, we all make mistakes. But you can’t become a “dead” parent to your kids. You still have to keep things running as smoothly and give them some sort of normally to your children’s lives. It’s not always easy—especially on days when you’re absolutely exhausted. But there are no days off when it comes to being a dad. You've got to keep pressing forward and being the best father you can possibly be.
Feel free to share your own thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.