To the Widowed Dad on Father’s Day

Being a ‘good enough’ parent is precisely what your grieving children need.

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To Widowed Fathers:

If being a parent under the best of circumstances is a humbling endeavor, then life as an “only parent” after the death of a spouse can feel flat out overwhelming. At a time when you’re trying to make sense of your own loss, your children are relying on you more than ever, you’re needing to keep the trains running at home, and contending with one parenting dilemma after another.

If you are like the dozens of widowed fathers we’ve worked with over the past decade, you’ve dropped your fair share of balls along the way. In our support groups for widowed fathers, we’ve heard story after story of parenting screw-ups ranging from practical failures (“It turns out that May is a little late to start planning my kids’ summer schedules”) to awkward missteps (“I keep buying the wrong kind of tampon for my daughter!”).

The author’s book (Oxford University Press)

And the weightier questions have no obvious answers: how hard to push your daughter to open up about her grief; how your family should honor Mom on holidays and the anniversary of her death; if you should cut your grieving, but defiant, teenager some slack or enforce the usual rules and expectations. Given all that your children have been through, the pressure to “get it right” and not compound their tragedy can be immense.

The relentlessness of being an only parent can take its toll on your self-esteem and lead you to question whether you are a good enough father.

We would like to pass along a gift this Father’s Day from hundreds of widowed fathers who have been in your shoes and who want to “pay it forward.” Their message is this: Be kind to yourself and know that your children don’t need you to be perfect.

There’s a pretty good chance that you weren’t a perfect parent before your spouse died. You’re sure as hell not going to be perfect now. The good news is that it’s okay. Really.

In the 1940s, a British psychoanalyst named Donald Winnicott introduced the notion of the “good enough mother,” which applies equally to fathers and still holds true today. The idea is that perfect parenting is not only unrealistic but also not what’s best for your children. If you don’t immediately meet your son’s every need, he will learn to tolerate frustration and handle disappointment. When you allow your daughter to fail in modest and manageable ways, she learns how to self-soothe and navigate an imperfect world.

The idea is that perfect parenting is not only unrealistic but also not what’s best for your children.

Winnicott’s work serves as an important reminder that being “good enough” is, in fact, what your child needs and that they can withstand your parental missteps. What your children need most is for you to love them, feel connected with them, and provide sufficient structure in their lives during this uncertain time. They need your presence and to feel that you are with them, not for you to be perfect. So on this Father’s Day, take a breath, spend time with your kids, and know that you’re doing just fine.

Dr. Rosenstein is a psychiatrist and Dr. Yopp is a clinical psychologist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where they direct the Widowed Parent Program. They are co-authors of the book, “The Group: Seven Widowed Fathers Reimagine Life.” 

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