It happens every year. My son Lio will be sitting in class when his teacher will announce that next creative and fun activity will be making a Mother’s Day card. Even six years after the death of Lio’s mom, when the children have colored pens in hand and construction paper at the ready, I’ll get a slightly anxious phone call from that teacher asking what she should do with my Lio for this project. I’ll tell her to just ask Lio what he wants to do. With a sigh, the teacher will usually apologize and say that Lio’s situation had slipped her mind.
These regular memory lapses on the part of Lio’s teachers don’t ever surprise me. Everyone has a mother, don’t they? It doesn’t bother me either, not in the slightest. I take it as a sign that they think of Lio as perfectly normal and like every other kid in the class. This makes me feel that we’ve done something right.
But I would be lying if I said Mother’s Day wasn’t a bit difficult for us. Of course we feel the lack of Sasha (Lio’s mother and my wife) in our lives. It’s a lack that can still catch us every week—a lack we feel more on holidays and especially and obviously on Mother’s Day.
One year in school, when Lio was quite young, he decided he wanted to make me a card for Mother’s Day. I’ll never forget the pride on his face when he presented it to me and my heart swelled to bursting at his understanding that I was not just the father who played ball with him and built things with him in the garage, but that I was also doing my best to be a kind of “mother” too, with hugs and cake baking and simply holding him when he wanted to cry.
In the six years that have passed now since we lost our dear Sasha, I’ve think I’ve learned a few things about making the best of Mother’s Day and, more importantly, about raising a child without a mother. While every situation is different and every family will find the path that works best for them through their own loss, here are my own lessons:
1. Don’t let Mother’s Day pass unnoticed. Do something special, whether it’s going to a baseball game or doing something more closely connected to Mom. Trying to ignore the meaning of a day that’s so prominent in our popular culture can make you both miss her all the more.
2. Let your children take the lead on Mother’s Day. If they want to “remember,” then get out the photo albums and go for a hike along her favorite trail. If they want to put some space between themselves and the loss, go and watch a movie at the mall and remind yourself that that’s OK too.
3. Be flexible. As you’re trying to fill the gaps in your child’s life left by a missing mom, recognize that mothers do different things at different stages in a child’s life. There’s no point in denying that in our culture fathers tend to push and praise, while mothers tend to support, encourage and console. Your child is going to need different doses of these things at different times. You may not be an expert on psychology, but you are an expert on your child, so stay tuned in to their needs and try to bring to them the kind of energy they need at the moment.
4. Take heart where you can. This is a hard thing for me to write, but when my son Lio lost his mom he gained a devoted and committed father the likes of which he would have never known if his mother hadn’t been killed. We have a parent-child relationship like few others I’ve seen, and this is a tremendously good thing. Remember also that there are numerous studies that show that children who lose a parent through death do better developmentally, emotionally and socially than children who loose a parent through a particularly nasty separation.
5. Create some quality time with grown-up women. Both boys and girls should have some positive examples of grown women in their lives in order to develop well. Organize a regular one-on-one lesson with a woman teacher for an activity that your child enjoys. Lio has a long weekly music session with a woman that often spills over into something social. Even having a regular adult baby-sitter one night a week will get this job done.
6. Don’t be shy about getting help. If you find yourself confused or struggling, find a counselor. Failing that, reading some good parenting books will help give you the insight you need to get through the difficult patches. (This seems particular true for single fathers of young-teenaged girls.) Trusting your instincts will generally serve you well, but nowhere is it written that you have to do this all on your own.
7. Know when to let go. (This is a lesson that I’m still working to learn.) There is going to come a time when your child is not got going to need or want a mother or a father in the way they did when they were young. Going through the loss of mom together will have strengthened your bond. While this is a great thing, it’s probably going to make the letting go harder. But console yourself in the knowledge that it will probably be harder for you than it is for your child. The real trick here is giving yourself permission to be happy when this moment does arrive. It’s the biggest thing to be proud of.
Martin Spinelli is a writer, radio producer and professor. His bestselling book After the Crash tells the story of his son’s miraculous recovery and his own personal transformation. Find him online at www.martinspinelli.com.