How Widowed Parenting Prepared Me for Coronavirus Parenting

Son of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley holding on to rope swing in backyard

I looked over at Tommy as he ate breakfast yesterday and realized that he looked just like an advertisement for bad parenting. He was shirtless, watching a Captain Underpants movie on an iPad and eating Eggo waffles that he was liberally dipping in syrup. He wasn’t even using a fork.

I thought about taking a photo of him and texting a few friends with the headline, “mother of the year!”

Of course, that text would have been seeping in irony. No way have I been mother of the year at any point during this pandemic. My kids have eaten more sugar than ever and they are in front of screens way too much (and not just for school.) I’m letting them go to bed more than an hour past their usual bedtime and I’m giving into whining much more than usual. One of them climbs into my bed in the middle of the night at least once a week, and I just move over and say, “come on in.”

It’s not stellar parenting. I’m ignoring them in order to teach or write, sure, but a lot of the time I’m letting things slide because I just cannot do anything more as a parent.

I’m tapped out.

The thing is, this isn’t the first time I’ve been exhausted by parenting. In many ways, becoming a widow with young children was great preparation for parenting through a pandemic. I’m not saying I recommend widowhood. But since it’s been my experience, it’s interesting to reflect on how I’ve grown (if that’s even the right word) as a parent over the past two and a half years.

Immediately after Shawn’s death, I didn’t care much about perfect parenting. My family and friends stepped in and helped me, and my kids seemed to be well-fed and generally stable. But once I woke up and started to really parent them, I quickly realized there was a lot I was going to have to let go. Without a partner, everything was falling on me, which made daily life really hard. I just had to survive, which meant that things like cloth diapers and non-processed foods were obviously out the window. But it also meant that I couldn’t do a lot of basic parenting things, like bathing every kid every night and feeding them vegetables every day. That rule about no screen time on school nights? Out the window. My ability to hold firm when someone whined for another cookie? Gone. My temper? Way up. Sometimes I’d listen to myself yelling up the stairs for my kids in the morning and think, “God, Marjorie, you are a terrible parent.”

Let me be clear about this: no one else ever said this to me. Of course they didn’t. That would be rude.

But I knew I was failing, or at least it felt that way. I had withdrawn my kids from most extracurricular activities. I’d given up on potty-training Tommy. I never cooked at home and I was letting my big kids ride their bikes around the neighborhood unsupervised, even though I knew they were too young for that.

At the time, I felt slightly bad about my parenting. I worried about it some. But honestly, in that first year, I didn’t worry too much. I was mostly consumed with survival, and that made me really hone in on the things that were truly important:

I wanted my kids to feel safe, and I wanted my kids to be loved.

That was it. Yes, I was failing if I compared myself to my non-widowed friends. But I knew that wasn’t fair. I couldn’t parent like I once had, no matter how hard I tried.

“I’m doing the best I can,” I’d say over and over to myself and anyone who would listen. I said it so much that when I was frustrated, sometimes Claire would turn to me and say, “I know you’re doing the best you can.” (She still does this sometimes, reminding me that it’s my go-to phrase when I am overwhelmed. I know that she’s parroting it back to me in those moments.)

Somehow, after about two years, I got into a rhythm where my kids weren’t always watching television while eating Pop Tarts. I wasn’t the parent that I had been before, but I was doing an okay job, I thought.

And then, the pandemic.

It was like starting over at square one. Looking at Tommy yesterday as he ate his Eggo waffles was a reminder of what my parenting had looked like two years prior. It had looked like survival parenting.

In fact, right now I think there’s a lot of survival parenting that we’re all doing. Of course, some people are doing it more than others. Some people are single parenting or managing with very few financial resources or also caring for ill or elderly family members. Some people are really doing survival parenting.

But even for those who are “just” parenting through a pandemic, this shit is hard.

So I’m here to tell you: the kids will be okay. So what if they watch a ton of television or binge out on video games, even if it’s for six months? So what if they eat all sorts of things that come from the freezer, instead of the garden? So what if they only have socks with holes and their hair looks terrible every day?

In my book, as long as they remain safe and feel loved, we’re winning as parents. We need to grade ourselves on a damn curve at this point, and the curve looks like this: does everyone laugh, at least sometimes? Do your kids hug you when they need it, or maybe when you do? Have you managed to keep them fed enough so they don’t have scurvy?

I mean, for real. Maybe in another time and place, your parenting standards would be higher. But we are not in that time and place. We are here, in a global pandemic, mostly locked down at home. If you feel like a super mediocre parent, please remind yourself about the circumstances you face. And then lower the bar.

Because here’s my opinion, based not on parenting books or in-depth research, but on a lived experience of widowhood: if your kids feel safe and loved, you are winning at parenting right now.

Image Credit: Becky Hale Photography.

13 Replies to “How Widowed Parenting Prepared Me for Coronavirus Parenting”

  1. Vincent Grady says: Reply

    As a PE teacher who routinely puts his 3 year olds on the computer so I can teach a remote class or get a work out in while mom is teaching a remote class in the only other room in the apartment here in New York City I can only imagine what it must be like to do alone—- and with a decent public school salary and supportive parents I can only imagine what this would look like with a minimum wage salary!! So yes… it is important to strive to be active, eat better to feel better, and to give our children the best we can—- but on the other side love and a safe place to call home trumps everything in a time of crisis… and what many kids are really needing right now is not another module of math on a really cool platform, but rather some space to breath and just be while they take in the trauma from loss of physical connections and important relationships.

    1. Beautifully said. Space to breathe from the trauma is so key.

  2. Christina Hayes says: Reply

    Thank you! I needed this today. I am just 7 months from suddenly losing my husband, and between that and this pandemic it’s been hard to keep up with parenting!!
    I had just gone grocery shopping and was chastising myself for buying premade meals, something I did in my 20’s lol. I commented aloud how I felt I have regressed, meals are a small unbalanced rotation, so much more screen time for all, and somedays I just count the hours until nap and bed time.
    So this is what I needed to read. That is ok to not have made cute arts and crafts while home during this time, that we will continue to eat store bought bread instead of homemade. My kids and I will survive, and yes, know that they are safe and loved.

    1. Oh DEAR GOD please do not feel pressure to make the cute arts and crafts! I mean, if you have that kind of time and emotional/physical space, great. But for most of us, that’s a bar we don’t need to be reaching. Safe and loved – the key!

  3. You have spent two years fretting about the quality of your parenting – all the while demonstrating your success at these fundamentals – definitely winning.

    1. Thank you my friend.

  4. Jenny Pulliam says: Reply

    This is my same experience, spot on. The scurvy comment made me laugh.

    1. Ha! Yes, no scurvy…at least not yet! 🙂

  5. So much yes to this! Also, the line about scurvy- amazing!

  6. Wait a second! Scurvy is the only thing I remember from high school history. It comes from a lack of vitamin C—so no chance your kids will get it as long as you continue to buy factory-made OJ!!

    1. Haha – this made me chuckle!

  7. A widow friend and I were just talking about this very subject! We feel like we are failing as parents, but we are emotionally and physically spent not having compartmentalization in our lives anymore. Motherhood and work has melded, and it is far from easy. But, absolutely, our first months of widowhood have helped us learn what are non-negotiables and what can give. Thank you so much for writing this!

    1. Yes – there is something about having ALREADY been through Hell that makes it easier to survive this pandemic, at least in some sort of partial way.

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