I'm a dad and I've unexpectedly found myself raising my son effectively alone.

I'm in an atypical single-parent situation, but more general single-dad advice would probably be better for other readers. My wife received a brain injury a couple of years ago, leaving her profoundly disabled and almost entirely unable to communicate. She lives with us and we're still very much in love, but she's mostly an immobile mute observer. She understands everything that is going on and though she can laugh along with us, she can't put together sentences complex enough to critique my parenting skills.

Everything I read about being a good dad relates to the roles that a father should fulfill (typically [traditionally] being the firmer hand of discipline, engaging in more rough-and-tumble, doing father/son projects, etc). These are all things I find myself doing naturally anyway, so I guess I'm a fairly stereotypical guy being a fairly stereotypical dad.

However, I feel less aware of what the traditional motherly roles are that my son is now missing out on. I'm sure I'm going to have to make a conscious effort to give him the things that his mum would more typically provide, to ensure he turns out as emotionally and socially well-rounded as possible.

My son is an only child. He's 4 years old now. We effectively lost his mum when he was just turning 2 - I've muddled through the last couple of years.

  • 4
    I added a few tags that might help others find your question later on. Your situation is difficult and I like that you want to support/add to the mother's parenting contribution. Nov 15, 2013 at 12:31
  • With apologies to Skippy, I think the question still doesn't have the right title. I haven't enough points to change it, but I think it should read, "How can a dad be both a mother and father?" (Leaving someone else to ask, "How can a mom be both a mother and father," BTW. Because while the general answer is the same, the specific, useful, day-to-day examples will be very different.) Nov 21, 2013 at 11:00
  • I'll go with that.
    – teedyay
    Nov 21, 2013 at 11:40

8 Answers 8


Mothers do what fathers do: love their children unconditionally and raise them to be independent, happy contributing members of society. My husband and I have different approaches towards the kids, but those are much more based on personality and background than gender. We both love our kids to death and show them that every day, and we both try to teach them how to live in the world and help those around them in our own way.

It sounds like the reading you've done is focused on traditional gender-based roles of parenting, but as I'm sure you know, every family is different. My parents were kinda reversed; my mom was the disciplinarian, while my dad was the cuddler. They're still that way with their grandchildren today. So it's not a gender thing, or even a two-parent thing: it's a personality thing, I believe.

Your son may end up with a unique upbringing, but he knows that even if Mom can't communicate like she'd like to, she loves him. And he knows you love him, and that Mom and Dad love each other. That is the basis for a secure childhood, IMHO.

Since your wife can't really communicate her feelings about child-rearing, try to do things from time to time as you believe she would have, especially if it might be counter to how you'd do things. If you might be tempted to cuddle him when he gets a bump on his knee, while she might distract him by making him giggle, try that. It'll give you a different perspective on rearing him while hopefully letting your wife know that her perspective and priorities as a parent are still vital to the family as a whole.


First, just let me say, I know how devastating a brain tumor is because one of my childhood best friends has one. It has been removed and she is still there but communication is difficult and she gets really frustrated and sad frequently. It looks as though it is on the re-bound unfortunately too. So, the communication abilities she has regained are likely to go completely if she lives through the next couple of years. I know it is really hard and I feel for you. I hope you are all seeking help and friendship in a support community for the frustrations particular to your situation.

To Answer Your Question Stereotypically, the mothers provide the more nuturing side of the coin, the opportunity to practice how to treat a women later in life (chivalry and all that), while also doing the "multi-tasking" aspect of the parenting. By that I mean, tracking everyone's schedules, organizing the parties and catering, checking up on every one's diets, sharing in the load of helping with homework, etc. I think in general these days it isn't really about what moms usually do or what dad usually would do (my parents were both the opposite of their stereotypes naturally. Mom was the disciplinarian while Dad was the nurturer/listener).

As I see it, making sure a kid has both masculine and feminine influences is really about making sure they get a feminine and a masculine viewpoint when it comes to whatever challenges they face. You know, another safe "shoulder" to turn to during those teen years. Boys and their Dads tend to rub each-other the wrong way while Mom's and Daughters have trouble maintaining patience with one-another through adolescence. Mom would normally provide support to dad while also be a calming and supportive peacemaker for the son. Providing a calming influence over the household.

It sounds like your wife can still do a lot of really good listening. If she can communicate at all, she is providing some of that despite her ccondition. Also more important than the "stereotypes," Are having somewhat contrasting views that help to keep each-other in balance. Under the more standard reasons for single parenting, I'd recommend making sure there is an aunt or close female friend around that can provide that "other" view-point for your child to turn to. Such a "support" might be good to have around, but for you, things are more complex. So, I recommend more specifically having Mom's family around if possible. I hope there is family around that is helping anyway. Keep your child close to his mom and her closest relatives while doing exactly what Valkyrie suggests and you probably don't have much to worry about in terms of making sure your son gets what he generally would need from the typical "mom" role.

  • Thanks, that's really helpful. The thing I miss most is having a second opinion so that's certainly a good thing to try to find from somewhere. Her family are 6000 miles away in another continent (contrasting my family's mere 100 miles), but I'll see what I can do. :)
    – teedyay
    Nov 15, 2013 at 21:35
  • Does everyone have access to Skype or a similar program? "Closeness" doesn't have to come from proximity. Regular letter writing and photo sending . . . ? Nov 15, 2013 at 21:40

Some (or even all) of these can be incredibly difficult to provide as a single dad but I would point out:

  • Hugs - not the love you dad - love you son kind of hug but the sniff - thank you for helping me feel safe, warm and deeply loved kind of hugs.
  • Not Dad - someone who will sympathise with the child's frustration with the restrictions that Dad imposes but continues to support dad's decision in spite of all objections.
  • Different/Same sex - I know this feels strange but a child's attitude towards same-sex and opposite-sex relationships are drastically influenced by their relationship with both of their parents.
  • Patience - I know from personal experience (as an only dad for many years) that it is often very difficult to maintain the level of patience needed to ensure a child feels loved and needed at all times. Bringing up a family on your own - whatever your gender - stretches your capacity for patience to its breaking point.

I am not suggesting that dads cannot fulfil these roles - but some of them can be difficult and incredibly wearing.

  • Yep, agree with the patience thing! I think the "different hug" would be a great place to start: that's something that's missing at the moment. We're good at the Man Hugs; not so much the snuggling cuddles. Thanks!
    – teedyay
    Nov 15, 2013 at 21:38
  • "Drastically influenced" -- in what way? A boy who has a bad relationship with his father is more likely to be homophobic (than one who has a bad relationship with his mother)? I can't believe that, are you sure (and why?) Nov 16, 2013 at 18:07
  • @FelixDombek - Sorry to seem to mislead - I meant that the stereotype built by a child of what adults of each sex should be like is strongly influenced by their relationship with each parent. I sincerely doubt that their sexuality will be influenced in any way by their relationship with either parent - except perhaps in abusive relationships (which I hope are rare) where I cannot comment. Nov 17, 2013 at 0:09
  • @OldCurmudgeon I think the term you're looking for is "gender roles"
    – Izkata
    Nov 17, 2013 at 6:34
  • 2
    +1 for "Not Dad" - teedyay is asking how he can be both mother and father, and you are wise to point out here that the most important role of a mother is to be a balancing force for Dad. To provide balanced parenting, you may need a friend (male or female) who will let you know when you are being too soft or too hard or to whatever, and perhaps provide someone else for your son to talk to that he can trust (more important the older he gets) - a friend's mother or a relative maybe.
    – MJ6
    Nov 17, 2013 at 15:34

When you compare two groups, the differences within one group are bigger than the differences between those groups. So there will be women who exhibit more typical male behaviour than you. In some situations you will exhibit more typical female behaviour than other women. Nothing wrong with that.

Be true, be honest to yourself, and don't want to be the mother. Make sure that other women are present in his life: aunts, school teachers, neighbours, etc. Show that you respect those women, and he will trust them and use them as role examples.


I have a 15 yr old daughter. My wife and I do not have stereotypical gender roles. We are both there for our daughter as parents. She'll go though a situation with me, seeking advice, and then go to her mother with the same story. At first, this struck me as odd, but then I understood, she needed to talk it out. Having two parents helps, but this is more about patience, to listen attentively, and make the child a priority. We both worked, but made sure that after we were home, it was family time, and after my daughter went to sleep, it was adult time.

It was important that she learn how to cook, not because she's a girl, but because it's a life skill. I am the cook. And now, she's pretty much 'launched' as a skilled cook as well.

I learned early on, the Woody Allen quote "80% of success is just showing up." My wife and I started as over-achievers, trying to plan 'quality' time with our daughter. Many friends set us straight, all time with your family is quality time. Just be there, let him know that he's not a second choice, he's number one. But just like being good parents meant also having date night just us two, you need time to yourself or with friends. Don't give up your own life.

I know you were asking about covering for what Mom might have given. And perhaps I really didn't answer that. But just the fact that you'd ask such a question means to me that you're such a caring parent, that you'll be fine.


First, even this (more generally useful) question doesn't exactly fit your circumstances. Your son has a mother -- you do not need to be both mother and father. What you want to know is, are there social/emotional things he would normally learn from his mother because she is a mother, either explicitly or from his relationship with her, that are essential to his becoming an emotionally and socially well-rounded individual. Or even, what benefits accrue to a child who has a mother, specifically because she is a mother, not a dad (and how can you supply them)?

My short answer is, there is nothing a mother needs to do that a dad cannot also do (see Valkyrie, balanced mama, OldCurmudgeon, et al.); and your concern with his emotional growth, your understanding that you have a stereotypical masculine way of parenting and that there are other ways of doing things, and your sensitivity towards your wife, tell us that you will provide him with everything a mother needs to supply. And the extras -- someone to make Mother's Day cards for in school; another person in his life to love him unconditionally -- your wife can still supply.

My longer take on the question is, I think perhaps you are worrying if at some point style can become substance. That is, maybe you kissed his toes at four weeks, but stopped when he turned three -- but you think your wife would still be doing it. So he's missing out on that. Or maybe one of his playmates fell on the playground last week, and you watched his mother swoop down to gather him up, all concern and kisses; while the day before you had just told your son cheerfully, "You're all right, buddy," and watched while he picked himself up and, somewhat uncertainly, began playing again. Or maybe you're wondering about all those long discussions about feelings that women are supposed to have!

If so, to the question of whether your son needs the things you see other kids' mothers doing, I would answer, "No."

Children need lots of loving touch. That can be lots of hugs and kisses; or it can be lots of wrestling matches on the living room floor, then sitting side-by-side afterwards to watch the ball game.

Children need to have their physical hurts taken care of. Anything serious you will deal with; for minor scrapes, everybody has their own style. I know a mom who cheerfully tells her three girls, "Just rub it!" even after one gets hit by a pitch. And another who says, "Shake it off!" and has taught her daughter to brush her hands against each other briskly, like she was shaking sand off them. My own style was to kiss it better, but around age three I started also telling my daughter, "Yup, that one will hurt for a minute, then be better," or "That will hurt for five minutes." And while we're none of us happy to see our daughters get smashed into the boards during a rough game, BTW, we certainly don't jump up and run down to the ice.

Children need to be told explicitly, "I love you." I'm sure you do that! But also, when I come home from work, sometimes I just stand and look at my daughter, letting only my face show that I think she's the most amazing creature in the universe and I am so gratified to have her -- and after a few moments her face totally lights up and she comes and puts her arms around me. (Even she was just about to open her mouth to scold me for being late, BTW -- true story.)

Children need to understand how feelings work, that everyone has them, that a lot of what people say and do is driven by their feelings, and that it's possible for one person to take something personally when another person didn't mean it that way. I have long talks with my daughter at bedtime about things that happened during the day, and how she felt about something -- and how did she think another kid felt about something? -- frequently comes up. But I know a mom of two sons who has these discussions in the car, on their way somewhere. In fact, if either of the boys needs to talk about something, he asks to go for a ride. I'm guessing there's something safe about the way they don't sit facing each other in these conversations that lowers the risk or the intensity.

I'd also add that you can talk to him about style; tell him that every parent wants to protect their child, but we also want them to grow up as strong, capable individuals, and we all have different ideas of how to balance the two. I'm very meta with my daughter; I tell her what I'm trying to accomplish in raising her (though I don't tell her all my tricks!), just like I show her how the world works in other ways.

Hope this helps. I know it was long!


I have a slightly different way of looking at life to many people and would like to offer you a secondary approach - not a replacement for any of the very good advice already given, but something to go with it all.

The very best way to look after your son is to actually look after yourself first.

Let me briefly explain. All of your words and actions will portray how you are feeling at any given moment.. be that happy/sad, positive/negative, etc. etc. How you are around your son will be teaching him how he should be himself.

This is very easy to do when things are going well, not so easy when they are not - in those times, just try not to think of whatever it is that's bringing you down and try and find a better feeling thought.

Your son will feed off your positivity.

As far as bringing him up correctly is concerned, just trust that he will find his way. Praise strongly the things he does well and ignore things when he doesn't. He will quickly learn that doing things right is rewarding.

I didnt want to write an essay in answer to your question and of course this is just an opinion anyway, but hopefully it will give you some food for thought.

If you want any of this expanded upon, let me know and will help the best I can.


To answer this, I am going to meander a little, this may seem irrelevant at first, but I hope you'll see it threads together. I have not focused so much on step by step solutions, but as a holistic approach to your situation and the complex nature of it.


Firstly I would like to give you some details of our family history, as in your situation, I have found it helpful to have identification with people in similar situations. That feeling of being singled out, isolated and overwhelmed can be a little relieved when we know we are not alone in being so alone.

I can really identify with your situation. We have a sort of reverse situation. My children lost their Dad a long time ago (ten years).. and about 11 years ago I was diagnosed with a disabling and life threatening illness (rapidly progressing systemic sclerosis and severe recalcitrant recurring polymyositis). So in some ways I have had your challenges and to a much lesser extent your wife's challenges.

When my two youngest were babies, my muscles were so wasted I could not lift them, in fact I could not roll over in bed. I was undergoing chemotherapy during this time when my husband committed suicide. Little were we to know that this was to be the beginning of seven years of chemotherapy and other immunosuppressive treatment, in excess of 130 hospitalisations, many ambulance trips, surgical procedures and close calls. I can safely say, the past decade has been a living nightmare or hell like experience, that only people who have experienced such surreal trauma like conditions can relate to.

The problems.


Dealing with such a multifaceted dynamic, you are dealing with your, your children's and your wife's grief. This is an ongoing thing, not something that has an end point. It is chronic and difficult to resolve.


I can only guess that you would be taking on much of the day to day care of your wife, as you have expressed you are in love and would probably want to do this. This can lead to exhaustion, adding to already depleted energy supplies and time constraints, as the sole provider and carer for the family.


Society is not well equipped to support people with chronic ongoing grief. It is a little understood area and people, frequently, expect time to heal everything, when indeed, over time, situations and distress can be exacerbated.


Changing your thinking.

Trying to fulfil the role of both Mum and Dad can really do your head in (I know from experience). You don't have that softer feminine person to bounce your traditional authoritative Dad stance off. Unfortunately there is no easy way around this, and requires a lot of extra communication with your son to explain how you bounce between the roles. It's like being good cop and bad cop in one.

Being four, your son is old enough to start grasping simple concepts, and it doesn't hurt to start discussing these things now, as it will help him cope as he grows up and will form the basis of firm communication between you both. When I am being (what my children perceive as) harsh and strict, I have to explain to my kids that, I am the Mum and the Dad, and it's my job to protect them, as well as nurture them.

I am finding that I have to maintain the harder line, disciplinarian role more than the nurturing mother role. As they will push the boundaries like crazy, and being a solo pilot, I am having to fly a tighter ship so to speak. As a sole parent, and a Dad, you may also find yourself, as indicated, taking a firmer role and your son having a firmer upbringing than with both active Mum and Dad, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. This is where the communication comes in. You can stop and take stock, pat his head or scoop him up in your arms and tell him how much you love him.

At the end of the day children thrive on strong, clear, healthy boundaries and love. Love without the boundaries is as toxic as boundaries without love (my opinion). Having a predominantly male parenting role is not a bad thing, just an experience.

My point is, you may well find there is less you need to change as a parent, and just some adjustments in your thinking.

Children are resilient, having said that, they do grow up and carry unresolved burdens. You are setting your son a brilliant example of how to be a loving, responsible parent and a partner. You love your wife and it shows, you love your son and it shows. These are things that are more valuable than worrying about fulfilling a certain role.

Practical things.

There are three practical ways to ameliorate having a male parent as a sole parent.

1. Affection. Stop and remember to cuddle. Never stop telling your son that you love him. Even as a man. These are things more readily available from a Mum in a day to day setting.

2. Emotion. Do not hide your feelings from your son. As parents we, naturally, tend to hide our emotional difficulties from our children. I have found it is a good thing to sometimes let our children see us cry. Especially as a man, when it gets too much and you feel despair over what has happened to the love of your life, let your son see you cry and tell him why you are sad. This is something that children are more likely to see with their Mums, it's important that you allow yourself to show some of this to your son (not every day, so it is a burden for him, he needs to feel you are strong and can cope, but that it is also ok, to break down at times and feel weak and vulnerable).

3. Female role models. I have found male role models for my children, without becoming involved in relationships. This is important for you also, as your wife is still there. If there is a grandmother or aunt, neighbor or close friend of your wife's that can be this. Otherwise it is a matter of finding (not creating, it will fall into place) an appropriate person through some activity or interest that your son has.

In my children's case we had a shortage of male role models (my brother died the year after their father) and it has become Martial Arts. My oldest son now teaches it, he has his mentor (a black belt) and as a mature 19 year old, he has become a great role model for his 13 yo brother and 12 yo sister. There has not always been an appropriate role model, but I believe it is better to have no role model than a bad one.

For what it's worth, I think that your son will be fine. With a father who cares enough to post here and the person you are, things have a way of working out. I can say this to you as someone who has travelled many dark years, and we still have our moments.

It's important to be mindful that this situation will develop over time and you may not find yourself coping so well at times and it is important to forgive yourself for being human.

One thing you need to be mindful of is caregiver burnout. The following quote from WebMD is good and will also help you to identify much of what you are feeling, as normal for your circumstance. I think the point about Role Confusion also spills over to your parenting role.

What Causes Caregiver Burnout?

Caregivers often are so busy caring for others that they tend to neglect their own emotional, physical, and spiritual health. The demands on a caregiver's body, mind, and emotions can easily seem overwhelming, leading to fatigue and hopelessness -- and, ultimately, burnout. Other factors that can lead to caregiver burnout include:

Role confusion: Many people are confused when thrust into the role of caregiver. It can be difficult for a person to separate her role as caregiver from her role as spouse, lover, child, friend, etc.

Unrealistic expectations: Many caregivers expect their involvement to have a positive effect on the health and happiness of their loved one. This may not always be realistic.

Lack of control: Many caregivers become frustrated by a lack of money, resources, and skills to effectively plan, manage, and organize their loved one's care.

Unreasonable demands: Some caregivers place unreasonable burdens upon themselves, in part because they see providing care as their exclusive responsibility.

Other factors: Many caregivers cannot recognize when they are suffering burnout and eventually get to the point where they cannot function effectively. They may even become sick themselves.

  • I hope you can find this helpful. I understand there is no easy solution. best to you and your family, Yvette
    – user21179
    Nov 22, 2013 at 12:57

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .