Navigating a new relationship after the loss of a partner is always a challenge, but doing it as a parent adds even more complications. Parents.com's "Ask Your Mom" columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., says grief can cloud our judgment at times, but tuning into values for our lives and relationships can help us make both life and parenting decisions that are true to what's most important.

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An illustration of a woman's hand holding a phone with social media on it.
Credit: Emma Darvick.

I typically strike a balance between possible perspectives when responding to parenting dilemmas, knowing these are almost always complex and do not have one "right" answer. In your situation, however, your girlfriend's behaviors seem concerning on a few levels, and I wonder if your grief may be clouding your clarity about this new relationship.

As you navigate your first relationship after such a painful loss, it can be difficult to know what's normal and what's not. You have no template for this! I'm here to tell you, however, as someone who has worked with people grieving unimaginable losses of loved ones, that this behavior displayed by your girlfriend is not normal. Immediately, I see two red flags in her behavior: poor judgment and bad boundaries. These will not only cause more issues for your relationship if you continue dating her, but will likely negatively affect your son as he gets older.

How Her Judgment Raises Concerns

It sounds like your girlfriend did not check with you about posting your son's picture on social media. In this day and age, most people who use social media know the delicacy of posting images of a minor without permission. At best, this decision to do so signals a general lack of judgment since she did not see the problem when you pointed it out. At worst, this suggests she does not care how her actions impact you or your son. It is not a grey area that a child's parent has control over their privacy, and she clearly violated this basic parental right.

Not only does posting on social media demonstrate poor judgment about your rights as his father, but encouraging a toddler to call her "Mama" feels like an even deeper violation of your son and what is going to be a complicated understanding of his mother as he grows up. Coming from my perspective as a psychologist, her behavior (posing as his mother on social media, teaching him to call her "Mama") is not only insensitive and potentially harmful, but her lack of understanding about why is especially problematic (based on her anger toward you when you brought it up). People usually do not change their behaviors without insight into the reason for change.

Boundaries Are Crossed

Based on all the details in your original Reddit post, it sounds like your girlfriend has her own maternal desires that she is trying to inappropriately fulfill through your son. Without regard for your grief and the impact on a young child, she seems blinded by her unmet need to be a mother. If this is true, this strong need may be driving her to not only make bad decisions but to not respect boundaries important to you.

I would venture to say that most people entering a relationship with a widow and their child would show sensitivity to the situation, deferring to the widowed parent around what is appropriate and comfortable. Instead, her rejection of your concerns and defensiveness (wanting you to be grateful for her interest in your son) shows a dangerous self-centeredness. Healthy relationships, of all types, require healthy boundaries and a balance of one's own needs with the others' needs; her behaviors show an imbalance of hers over everyone else's.

Values-Based Parenting and Life

People can get frustrated when their therapist won't tell them "what to do," but there's a good reason therapists (and sometimes parenting columnists) refrain from giving directions (trust me, we often want to!). Your decision about what to do in this relationship needs to feel like yours, based on your values. I can see from the Reddit thread how easy it is for others to respond, "dump her!" Even if I agree this seems the wisest decision, you need to believe it.

In making parenting and life decisions, it helps to remind ourselves of our values. What is important to you as a father and a romantic partner? What do you want for your relationship with a partner, and your son's relationship with a new maternal figure? Where are the relationships aligning with those values, and where are they not?

An example: it sounds like you value your son's relationship with his mother as "his only mom." Your girlfriend is behaving in opposition to this value. My guess is if you look at how her behavior threatens this important parenting value, you might see more clearly what to do. In fact, if her behaviors do not change, you could view ending the relationship as an act of supporting what you value about your son's relationship with a new maternal figure.

The Bottom Line

First and foremost, you and your son have endured a tragic loss and will experience lifelong grief, even as it changes over time. Each person's grief is personal and unique. Nobody can tell you the "right" or "wrong" way to navigate relationships after the loss of your wife, so hopefully you can tune that out. Instead, tune in to what truly feels right for you, as a man and a father. It can be hard to trust our instincts when we have gone through a tragedy, but it sounds like you have an instinct that this situation is not good for you and your son. Hopefully, this instinct steers you to trust yourself to make a decision, knowing what's best for your family, regardless of everyone else's advice. Even from a parenting columnist.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and the upcoming parenting book Parenting for Autonomy. She is a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois and a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.