I know what it’s like to grow up without a father. My parents divorced when I was two and my mother hid me from my father for the rest of his life.
Once, when I was in fourth grade, she decided that I needed a father figure so she signed me up for a club called FAD — Fathers And Daughters. She asked if any of the fathers would be willing to "adopt" me for the club and one very nice dad agreed. I went to the club and shared him with his real daughter during those times. I even got a T-shirt. Then, just before the father-daughter ski trip, he told my mother that his daughter was upset that she had to share him with me and that he had to stop. That was the end of my dad’s club experience. It was a bit of a let-down!
When you grow up without a father (or father figure) in your life, it’s easy to grow up feeling like an outsider. When the teacher asks what your father does for a living, when the other kids are bragging or complaining about their fathers and especially when Father’s Day comes around, you can feel like the only kid without a dad (even though that is hardly the case). You can feel like a puzzle with a piece missing, or like a broken vase that has been put back together with gaps.
You can also feel like you’re not good enough or your dad would have stayed, lived, found you, fought for you, cared.
Obviously, none of this is true. Fathers can be absent for many reasons, from mental illness to divorce to prison to death. Some just can’t handle their responsibility and leave. Fathers can also be gone for long periods because of things like military service and jobs that require extensive travel.
It is never children’s fault if their father is gone. It can still feel true to kids, though, and we need to be aware of that. It can also be hard this time of year when there is such a focus on dads.
Here are some ways to make Father’s Day easier without a father in the picture.
- Kids can honor fathers who have passed away by remembering happy memories during the day and honoring Dad by doing things he loved to do. A friend of mine always makes her late father’s favorite meal for dinner on his birthday to remember him. Focus on fun memories and activities that Dad would enjoy. Initiate conversations in case kids would like to talk more about their feelings, but respect their wishes if they’d rather not.
- If Dad is away but is coming back at some point, kids can celebrate long distance. Encourage them to start a box of gifts to give him when he gets back. Let them call, write, email and otherwise communicate with him. Take pictures of them doing something special at home for Dad or record a video message.
- Plan something special to do instead on Father’s Day to fill the gap. Take a trip to the zoo. Go feed the ducks. Have a water balloon fight and follow up with ice cream treats.
- Resist the urge to bash their father if he’s gone for no good reason. As much as it may be true, that just makes it harder on children. They need to have a positive image of their father even when they know he’s imperfect. Their identities are tied to both parents, and they may still have warm feelings towards Dad even if he hardly deserves it.
- Encourage kids to celebrate other special men in their lives who fill the father role for them. Grandfathers, uncles, stepfathers, godfathers and friends of the family can feel even more like fathers than our biological ones. See if someone special can spend the day with your child or at least reach out on Father’s Day so he knows how special he is to that person.
- Be sensitive if it is a hard day, and be especially gentle. Listen to your child’s feelings without correcting her. Reassure her if she blames herself in some way for her father’s absence.
- Remind your kids that they’re not alone. Chances are they have friends who also don’t have fathers in their lives. Also remind them of how many people they do have in their lives and how loved they are.
- Don’t make a big deal out of the day if your child doesn’t. It’s just a Sunday! There’s a good chance the day will pass without your child even remembering what day it is. It’s often the week leading up to Father’s Day that is harder, when there are ads on TV and Father’s Day crafts made in clubs and classes. If that’s not prominent in your child’s world, the whole thing can be a non-issue.
Here’s a discussion at Daughters.com about absent fathers and also how to help when fathers are emotionally distant.
And here’s a thought provoking piece about Father’s Day without a father.
The bottom line is that our children need to be loved, by as many wonderful people as possible. If their fathers cannot or will not be present we can still help them find caring adults who can fill that role.
If nothing else, you can always celebrate one of the other holidays that just happens to fall on June 21st this year — Go Skateboarding Day, World Handshake Day (where kids are encouraged to write letters and draw pictures to upload to children who’ll view them around the world), the Summer Solstice and the official start of summer! Oh yes, and it’s the day before the National Chocolate Eclair Day. What holiday could beat that one? 😉