How I Learned to Love Father's Day

One dad reflects on growing up fatherless, and how his son helped change the way he views Father's Day

On my first Father’s Day after my son was born, I didn’t want a celebration. My wife (now ex) wanted to make a big deal, but I didn’t see the point. I owned a razor I loved and had all the ties I needed. We ate brunch every Sunday and barbecued all summer. My life already was the stereotypical Father’s Day.

Instead, I spent the morning moping around, distant and lost in my head. Later, my son and I watched a baseball game together. I kept the TV on mute, so I wouldn’t hear the announcers reminisce about their own fathers. I didn’t want to be reminded of what I didn’t have, all the stories I wasn’t able to tell. At the time, it hadn’t dawned on me that I could create a new story for my son.

For most of my life, I have hated Father’s Day. My father left my mother before I was born. He never called or wrote. I’ve never even seen a picture. What I know about him couldn’t fill a Facebook profile.

My father’s absence cast a shadow over everything in my life, from dating to the first time I shaved to the day I learned I was going to be a dad. My earliest memory of his absence was in first grade. My teacher called on each of us students to stand up and say our names, our parents’ names and what they did for a living. When it was my turn, I stood up but kept my head down. I stared at the checkered floor in a haze, nervously kicking at a crack in the tile. My teacher cleared her throat to catch my attention. Finally, I said I didn’t know what my father’s name was because I didn’t have one. All of my classmates looked at me warily as if there was something wrong with me. I realized maybe there was.

When I look at my son now, I don’t see the sad boy I was. I see the happy boy he is. I imagine the man he will become, the father he may be someday.

On Father’s Day, I felt my father’s absence the most. Everywhere I looked, it seemed all I saw were smiling fathers and their doe-eyed kids. I was jealous and angry, but mostly I was ashamed. Why did he leave? And what had I done to make him go? As I got older, I understood it wasn’t my fault. My father was a man. He had a choice. He didn’t make the right one. Still, deep inside, the feeling that there was something wrong with me wouldn’t go away. 

As a new father, I struggled with my changing identity. I may have had a son, but I had trouble seeing myself as a dad. I was still that fatherless little boy in first grade who couldn’t parse the facts from my feelings of loss. When I looked down at my son, the spitting image of me, cradled in my arms while the ball game was on, I couldn’t see a future when Father’s Day would be different — I only saw the past. 

For so long, that day in June was a reminder of what I didn’t have, a day where my never-ending grief was broadcasted for the world to see. How could I celebrate a holiday that had been wrought with sadness? Doing so felt like I was betraying myself.

This Father’s Day is my fourth as a father. My son is now 3 and a half. Only recently have I become comfortable with my new identity, and in turn, I’ve learned how deep of an impact the loss of a father can have on a child. I’ll never be able to heal the hole in the heart of that little boy I was, but I can forgive him for feeling like he’d done something wrong. Every day I can tell him it wasn’t his fault.

Together, my son and I are creating the stories I never had. We play games. We climb trees. We watch baseball together with the volume turned up. He asks about the game and the players, why they swing bats and run for balls and slide into bases, all questions I had to find answers for on my own when I was his age.

When I look at my son now, I don’t see the sad boy I was. I see the happy boy he is. I imagine the man he will become, the father he may be someday, one who doesn’t see Father’s Day as a time of shame and loss, but a time to celebrate the men who were there for us when we needed them, the men who shaped us into the people we are today.

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