Now that Father’s Day festivities are over, I want to share a little bit of what it’s like to experience Father’s Day as a child who has an in-the-picture dad but who can’t honestly celebrate him. Everyone’s story is different—this is just a piece of mine.
The details of my relationship with my dad are unimportant. Suffice to say I grew up hating the man and terrified of him.
I don’t need to explain what Father’s Day is. In the US, everyone knows: it’s a day dedicated to celebrating fathers and telling them how much they mean to you. Like Mother’s Day, but for dads.
For small children, it often means something else, too. It means that, at some point during the week leading up to the big day, you’ll get a break from the normal school routine to do something Father’s Day related. I always dreaded this time.
I remember one pre-Father’s Day school activity in particular. We were told to hand make cards for our dads and given crafts materials. No teacher ever tried to figure out whether this would be a good idea for every child. It was just something for all the children to do. I remember feeling like I had no choice. But it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because my dad talked to the parents of other children in my class. If I decided not to write him a card, or if I made a card but didn’t give it to him, he very well might have figured it out. All it took was another parent making any passing reference to the cards. My pride wasn’t worth that risk.
To make matters worse, the teacher, unaware of any damage she could be causing, was looking over everyone’s cards and encouraging/insisting that we write in some detail how much or why we love our dads. A simple “Happy Father’s Day” was insufficient.
I spent most of the activity time trying to think of how I could meet the card requirements in a technical sense while keeping some of my dignity intact. Something too nice or seemingly heartfelt would just give him fodder for lording it over me. Moreover, it would feel plain awful to encourage his delusion that he was doing everything right. See, I’ve always been a very proud person, even as a child. Essentially telling him he was a great dad would take away my one method of resistance. Resistance that only affected and only mattered to me, but important nonetheless.
So after much thought, this is what the card ended up looking like:
Lyrics, in quotation marks. In my mind, I was simply quoting a song to him. Unmistakably, it was a song. I wasn’t actually telling him any of this, you see. It was just a card with a quote.
That went over my dad’s head, which was fine by me. The card had to pass for a real sentiment. He was very happy to get it, which allowed me to breathe a sigh of relief while maintaining the secret that protected me: it was a fake.
For over a decade he kept that card on his desk. It was a badge that allowed him to say, “I am a great father and have a perfectly healthy relationship with my child.” I cringed whenever I saw it.