Can We Reframe—and Reclaim—Father's Day?

Can We Reframe—and Reclaim—Father's Day?

Illustration courtesy S. Rufus

"Mother's and Father's Day are gauntlets, radiating expectations. Even vowing to ignore these holidays, to voluntarily opt out, weighs heavily because it means going against the mainstream."

We can still make Father's Day—and Mother's Day—meaningful even if we neither have nor are parents.

Holidays are power-packed with history and habit, memory and mystery: traditions learned and practiced as we parade down streets, sing in sacred spaces and/or set fruit punch on fire.

Most holidays are about joy. Not every aspect of them: All-day fasts are hard. But ultimately our species celebrates victories, survivals, seasons, miracles, births, anniversaries, relationships: It celebrates itself amidst a scary, scintillating world.

Sometimes holiday joy is hard to share: say, if we feel excluded by the mainstream. Or if we're alone—not in some voluntary solo silent meditation cave but unwillingly isolated or bereft.

Mother's Day and Father's Day add more triggers to that power-pack because their very design entails certain people doing certain things for certain other people.

Most holidays are meant for all of us to celebrate on equal terms. Sure, Halloween and Easter's more secular versions are skewed toward kids. But grownups can have fun hiding eggs, decorating doorways, carving pumpkins, delighting kids, hosting horror-movie marathons, or baking hams without feeling fake or perverse.

By contrast, Mother's Day and Father's Day ask offspring to praise their parents with presents, outings, and attention.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well ... some folks have no parents anymore. And some folks never knew their parents to begin with. Other folks have parents whom they cannot, for whatever reasons, praise. Some folks were traumatized by parents who then died—leaving long streams of toxic memory. Some folks wade through thick morasses of mourning, rage, resentment, love, betrayal, distance, vengeance, and ambivalence.

So many possible equations: Add your own.

These holidays are designed as public displays of reverence and respect, performed by those who have and/or had parents. Thus they're a sad vacuum for the parentless. And a guilt-riddled hellzone for those whose parents they cannot respect or revere.

I have known shameless, unapologetic deadbeat dads. I have known cussing, screaming dads incapable of anger management. I have known dads with secret "other" families, dads who frittered away fortunes, dads who cheated on their wives. I have known absent dads, abusive dads, addicted dads. I knew a doctor-dad who prescribed his healthy adult child opiates—simply because she asked—for years. I know a dad who vanished from his children's lives only to reappear in their adulthoods, seeking loans.

And that's just me, a hermit who hardly knows anyone.

Other holidays entail performance. Halloween, again. Valentine's Day. Each ritual, social or spiritual—preparing/serving/eating the same foods; using the same symbols and tools; reciting the same lines year after year—could cynically or technically be called performances. Through these, we re-enact legends and wonders, demonstrate our gratitude, enunciate our hopes and prayers. Our audiences are each other and, if we believe in them, our gods. Repetition infuses performances with extra power and, done en masse, validates performers.

But the manner of performance unique to Mother's and Father's Day is different. Sometimes it is soul-deep and authentic. But sometimes it feels crushingly false. Mother's and Father's Day are gauntlets, radiating expectations. Even vowing to ignore these holidays, to voluntarily opt out, weighs heavily because it means going against the mainstream, risking being called a killjoy or cheap or unfilial or unforgiving or hogtied by grief. It means identifying oneself, even to oneself, as someone who has parent problems.

Opting out is OK. But can we connect with these holidays somehow, anyhow, without crashing into the rocky shore of thinking I missed out on this or that aspect of being parented!? Maybe this means binge-watching Captain Kangaroo, inviting friends to read To Kill a Mockingbird aloud, venerating fatherly deities, or strolling in nature, keenly watching animal "dads"?

Here are some ways in which we might recast, reframe, or reclaim Father's Day: Consider celebrating fatherhood as a beautiful concept, an ideal. Regardless of our own stories and DNA, why not pay simple homage to classic "paternal" qualities such as love, strength, support, protection, presence, guidance, tenderness—wherever these appear?

Let us honor our father figures, whether these are our actual dads or not. Who made our younger selves feel safer, saner, and/or seen? Maybe we never met these individuals. Maybe they only ever existed in books, movies, or myths. Does that make them any less real?

What kinds of fathers would we be? If we are childless yet could possibly become fathers someday, why not devote this holiday to "telling" our potential children what we'd hope to teach them, give them, do with them? Can we act on those hopes today by being fatherly for others—human or otherwise, in the real world or in principle—somehow? Even if, biologically, we're not fathers and cannot ever be?

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