Father’s Day with No Dad

June 17, 2011 at 1:01 pm , by

This hasn’t been my best week as a single mom. Last weekend I was terribly sick with bronchitis; I needed to crawl back in bed and stay there all weekend. Instead, I went on what I’ve been terming the Single Parent’s Death March. This when you need to be in bed but your active 4-year-old is totally done with TV after 2 hours and if you don’t get out of the house somebody’s gonna kill somebody, you’re not sure who will be the perpetrator, but it’s clear that blood will be shed. So instead of lying comatose under the covers, coughing and sneezing pitifully and giving a grateful, rheumy-eyed half-smile to the person bringing you chicken soup, you get dressed, get out, and start walking. You walk all day. In the park. Through the zoo. Through the street fair. To the playground. After about a 7-hour Death March you can go home, make dinner, clean up and collapse, so you can start the next day’s Death March bright ‘n’ early. Maybe this isn’t just single parents, to be fair—I guess if your kids aren’t in school and you’re a stay-at-home parent, you have the same situation on weekdays. But anyway… delightful.

So I’m barely recovered from my bronchitis/Weekend Death March experience and oh, joy! It’s Father’s Day week! And my kid has no dad. His preschool is planning a Donuts for Dads party. At the Mother’s Day Breakfast, the kids all sang, “Mommy loves me, this I know, for she always tells me so,” to the tune of “Jesus Loves Me.” Mommy as Jesus… a little weird, but who am I to argue? It worked out fine, since all the kids had moms. But was my son going to have to sing similar lyrics for Father’s Day, detailing his loving relationship with the father he does not have? My dad died when I was 22 months old, and I remember dreading school Father’s Day celebrations, which never made room for students like me. Instead, they were a yearly reminder both of my loss and of my marginality. I needed better ideas, stat.

So I went on a mad web search. I wanted to know how schools can celebrate Father’s Day and Mother’s Day in a way that’s inclusive of kids who have moms or dads who are dead, disappeared, uninvolved or nonexistent (the latter being the case with kids who were adopted or conceived using anonymous donors, and who have single parents or same-sex parents). It’s 2011: There’s gotta be lots out there, right? Songs, books, creative lesson plans… I came up with nothing. I asked alternative-family listservs I’m on, I asked my Facebook friends, who have families of all descriptions, still nothing—though many people wrote about how they had a dead mom or a deadbeat dad and that Mother’s and Fathers Day school celebrations were always painful and alienating. Or they wrote, “Yes!!! The school should be sensitive to this!!” Lots of emotion, lots of exclamation points. But not a single idea.

So I went DIY—I wrote a couple of songs and sent them to my son’s teacher as an option. One was to the tune of  ”This Old Man,” and the other was to my favorite children’s hymn, “I Sing A Song of the Saints of God.” Hey, if Mom can be Jesus, Dad can be a saint, right? Both were celebrating dads and uncles and grandfathers and friends—”all the men in my life I love the best,” went part of one line. The lyrics weren’t brilliant but the teacher was thrilled to have new ideas. And my son has a wonderful male babysitter who could go to the donut party, so I didn’t have to make my brother drive three hours to attend. It all worked out in the end.

But it makes me wonder: How have parents and teachers dealt with this rather common issue? Same-sex parents and single parents who have adopted or given birth on their own are somewhat new trends, but death isn’t new. Abandonment isn’t either. Hasn’t anyone come up with new models of how to observe these holidays in a way that celebrates moms and dads without making kids feel bad?

I’d love to hear any ideas you have (for Mother’s or Father’s Day), and I’d also love to hear from those of you who didn’t have a mom or a dad growing up: How were these holidays for you?

13 Responses to “Father’s Day with No Dad”

  1. Thanks for this great column. My 5-year-old daughter, whose dad died of cancer last summer, decided to make a card for her grandad at school, when other kids were focusing on dads. The card says “Grandpa, I’m glad you’re still alive. I’m giving you this card for Father’s Day. You’re very fun and you are bald.”


  2. So true, I’m dreading next year when I’m sure Father’s Day presents will be done at school. My dad isn’t well and my son has no knowledge of him. My brother has 3 kids and isn’t interested in being anybody else’s “dad” – I don’t blame him. Plus an uncle or grandpa isn’t a dad.

  3. This was a great column. Though I have no children I can relate to the pain of Father’s Day celebrations as an adult having lost my dad to cancer. Schools need to be more sensitive to children who come from a variety of family situations.

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  9. OMG! I just found this column while looking desperately for a book… which obviously would be for kids with absent dad… holy moly, you just described my last couple of days… even the bronchitis!! (which now I’m recovering from)… anyway, I had the hope of finding tons of resources… but not really and it’s very frustrating, however, I just came across a book that seems to be good, Bear at the Beach (Clay Carmichael)…, thanks for the post, made me feel there’s a lot of people out there struggling for the very same reason…

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  11. We are a two-mom family, about to head out the door to celebrate several family birthdays, plus Father’s Day for my partner’s dad and grandfather. (My dad will be honored next week when my daughter and I visit my family out of state.)

    We’ve not had to deal with an “institutional” Father’s Day celebration, but the Montessori school she will be attended next year does a “Father’s Day” event in February. I assume that she will be taking her grandfather.

    This was her first year of preschool and they were thoughtful enough to have her draw pictures of both of us and label them “My Mama” and “My Mommy” instead of the pre-printed “My Mom,” but I wonder what they did for that little boy whose mother lost her battle with cancer over Christmas vacation?

    It seems wrong to not help kids celebrate their parents, but it seems even wronger to ostracize or just hurt those who don’t have them.

    I have no idea what the right answer is.

  12. My son’s father died when he was an infant, and my dad is an absent figure in our lives, plus the uncles live 3000 miles away. It was certainly harder in the preschool years than it is in late elementary school, but it’s still an issue, and New York City public schools are very aware that all families are different. I have consciously cultivated relationships with extraordinary men with and without partners and children who enrich both our lives. Now ten, my son understands that we have family who are related to us by blood, and family who are bound to us by intention–and that sometimes, even often– these bonds of intention are stronger.