My anxiety around Father’s Day this year was out of control. I guess that’s to be expected, but I had a hard time focusing on the last few days of school because I was obsessed with what would happen on Sunday. It’s not like Father’s Day was this huge event in our house in previous years. My kids would make Shawn a card and maybe he’d go see a movie with friends.
But still. It’s such a marker of what we don’t have that seemingly everyone else in the world has.
I know that’s not true, of course. I know there are lots of single moms out there, and plenty of lesbian couples or grandparents raising kids. Not everyone has a dad to celebrate on Father’s Day. I guess it’s just that I know, for years and years to come, that my kids are going to feel like I’ve always felt on Mother’s Day – left out of some amazing experience.
During my twenties, I had this period of time around Mother’s Day each year where I would not only miss my mom, but also miss what she represented: graduation dress shopping and wedding planning and advice on navigating a new marriage. Around Mother’s Day each year, I’d see the cards at the supermarket or the drugstore and just feel….like I’d lost something that I couldn’t even conceptualize. I have no idea what it would have been like to plan a wedding – or the arrival of a new baby – with my mom. I never got that chance.
And so, every year I would feel sad that she was gone but I’d also feel sad about the possible future that was gone as well. I missed her hugs and I missed her reassurance but I also missed who I could have been if she hadn’t died. I didn’t even really know all that I was grieving….but I always felt a bit lost on Mother’s Day.
My kids are so young. They are so young, in fact, that they may not have these types of feelings for many years. But I know they will have them. I know they will miss their father and that will make this day hard. And I know they will miss what their relationship could have been with their father, and that will make every Father’s Day after this hard for them too.
I think what makes Father’s Day so hard isn’t just this specific year – the first one without Shawn. It’s also Father’s Day 2032 right after Tommy graduates high school without his dad, and Father’s Day 2036 when Austin prepares to get married without his dad, and Father’s Day 2039 when Claire would have told her dad that he was going to be a grandpa. I know I missed my mom at all of those moments, and I know they will miss their dad too.
Thinking about Father’s Day was really hard in the days leading up to it. I felt like I was grieving both for Shawn and who he was, and Shawn and who he could have become as a father. My kids aren’t really there yet. They miss their dad, that is for sure, but they don’t understand yet how hard it will be at certain moments in the future.
But I do. And that makes my heart hurt and my anxiety go crazy. Because, of course, this is one thing where I have absolutely no control. There is nothing I can do to make my kids not experience that feeling year after year and event after event. They will grieve for him and who he was for years. And they will grieve for things that they never got a chance to experience with him, which is a kind of strange and empty grief.
When Father’s Day finally happened yesterday, I woke up more nervous than I’ve been in a while. The night before, Claire had been very upset when I told her that Father’s Day would be the next day. I didn’t quite know how the boys would react.
Tommy is too young to understand, so when I told him, he looked at me and went back to playing with his Legos. Austin, on the other hand, studied my face for a long time before speaking. “So,” he finally said, “does this mean I should make a card for you, since you are the mom and the dad right now?”
Oh, sweet boy.
It’s funny, because he wasn’t even that sad about it at that moment. He was just trying to figure out what it meant. He knows he’s supposed to do something on Father’s Day, but since he’s without a dad, he was confused. One of his best friends has two dads, so we talked about what that friend does on Mother’s Day. “I think he sends a card to his birth mom,” Austin told me. We decided that Austin could make a card for another dad he knows, if he wanted to. (He did end up doing this, and I know it made that dad’s day.) I also reminded him that he had already made cards for his Grandpa Bill and Grandpa Tom. All of this seemed to satisfy him.
When Claire woke up, she said that we needed to do things that Dad would have done today. She suggested throwing a huge party, going to brunch at the Diner and going to the toy store.
I mean, the things kids remember, right? I love that they have forgotten all of the butts Shawn wiped and the times he made them dinner and how he spent hours teaching them to read and throw a ball and start a fire. I’m sure they remember that stuff too. But they remember the fun stuff first.
We had breakfast that morning with dear friends, and that seemed to qualify for the “party” and “brunch” part in Claire’s head. Then I took them to the toy store. Everyone got to pick out one thing, and of course it took forever. Tommy got Legos. Austin and Claire got skateboards. And because I was playing the role of Mom and Dad, I decided to buy something for myself: a Laser-tag game, complete with 4 laser blasters.
“Mom, we only need 3,” Claire pointed out.
I counted them off. “Well, we have 1, 2, 3 kids,” I said, “and Mom makes 4!”
They all jumped up and down in the toy store.
Here’s the thing – I’ve never been the kind of mom who played with my kids. I kept them safe, I made them food, I set the rules. “Playing” was mostly left to Dad. So I’m brushing up on those skills.
In any case, once we got our toys, we headed to the pool. It was a beautiful day, and there were about a hundred kids there, including many from our neighborhood. We were surrounded by happy, intact families celebrating Father’s Day, and at least half of the families there knew Shawn really well. I didn’t quite know what this would mean for me, or the kids.
I found out quickly. I had barely set down my bag when moms and dads alike started helping me with sunscreen and floaties and goggles. Someone handed me a beer. Everyone asked how I was doing. I took a sip of my drink and looked over at Tommy in the baby pool. A dad I didn’t know well – but one who knew Shawn pretty well – was swinging him around and around. I went over and talked to him, and he laughed at the kids like it was the greatest thing he’d done all day. After a while, Tommy decided this dad was his favorite one, and spent much of the rest of the day trying to get his attention whenever he’d do something new.
Because that’s what community means. It means playing with my kids, even if you aren’t my best friend. It means paying attention to them when they desperately need it. It means taking an extra minute to make sure they are having fun, because I can’t physically watch 3 kids in the pool all the time.
At one point, Claire came over to me and put her head on my shoulder. “What is it baby?” I asked her. It was adult swim and all the dads were in the pool, hanging out and throwing balls at the kids on the edge of the pool.
“I just wish Dad was here,” she said. “It makes me sad to see all the other dads. I want him to be here throwing the kids in the air and jumping off the diving board. I want him to be talking with his friends and drinking beer.”
“I know, baby,” I said, and then I paused. What else could I say?
We sat there and hugged for a while. “I know what I’m so grateful for,” I said after a while.
“What?” she asked.
“That Dad had so many friends who are here with us. That even the people who weren’t his best friends are still playing with you. They all love you. And so do I.”
And that was our Father’s Day. My kids missed their dad today. A lot. They didn’t miss the life lessons he taught them. They missed going playing with him and watching him laugh with his friends. That’s what I missed too.
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.