Trying to pick a card for Father’s Day is impossible for Mary. None of the cards she found reflected her experience. Her dad wasn’t present, didn’t support her interests, didn’t attend activities when she was a kid, or offer good advice. He did, however, go to work on his days off, sit on the couch watching TV on the rare occasions that he was home, intimidate her friends when they came over, verbally berate her, and left most of the parenting to her mother. So that eliminated about 90% of the cards and the rest of them were just plain silly.
Mary’s experience is not alone. For many people, Father’s Day, like Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day are reminders of what a person doesn’t have. It is easy to get lost in the inadequacies when staring a stack of cards talking about dads who “are always there,” “never gave up,” “show unconditional love,” or “are nurturing and protective”. Then there are the dads with more serious issues such as abandonment, neglect or abuse of their children. It’s days like this that cause Mary to want to stay in bed all day and not come out.
But there is a better way to handle it. Mary was determined to not allow this Father’s Day to be a reminder of her dad’s dysfunction. Instead, she pick-up a blank card at the store and decided she was going to do Father’s Day her way.
- She is not alone. Just remembering that other friends and family members have experienced the same level of dysfunction allowed Mary to feel like she belonged to something. She did not belong to the ‘my dad is the best’ club which Father’s Day is meant to celebrate. Rather, she did belong to the ‘I can survive anything’ club because she overcame years of neglect and abuse.
- It is for one day. Father’s Day is one day out of 365 days in the year. It does not need to be celebrated or acknowledged. Rather than celebrating in the traditional way, Mary decided to treat herself out to lunch without her dad to commemorate her therapeutic progress on healing from her abusive childhood. This gave the day a new meaning for Mary and allowed her to feel in control.
- Change perspectives. Instead of trying to get a card to match her feelings, Mary chose a blank one and wrote a message inside. She decided to thank her dad for teaching her how to handle a bully, not be easily intimidated, stand-up for herself in the face of abusive treatment, and overcome years of destructive programming. Without those lessons, Mary was sure she would not be as successful in the corporate world.
- Embrace the feelings. Mary chose to embrace the uncomfortable feelings rather than rejecting them. It should hurt that she did not have good memories of her dad when she was growing up. Her dad did not provide a safe environment for Mary to form an attachment to him. Now, looking back on her childhood, she is grateful for the lack of attachment. He is not a person she would want to be tied.
- New focus. It took some time for Mary to realize that she could not change the past. While it sounds like a simple concept, implementing it is more difficult. Mary took all thoughts of past traumatic moments and feelings of frustrating incidents captive. Then she ran them through her present filter of acceptance before releasing them. This exercise is time-consuming on the front-end but is highly productive in the long run. Just changing her focus from the past to the present moment lifted a heavy burden.
- Move forward. Mary decided to set reasonable expectations of the day for herself and others. In the past, Mary assumed that others knew she hated celebrating Father’s Day because of her past. But they did not. Most people see this day through their own filter and don’t embrace others who might be hurting. Mary chose to communicate her expectations kindly and found empathy where there was a misunderstanding in the past.
Ultimately Mary decided not to send the Father’s Day card. Just having the sense that she was in control was very helpful to Mary and healed some of the remainders of her wounds.