"Father, I forgive you," I said early one morning not long ago. I forgive you for abandoning me; I forgive you for the things my sister, brother and I had to endure growing up; I forgive you for my mother's suffering as she raised us with blood and tears.
As we commemorate Father's Day (actually the Centennial of Father's Day) I cannot help but reflect on my own father, or lack thereof. Sadly, I am not alone in this. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 25 million children live apart from their biological fathers. That is 1 out of every 3 children in America.
In his book Consumer Rites, The Buying and Selling of American Holidays, Leigh Eric Schmidt documents perceptions on Father's Day: "For many, it seemed like a bit of trickery, a joke, a send-up for Will Rogers or Groucho Marx." When the dandelion was suggested as a flower for Mother's Day it was seen as "cleansing the observance of floral profiteering," but when it was proposed for Father's Day it was due to the fact that "the more it is trampled on, the more it grows."
The Presbyterian General Assembly in 1911 considered two proposals, one to commemorate Mother's Day throughout the country, and the other to establish Father's Day. It easily approved the former but the latter was "greeted with laughter." Even a father interviewed on the topic by the New York Times on June 17, 1928 scorned it remarking "I think it's a lot of hooey."
Who would find this funny, and why? Before considering this question, let us state that the original idea for Father's Day was a serious one. The "founder" of Father's Day was Ms. Sonora Smart Dodd, one of six siblings and the daughter of a widower, who was raised by her father in Spokane, Washington. After listening intently to a Mother's Day sermon in 1909, she approached her pastor at Central Methodist Episcopal Church and told him: "I liked everything you said about motherhood, but don't you think fathers should have a special day, too?"
The answer should have been obvious. But it wasn't. In fact, it was not until the 1930s when the Associated Men's Wear Retailers of New York City established a Father's Day Committee, that Father's Day started to gain some traction albeit mostly as a commercial activity and not a commemorative one. Indeed, the slogan of the initiative was "Give Dad Something to Wear." The holiday had to wait until 1972 to become a national observance, when Richard Nixon finally signed off on it.
So, what is it with Father's Day? And, what is the blessing and curse of being a father?
It is a blessing that fathers can compartmentalize emotions and feelings, so when they go to war, they can focus on taking that hill, in the midst of the carnage (Ms. Dodd's own father was a Civil War veteran). But it is a curse when, by the same token, fathers cannot share their emotions and feelings with their families, cannot even tell their own children "I love you."
It is a blessing when fathers can make money and provide for their families and a curse when they substitute presents for presence, even when they are physically at home. It is a blessing when fathers can learn many things and be competent at work. And yet, what a curse when they think they know it all and cannot bring themselves to recognize their mistakes and ask for forgiveness. Yes, fathers can do many things to change society and clean the world. But what about changing a diaper, cleaning the dishes and being involved with loved ones?
I am a father, and I have made many of those mistakes. Many of these are intergenerational, passed down from father to father. My own father was abandoned, by his father who in turn did not really know his own father. But that is not an excuse for me to abandon my children. Against all odds and with immense support from friends and community, I have been married for over 20 years; I love my wife and care for my 3 children. I am far from being a perfect father, bu t I have learned, from painful experience, what not to do.
And yes, I need to forgive my father. Over and over. And I have, but the feelings of frustration and sadness creep back, and then I have to forgive him all over again. And that feeling at times turns into sarcasm, nervous laughter, and funny names against our fathers. Could this have been a contributing factor when people took Father's Day as a joke? Probably. This Father's Day will still be a joke, for many who feel abandoned, abused, and defrauded.
But I have forgiven my father, and as I did I understood better why these things happened, and decided to move on. Not only so that I can release both my father and myself from the chains of bitterness, but so that my kids can be free. Free to be good fathers (and mothers) to their own children. And to have a good reason to celebrate Father's Day!