It’s Okay to Feel Ambivalent on Father’s Day

Me and my dad in 1970.
Me and my dad in 1970.

If the saccharine nature of Father’s Day makes you roll your eyes or get sick to your stomach , please read this. Okay?

The other day, my husband and I went to Walgreen’s to buy Father’s Day cards. One for his dad, one for mine, and then I turned to the “Grandpa” section and remembered that I don’t have any grandpas anymore.

My maternal grandfather died in 2005, and my paternal grandfather died this past January. But my husband still has a grandfather, a wonderful guy who survived Pearl Harbor, so we bought a card for him and mailed it to San Antonio, Texas.

I lost three of my four grandparents in the last year or so. I’m 44 years old, so I got to have them in my life for a very long time, and then boom boom boom, they were gone. What’s hard about losing a grandparent, of course, is that it makes you realize you will lose your parents, and that scares me to death.

I think that’s why so many of us get mushy and sentimental on Father’s Day. We’re mourning in advance. Celebrating our dads, sure, but also keenly aware that we won’t have them forever. And I am at heart a deeply sentimental kind of person.

But here’s the thing, though: some fathers suck, and some people never had a dad to begin with.

I’m fortunate. I have a great father, but I recognize that not everyone does (or did). Maybe you can’t buy Father’s Day cards because they’re all so sickly sweet and untrue. Maybe you’re secretly glad your father is gone so you don’t have to pretend you like him anymore.

A study came out recently that demonstrated that reading fiction makes us comfortable with ambiguity. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald said:

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see things as hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.

If the above quotation is true (and I think it is) that means we must be willing to say that Father’s Day is both a wonderful and an awful occasion  That a man can be a great father and a lousy one at the same time. That we can love our dads, but also hate them.

Normally, we celebrate Father’s Day by holding only one idea in our mind–Dad is great, he gives us chocolate cake–but maybe what you need today is to celebrate Ambiguous and Ambivalent Father’s Day? There’s no Hallmark Card for this holiday. What you need is literature.

The story that made me want to be a writer is by Andre Dubus: “A Father’s Story.” It’s a story about man who loves his daughter “more than truth,” and I highly recommend you take an hour or so this Father’s Day and read it. You won’t be sorry. Here are some other stories about fathers that might help you make it through today.

Short Stories

Poems

Novels

  • Daniel Wallace, Big Fish

More? I’m sure there are many, many more stories (and poems and novels and films) that should be added to this list. Feel free to add them in the comments section.

Also, here are Fiona Maazel’s “10 Worst Dads in Books.” (Someone in the comments mentions that she missed one: Pap in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Yep.)

May you have a wonderfully ambiguous Father’s Day.

P.S. I have linked to some stories above that should not be available on the internets. If you find a story you love via this post, promise me you will go out and pay for that writer’s book, okay? It’s the right thing to do.

Teaching Writing

15 comments

  1. Thank you, Cathy for this thoughtful post. Every year I dread Father’s Day for exactly the reasons you mention. Hard to accept when your dad isn’t Superman. Hard to understand why you still love him as if he were.

  2. Thank you, Cathy for this thoughtful post. Every year I dread Father’s Day for exactly the reasons you mention. Hard to accept when your dad isn’t Superman. Hard to understand why you still love him as if he were.

    • Cathy Day says:

      YES. I was trying to think of that title. I kept Googling “Roman Fever” and getting an Edith Wharton story. Thanks Jill. I will add that to my list now.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Holy shit, Dean! Hooray! I’m adding it now. One of my favorites. Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon is a wonderful meditation on fatherhood, among other things.

  3. JK says:

    Great post. Speaking as a child of dysfunctional/abusive parents, I’ve found there’s plenty of stark realization of their lack of superpowers to go around. I’m attempting to put this as delicately as possible because I’m not interested in adding to the “My Dad Sucks/Sucked” parade of posts online today (as opposed to the complete absence of equivalent posts on Mother’s Day). Parents are BOTH just people trying to figure it out as they go, so they screw it up. Once I came to terms with that, it freed me from much of the resentment I felt toward both. Doesn’t let them off the hook entirely, but it lets me off the hook, and at this point that’s a big help.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Thanks John. Let’s work together on a similar Mother’s Day post? Actually, on Mother’s Day, I went on Twitter and started sharing “Bad Mom” poems and stories. On Valentines Day, I like to share stuff about singlehood. I don’t know, but it seems like Facebook and Twitter turn every holiday into this…lovefest? And I can’t help but think about all the people sitting there on whatever day it is feeling angry or lost or miserable, observing everyone else’s supposed blessed joy.

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