Growing up with my divorced mother, Father’s Day was always hard for me. I certainly did not have it as bad as some kids: my father was still in my life and I never doubted his love. But I don’t remember ever getting to spend a single Father’s Day with him. I typically spent the day with my mom, while he was far away with his new family. Sometimes, there was another man around, a man who—at least in my mom’s view—was supposed to be a good-enough substitute for the father I missed. But it just wasn’t the same, and none of those men ever measured up to the man I loved the most.
In the days leading up to Father’s Day, I tried hard to choke down the sadness I felt. Although I missed my father, I did not want to hurt my mom’s or stepdad’s feelings or, worse, make my dad feel even more guilty than he already did. As a result, I spent way too much time feeling uncomfortable and pressured to celebrate my mom’s new husband or just pretending that I was “alright.” All of this made the Father’s Day commercials, church celebrations, store decorations, and school events more difficult to bear. I just wanted the day to be over, so I could go back to pretending I did not really need my father that much.
Since I’ve been married and had children, I’ve been able to enjoy Father’s Day more as I witness the power of healthy fatherhood through my children's relationship with my husband. But sometimes, as I watch my kids playing with their dad and benefiting from his presence, I feel guilty. Why should my kids get to enjoy a relationship with their father that so many others in my own family lack? I think about my half-brother whose father left following a divorce when he was young and never really looked back. Then there’s my nephew, who was born to an unwed mother and clings to the hope that one day he will have a relationship with his biological father. I could give other examples—like a teenage cousin whose dad has been in jail her entire life. If Father's Day was hard for me when my father was still part of my life, how much harder is it for those who've never had a relationship with their father at all? Too many times, I think we try to brush away father loss because it makes us feel uncomfortable or guilty, and maybe because we feel powerless to do anything about it.
Of course, it’s important to celebrate fathers for the unique and irreplaceable role they play in children lives, and we should do that more than just once a year! But at the same time, let’s not forget about the over 25% of children growing up in father-absent homes. And this statistic doesn’t even include the “overlooked fatherless,” such as those who are donor-conceived. These children are living without the privilege of a relationship with their biological fathers. The father-child relationship is indeed a privilege: we know that kids who have loving and involved fathers do better on a variety of key measures throughout life.
So, on a day when we celebrate fathers, here are a few suggestions for helping the children in our lives who are growing up without theirs:
1. Acknowledge the significance of father loss and give kids the freedom to talk about it. I don’t know how many times I heard from the well-meaning adults in my life, “You’ve always lived without your dad, so what’s different about today?” Or “You are way better off with your mom.” Or, the most painful of all: “You know, you do have a daddy,” referring to my mom’s husband at the time. This sent the message that the sadness I felt was not legitimate and that my father was (in essence) replaceable. How much better to say to a child: “I know you are missing your father today. And I am so sorry you are sad.” And even though it may be hard to hear it, make sure children know that they can talk openly about missing their dads, and reassure them that they don’t need to worry about hurting any adult’s feelings.
2. Never badmouth an absent father, no matter what he’s done. Sometimes, we assume it will make children feel better to tell them, “You’re better off without your dad in your life,” or to list his many wrongs, perhaps because he’s in jail or he abandoned the family or doesn’t pay child support or doesn't call as often as he should. But even if these things are true, talking bad about a child’s father only causes further hurt for the child. No matter what a father may or may not have done, it doesn’t change the fact that the child has suffered a significant loss that deserves to be recognized.
3. If the father is not a danger to the child, do your best to facilitate contact with him, or at the very least, don’t hinder the relationship. We know that mothers are the gatekeepers when it comes to the quality of the father-child relationship. This is even more true for unmarried or divorced moms. Recognize how important even minimal contact with a father is to a child and make that happen when it is possible.
4. Give children the opportunity to celebrate the father figures in their lives. Many times, there are uncles, grandpas, coaches, youth pastors, male teachers, or family friends who step into a fatherless child's life and serve as much-needed mentors. Help fatherless kids identify these men and give them the chance to personally thank them if they feel comfortable doing so.
5. If there is a child in your life whose father is absent, reach out to them on Father’s Day. Send a text or make a phone call, or if it’s possible, take them out to do something special. Be a mentor. Most importantly, let them know you are there for them if they need to talk.
As we continue to learn more about the distinct contributions of fathers to child flourishing, we should use that information to help us better understand and minister to the millions of children who are growing up in father-absent families.
Alysse ElHage is Editor of the Institute for Family Studies blog.