Many years ago I worked for a fund raising organization in Southern California. I had started my new position a few days before Father's Day. During that first week, while trying hard to make a good impression, I was invited out to lunch by the "cool colleagues" clique.
As we sat outside in the June sunshine, an executive who was a level above me, and a single 32 year old, white, privileged, athletically handsome guy began to enthusiastically describe his elaborate BBQ plans for his father whom he was close to. After sharing the details, he went around the table asking each of us what we were planning to do for Father's Day. Each person took their turn in sharing a heart warming memory, or a fun plan to honor their dear old dad.
And then it was my turn. I swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and as the new kid on the block, I quietly stated, "Oh, not too much. I'm not really close with my father."
An awkward silence ensued and, after a few strained seconds, with a disgusted snort, Captain America began a lecture on how every father deserves to be honored, and how it made him, "sick to his stomach" when "people" let an important day like father's day pass. He was the big man on campus, and there were several heads wagging in self righteous agreement.
The mean girl of the department, a tall blonde Uma Thurman look-a-like who was steaming that I had been given a position she had been vying for, added her two cents with a pointed eye roll and glare into my direction: "People who don't love their fathers need to grow up and get over it. Forgive and move on already - the past is the past!"
I remember vividly the slow flush creeping up my neck, tears filling my eyes, and my face burning with shame. Swallowing the lump in my throat, I excused myself a few minutes later, slunk off to my desk, and avoided all non-work related contact with that particular group for the next two and a half years I was there.
This was over 16 years ago, and though I can pull up those emotions easily, almost as if the social slap happened yesterday, my response today would be very different. Very different indeed. If I could go back into that moment, I would tell my younger self, "Keep your chin up butter cup! This guy is an assumptive a-hole who looks at the world and relationships through the narrow lens of a privileged and fortunate life. And she is an insecure, competitive mean girl who hasn't experienced what you have. Don't take it personally. But don't take it either."
And so, nearly two decades later, here is my response to that assumptive colleague, to the mean girl, and to the quiet ones who averted their eyes, and to the head waggers who nodded in agreement, and to every person who assumes that father's day is meaningful to every child for the exact same reasons as your own...
Dear Fortunate Son or Daughter,
As a therapist, an advocate, and a woman, I am happy to know that you have had the good fortune of being raised by a wonderful father. A father who loved and protected you. A father who nurtured you and played with you. A father who cheered you on and taught you patiently. A father who treated your mother with respect, and your sisters with tenderness. A father who modeled the meaning of healthy maleness to you. A father who loved God. A father who was not an addict or a criminal. A father whose words and actions you could count on. I like hearing about your love for your father, and I love the stories you share about your relationship with your dad.
But for me, and many other human beings just like me, these experiences you share are very, very different from our own. So, if you will allow it, I'd like to tell you a little bit about my story, and why I choose not to celebrate my "father" on the holiday you so love, father's day.
My biological "father" abandoned me when I was 2 years old at a PO box while he robbed a bank. He was arrested and spent many years in jail. My sister and I were taken from our mother, who was also a criminal, and we were placed in different homes in different counties in the foster care system. Terrified and alone.
After being moved around the system every few months for years, and enduring hunger, neglect, poverty, bullying and every kind of abuse imaginable, 5 years later, by a miracle, my sister and I were reunited and adopted by a couple when we were 6 and 7 years old. Hurray! My little soul celebrated that I finally had a family and a father to love me and keep me safe in the world.
But..sadly, that was not the case.
Instead, my adopted "father" was a tyrant. He was the monster you fear as a child, the one living under the bed. He verbally, emotionally, physically and sexually abused my younger sister and I for 9 years until we both escaped - me at 16 years old, and a year later my sister at 16 years old. We never returned to that house of horrors, and I did not speak to or see this man called "Dad" again until I was 23 years old.
For my entire adult life until he died, other than an occasional strained visit every couple of years, I had zero relationship with this person. He was nothing like the fathers described in the hallmark cards, or on TV commercials. He was nothing like Mike Brady or Ward Cleaver. And he was certainly nothing like the fathers the "cool corporate clique" described.
So, dear fortunate son or daughter, if you are reading this and you have had the gift of a loving father, then count yourself among the fortunate. But please do not assume that your story is everyone's story.
And, please do not be offended if I choose not to celebrate this day. And while we are at it, please do not judge me and others like me for refusing to paste on a fake smile and pretend it is all OK. And please, for the love of all things Brady Bunch, do not say things like, "Maybe it is time to move on" or "Maybe you should just forgive him" or "At least he put a roof over your head" or "At least you did not stay in foster care." Do not assume that I have not already done the hard work of healing and restoration because I choose not to respond to this day the same way as you.
While I understand these platitudes are likely coming from a place of care (or ignorance), just...please..zip it. It is not your place. It is not your experience. It is not your right. And I want you to shush now. I lived it. I breathed it. I survived it. I moved through it. And I will decide when and how I continue to share my story of healing.
What you can do: You can ask if I want to share. You can ask about the wonderful men in my life that helped me heal. You can ask what organizations you might support that help abused kids. You can ask about the gifts in the wound. You can ask about my healing journey. You can ask how I managed to not only survive but thrive in my life. You can ask what father's day does mean to a person like me. You can ask how I have taken my pain and healing to help others grow and move forward.
You may ask, but please do not assume. You may ask, and I may choose to answer, or I may not.
In closing, thank you dear assumptive guy, and mean girl former colleagues for the gift you gave me all of those years ago at that hurtful June lunch. I learned that every precious person has a story, some smoother than others. And I learned that I'd rather have an imperfect story that I survived because it created a heart of acceptance and compassion, rather than to have lived a sheltered and privileged life where I assume, attempt to shame, and pass judgement on others who are not like me.
And dear colleagues from years gone by, including those who remained silent and colluded with the public shaming, my sincere hope is that 16 years later you have had enough life experiences where you could also go back to that lunch table and respond in a very different way. That is the hope I am holding. And if you are a father or mother now, may you pass along all the goodness you shared about your own father with your children, along with a reminder to always appreciate what you have, without assuming others also have these same gifts.
Sending you love and forgiveness from your former fatherless colleague who still does not celebrate father's day, but is very happy that you do!
With appreciation and gratitude,