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Some people have a picture-perfect Father’s Day, complete with backyard barbeques, handmade cards, and a joyful family celebration. But that’s not what Father’s Day looks like for everyone. Maybe you’ve lost your dad and are grieving his absence. Maybe you don’t have a great relationship with your dad and would prefer to avoid contact. Maybe you’re ready to be a father but are having trouble starting a family, or you’ve lost a child and find the holiday an unbearable reminder.
If Father’s Day is painful for you, you’re not alone—and you have the right to spend it however you want, and to take care of yourself in the process. Use these strategies to find strength this Father’s Day, and consider sharing them with loved ones so they can help support you.
You have the right to:
Even the most understanding friends and family may expect you to be cheerful on Father’s Day. Talk to them ahead of time so they know how you’re feeling and what you’re up for this year. Let them know that you may change your mind about participating in festivities, even at the last minute. Tell them if you’d prefer to play it by ear. Research shows that we’re not actually that great at predicting how we’ll feel in the future, so leave yourself room for flexibility.1
That may mean choosing to spend the day in a way that’s meaningful to you, even if it doesn’t seem meaningful to others. This can be especially true for men, who, according to interpersonal communication expert Kory Floyd, generally prefer activities over sentiments when deciding how to spend a day like Father’s Day. They can sometimes feel devalued when their chosen activity is perceived as lacking emotion. If you want to play tennis because it’s what you did with your dad, that’s perfectly fine. It’s okay if keeping a personal tradition—or starting a new one—feels more meaningful to you than a more conventionally sentimental activity.
That also could mean saying no to the social pressure to celebrate—as well as to the guilt and shame that can come with it. Those negative feelings can be especially powerful for fathers and children who struggle to connect. According to Tamara Afifi, a professor of interpersonal and health communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara, there’s an expectation in our society that parents and children should be close. When you don’t have a close parent-child relationship—and you see others who do—that can be really hard.
Her advice: let go of the guilt by remembering that
If you don’t feel like marking the day in a certain way, don’t. If you want to honor traditions in your own way, go for it. Maybe you can’t or don’t want to spend the day with your father but you still want to make his signature burger or visit his favorite park. If it makes you feel happy or comforted, that’s reason enough to do it. Or if you want a complete change of pace, start a new tradition. Think about activities you’ve always wanted to do, places you’ve always wanted to visit, or special meals you’ve always wanted to prepare. New traditions give us something to look forward to.
When we act out of a sense of obligation, those actions can lack authenticity, and they don’t feel good to a father or a child. Instead, Floyd suggests that we relieve ourselves of the pressure to treat Father’s Day differently from any other day. If you’re estranged from your dad, for example, Floyd advises, “Maybe you don’t reach out on Father’s Day because that feels forced, but another time or situation might feel more natural. It doesn’t close the door permanently. It’s just a day. You can build a relationship in a time and way that’s genuine.”
Even the simplest tasks—like buying a Father’s Day card—can feel daunting at times. Ask for and accept help with any of them. People who care about you will be happy to do something to lighten your load. Sometimes they just need a few ideas to get started.
Father’s Day can be filled with memories and traditions that cause unexpected and shifting emotions. There’s no one right way to be. People who tell you how you “should” feel or act may mean well, but they may not know what’s best for you. Dr. Afifi suggests, “Find connections with people you choose, with people who show you the kind of love you deserve.” Surround yourself with others who accept you as you are—and try to limit your time with those who don’t. If you’re being hard on yourself, try to go easy. Notice when you tell yourself how you “should” feel. Try to replace those thoughts with acceptance of your feelings as they come.
The question of whether and when to open up can be complicated. People who know that you’re struggling may ask how you’re doing. With some friends and family, you can tell them how you’re really feeling without ruining their day. But not everyone will handle honesty well. In some moments, it may be easier to deflect the question than choose between opening up and giving an insincere response. Consider making a list of topics of conversation you can dive into easily if you want to change the subject (“What’s on your reading list?” “Seen any good movies lately?”).
Be gentle with yourself. Research shows that self-care can make it easier to cope with stress, especially during challenging times. Eat well, stay active, try to sleep, and give yourself the opportunity to relax when you need it.2
This particular day may not be the same as it was before. It may never be quite that way again. But it won’t necessarily always be this hard. You don’t know what the next year has in store for you, and you won’t always feel how you do right now. Watch for signs of the mental trap of permanence—believing that things will never get better. If you find yourself falling into it, try replacing words like “always” with “sometimes” to remind yourself that the future doesn’t have to be like the past.3