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Photo illustration by Michelle Budge

Perspective: I grew up with an absent father. Now I’m especially grateful for Father’s Day

SHARE Perspective: I grew up with an absent father. Now I’m especially grateful for Father’s Day
SHARE Perspective: I grew up with an absent father. Now I’m especially grateful for Father’s Day

After more than a year of working from home, my husband finally returned to the office. There are upsides and downsides, but one of the sweetest upsides is witnessing the greeting he gets upon his return home. Last night we joked it was akin to him coming back from an extended wartime deployment — that was the level of excitement in the house when the kids heard daddy call, “Hello?”

I have vivid memories from the age my oldest daughter is now — 8 years old — but I have no recollection of such a scene from my own home. My parents divorced just shy of my third birthday, and I have only one foggy memory of a time when my father lived in our home. Even on the scattered weekends I saw him until visitation stopped when I was about my daughter’s age, my father certainly didn’t get the kinds of greetings my husband does. For that I am eternally grateful as I watch with fascination, contentment and just a little bit of jealousy what a truly healthy and loving father-daughter relationship should look like. 

Growing up as an only child of a single mother, instead of Father’s Day we celebrated “Mother-Daughter Day” in our home. It was one of the highlights of the year, and we’d spend the day doing the girliest stuff possible; somewhat in order to celebrate our femininity, and somewhat to avoid running into other families celebrating what the holiday was actually designed to celebrate.

My mother used to say she was my mother and my father, and she was an absolutely incredible, if not superhuman, single mother. But as I’ve grown into adulthood, and especially since becoming a mother myself and witnessing my husband’s role in our household, I’ve come to realize that while she was incontrovertibly an extraordinary mother, she was my mother, not my father. She could not fill the shoes of a father figure, because, speaking from experience, those roles are not interchangeable in a child’s life.

What is my husband teaching our kids that I cannot? There’s the small things that some might call stereotypically male: sports, video games and, importantly for our sons, remembering when to put the toilet seat up and down. But those are things a woman with more range than myself could teach their kids. The really important role my husband fills is showing our daughters the kind of man they should marry, and for our sons, the kind of men they should grow up to be. 

One of the best things my mother ever did in my childhood was separate me from my father in order to secure not just my safety and emotional and physical well-being, but also how I thought about men and relationships in my future. In a blog post for the Institute of Family Studies, D. Scott Sibley explained how his research into the father-daughter relationship shed light on its importance. He wrote, “Most of the participants indicated that fathers can give daughters hope for romantic relationships, especially when fathers are committed in their own romantic relationships, and that fathers can influence daughters’ perceptions of relationships. By observing their fathers’ behavior, they learned more about the need for support, loyalty, trust, and closeness in relationships.” 

What my mother did is better known as simply “breaking the cycle,” and growing up without a present father ensured that I would be attracted to an upstanding man like my husband instead of a man like my father, who struggled with addiction my entire life. 

Our oldest daughter insists that she is also married to my husband and that she’s going to live with him forever. And my husband? Well, he’s been wrapped around her finger since the moment he laid eyes on her. She will, in all likelihood, marry a man like her father — one who will joyfully give a pedicure to his daughters, teach his kids how to play sports, clean up vomit at 3 a.m., and be available for cooking, cleaning, snuggling and wrestling 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Unlike what my mother had to do, I don’t have to raise a child alone; I have a true partner. And that partnership is what we’re modeling for our children when they grow up. I feel blessed to be a part of it and to pass it on. 

That’s what I celebrate every day, but especially on Father’s Day. The Father’s Day of my present life looks very different from the Mother-Daughter days of my youth. It’s not just a celebration of my husband and his role in our family, but for me, it’s also the celebration of the personal victory of breaking the cycle of toxicity and witnessing the magic it has meant for my life, my kids and their futures.

Bethany Mandel is a contributing writer for Deseret News, editor at Ricochet.com and a contributor to the Washington Examiner blog and magazine.