How do you celebrate if he’s dead, deadbeat or a sperm donor?

Father’s Day week when my son was in pre-K wasn’t my best week as a single mom. The weekend before I was terribly sick with bronchitis; I needed to crawl back in bed and stay there all weekend. Instead, I went on what I’ve been terming the Single Parent’s Death March. This when you need to be in bed but your active 4-year-old is totally done with TV after 2 hours and if you don’t get out of the house somebody’s gonna kill somebody, you’re not sure who will be the perpetrator, but it’s clear that blood will be shed. So instead of lying comatose under the covers, coughing and sneezing pitifully and giving a grateful, rheumy-eyed half-smile to the person bringing you chicken soup, you get dressed, get out, and start walking. You walk all day. In the park. Through the zoo. Through the street fair. To the playground.

After about a 7-hour Death March you can go home, make dinner, clean up and collapse, so you can start the next day’s Death March bright ‘n’ early.

Maybe this isn’t just single parents, to be fair – I guess if your kids aren’t in school and you’re a stay-at-home parent, you have the same situation on weekdays. But anyway… delightful.

So I was barely recovered from my bronchitis/Weekend Death March experience and oh, joy! It’s Father’s Day week! And my kid has no dad. I had him on my own with the help of an anonymous sperm donor (who he will be able to contact when he turns 18, if he wishes). His preschool was planning a Donuts for Dads party.

On Mother’s Day, the school assumed everyone had a living mom

At the Mother’s Day Breakfast, the kids all sang, “Mommy loves me, this I know, for she always tells me so,” to the tune of “Jesus Loves Me.” Mommy as Jesus… a little weird, but who am I to argue? It worked out fine, since, fortunately, all the kids had moms. But was my son going to have to sing similar lyrics for Father’s Day, detailing his loving relationship with the father he does not have?

My dad died when I was 22 months old, and I remember dreading school Father’s Day celebrations, which never made room for students like me. Instead, they were a yearly reminder both of my loss and of my marginality. I needed better ideas, stat.

So I went on a mad web search. I wanted to know how schools can celebrate Father’s Day and Mother’s Day in a way that’s inclusive of kids who have moms or dads who are dead, disappeared, uninvolved or nonexistent (the latter being the case with kids who were adopted or conceived using anonymous donors, and who have single parents or same-sex parents). It was 2011: There had to be lots out there, right?  Songs, books, creative lesson plans…

I searched for ideas on how to celebrate these holidays in an inclusive way

I came up with nothing. I sent out queries to alternative-family listservs I’m on, I asked my Facebook friends, who have families of all descriptions, still nothing – though many people wrote about how they had a dead mom or a deadbeat dad and that Mother’s and Fathers Day school celebrations were always painful and alienating. Or they wrote, “Yes!!! The school should be sensitive to this!!” Lots of emotion, lots of exclamation points. But not a single idea.

So I went DIY—I wrote a couple of songs and sent them to my son’s teacher as an option. One was to the tune of  “This Old Man,” and the other was to my favorite children’s hymn, “I Sing A Song of the Saints of God.” Hey, if Mom can be Jesus, Dad can be a saint, right? Both were celebrating dads and uncles and grandfathers and friends – “all the men in my life I love the best,” went part of one line. The lyrics weren’t brilliant but the teacher was thrilled to have new ideas. And my son had a wonderful male babysitter who could go to the donut party, so I didn’t have to make my brother drive three hours to attend. It all worked out in the end.

But it made me wonder: How have parents and teachers dealt with this rather common issue? Same-sex parents and single parents who have adopted or given birth on their own are somewhat new trends, but death isn’t new. Abandonment isn’t either. Hasn’t anyone come up with new models of how to observe these holidays in a way that celebrates moms and dads without making kids feel bad?

I’d love to hear any ideas you have (for Mother’s or Father’s Day), and I’d also love to hear from those of you who didn’t have a mom or a dad growing up: How were these holidays for you?

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Photo by  Japheth Mast on Unsplash


Louise is Singlewith’s founder and content director. She’s been an editor and writer for print and online publications including the New York Times, Glamour, Ms.,, Out, Ladies’ Home Journal, and The Huffington Post. She’s also the author of Knock Yourself Up, a memoir and report about choosing single motherhood. She lives in Rhode Island with her son, who she raised solo for the first 10 years, and her husband.

1 Comment

  1. When the school celebrates holidays we don’t celebrate we just observe and talk about it. Some kids don’t have siblings, but they can appreciate that other people enjoy their siblings. Its not always your birthday or your turn in the spot light. That’s okay. My kids are dissapointed that their dad is an absentee father. A baby sitter or grandpa isn’t the same thing. That’s just what they got. The rest of their lives are very blessed. Fathers Day is not a big celebration at our house, but it’s just a day. The real issue is that their dad abandoned them. Therapy addresses that. And when it comes up at home I tell them I’m sorry that things didn’t turn out well in the dad department, and I love them as big as I can everyday.