How I Botched Father’s Day

A confession and a surrendering of personal parenting success

Jonas Ellison
Jun 17 · 7 min read
Brunch was nice… (She got free swag shades.)

It’s the day after Father’s Day. And as I reflect on yesterday, I’m realizing something…

I wasn’t any less of a mediocre dad on Father’s Day than I am on any other day.

Big-picture-wise, yesterday was nice. There were no huge catastrophes. For sure, there were some unfortunate things that happened (as you’ll soon see), but it could’ve been a lot worse.

For the sake of this essay, I’m going with this premise: the thing that brings our kids the most joy (particularly when they’re my daughter’s age — 5) is for us to be present and attentive to them. That’s what the parenting books and the high priests and priestesses of parenting bloggers have told me, so I’m going with it (we’ll get into this later)…

But first, walk with me…

A quick play-by-play

I woke up to Rory at 6:30 am giving me a hand-crafted, folded, and stapled card (with the family and the dog framed in a big heart, naturally). At this stage, she loves giving gifts as much as she does getting them, so she’s been itching for a week to hand it over.

I soaked in the special moment for about four minutes before my mental ideal and the reality of the day started to part ways and devolved into busyness and distraction.

Late last week, a giant tree snapped in half and severed every wire between the house and the power poles including the internet line. Our power was quickly restored, but we’re without internet until Wednesday (3 more days). Being that Alex, my wife, and I both work from home, this is a big inconvenience.

So after the special card moment, I knew that I needed to get my weekly newsletter out. (Consistency is key, ya know. And what kind of good American solopreneur takes a day off on Father’s Day? Gotta get it done.) So I left Rory with her iPad as I tethered off of my iPhone’s hotspot and eeked out my newsletter (with several errors that I later noticed).

[9:30 am — Total time spent present and attentive to Rory: 10 minutes.]

After I hit ‘publish’, I realized that Church was coming up in an hour, so I rushed out, walked the dog, and got back home just in time to shower and get ready. I did all of that and we made it to church to spend a quick 10 minutes with Rory because she wanted to watch the baptisms (always a joy to behold), but then she got bored, so we took her back to the nursery so she could play in there instead of sitting through the service (being that I’m headed towards ministry, the last thing I want to do is force religion down her throat since she’ll soon be bathing in it through me).

[11:00 am — Total time spent present and attentive to Rory: 20 minutes.]

After service, Alex took us out to a surprise Father’s day ‘acoustic brunch’ at the famed Old Town School of Folk Music, one of my favorite places in Chicago. The food was good, but the music was incredible (and the company was even better, of course).

[12:30 pm — Total time spent present and attentive with my daughter: 1 hour, 20 minutes.]

This week, my in-laws will be in town for a family wedding and my mother-in-law is a stickler for household cleanliness. So, when we got home, I decided to start cleaning the house because I probably won’t have time during the work week (because just because you work from home doesn’t mean you can do chores around the house and get paid at the same time). Alex tackled the laundry and I started cleaning the kitchen with fervor.

Meanwhile, Rory was doing art. Alone.

We soon realized that we had more issues with our electricity. Alex informed me that our washing machine stopped working mid-cycle. Apparently, the power in the basement went out. I went down to inspect and there was a full load of clothes sitting in water. I found the thrown breaker and flipped the switch. This worked for a second, but then the power started surging (I’m no electrician, but this is what I’m calling it — ‘surging’: sending the washer into demon mode and making the lights sound and smell like they were going to explode).

I turned the breaker off, hand-wrung the clothes, and texted my landlord. He called me right away and told me he’d be over at some point — yes, on Father’s Day, and he’s a… father (not many things will get landlords to act as fast as they do with the threat of an electrical fire).

I ran back upstairs and continued to clean the kitchen. Rory was doing art in her room and asked me to come and play with her (as she had several other times that I so aptly deflected with busyness). I knew I should, but had so much going on. And I hadn’t even taken the dog for her afternoon stroll. But somehow, I submitted to the whisper in my mind that urged me to go sit with her. So I set down the dust rag, went over, and sat with her. For 10 minutes. Until I was pulled away by the text from my landlord saying that he was en route to our place.

Alex had to go to the store to get stuff for dinner (we invited a friend over) and since I had my hands full with wet clothes, correspondence with our landlord, an unwalked dog, and a half-clean kitchen, she brought Rory with her.

[2:30 pm — Total time spent present and attentive to Rory: 1 hour, 30 minutes.]

When they were at the store, I continued cleaning (seriously, it’d been a while and was reaaaally bad). Then our landlord came and had a look around. When they got back, I decided to sit on the couch and watch Wild Kratts with Rory as Alex prepped dinner. It was nice and relaxing.

[5:00 pm — Total time spent present and attentive to Rory: 2 hours, 10 minutes.]

Our friend came over at 5:30 or so and we had a nice time chatting. But Rory didn’t want to sit there and talk about boring grown-up stuff, so after she ate, she walked into the other room and watched more PBS Kids as we continued our in-depth adult discussion at the dinner table.

At 8:30 pm, I finished washing dishes just as Alex finished up giving Rory a bath. I sat down with Rory for our routine story and bedtime routine (I’m her human tranquilizer, it seems). As she sat on my lap and we rocked and I read her the pages from the second book of the Abby Hayes series, I realized…

Ugh… Father’s Day is over. This was supposed to be the day in which I soaked in my dadness and spent long, slow, and attentive quality time with her. But all I’ve been doing is making myself busy and thoroughly ignoring her.

The final tally

I mentally checked the tally again…

[8:45 pm — Total time spent present and attentive to Rory: 2 hours, 45 minutes.]

Out of the 14 hours in our waking day together, I spent less than 3 of them being present and attentive to Rory.

Yes, I was fortunate in many ways. I was fortunate to not have had to work a job across town all day (or the country/world for that matter). I was fortunate that our family was in good health. Brunch was nice as well as a couple of fleeting moments otherwise. And I was privileged to be the one rocking her to sleep. It could’ve been far worse.

But I couldn’t help feeling bad about it.

Did I really have to spend so much time cleaning? Could the dishes have waited until the morning? Could I have included her more in our conversation at dinner? Could I have had her participate in the cleaning and the dog walking?

So many shoulds were running through my head. Every mom and daddy-blogger I’d read was screaming into my ear. The law of parenting culture was condemning me and I felt deserving of it.

I fell short as the central character on the ideal Father’s Day in my head.

As I write this now, I realize how little I match up to my ideal self as much as I think I should.

Should, should, should. The shoulds never stop. For us parents, this is what causes us to project our self-disapproval and shame other parents on social media and across tables at school luncheons. This addiction to busyness is what makes us try to absolve ourselves by bribing college coaches and admissions reps. Because this ubiquitous guilt and performancism is too much to bear.

As I stood there and ‘shoulded’ myself, I knew that I needed grace as much as anyone.

But I wanted to justify myself. My ego didn’t want to feel bad, so I heard it start to whirl and kick in… What?! She has to understand. I was busy, right?! Stuff had to get done! We had company, we couldn’t talk about kid stuff?! Can you blame me?!

Instead, I chose to let the reality of the moment move into me. I (ready for this?) allowed myself to feel bad (gasp!).

In doing that, I saw that I was being way too hard on myself. Why all the despair and guilt? It’s because I was placing myself as the central character of this day and wasn’t living up to my exalted role. It was parenting perfection crazy-making run amok. My utter self-importance was turning this molehill into a mountain. I mean, truly…

My daughter doesn’t need my performance. I don’t even know if she’d like being around the ideal image of the dad I ‘should’ be in my mind.

Maybe she was fine doing her own thing as she watched me clean countertops, visit with friends, and handle electrical issues with the landlord. I don’t know. I can’t know. And I pray that I be released from trying to control the verdict of this judgment.

If you’re a dad out there in any fashion (or know one) who can relate, may this prayer be your own.

And I really hope they hook my WiFi back up sooner than later.


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Jonas Ellison

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Midlife seminarian. Working writer and essayist who blogs and attempts poetry at times. (Affiliate links sometimes appear in posts.)| www.jonasellison.com

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Daily poems and essays about life, love, creativity, and faith