This question of identity is not as strange or horrible as the recent case of Rachel Dolezal, it’s more gentle than that: do I still qualify for Fathers’ Day even though my only child died in 2005 at the age of 8 years and 10 months?
I considered this question every year with the expectation that the answer will become more obviously, “Nope, not any more. There is a statute of limitations on this one, and it’s now past due.” But that doesn’t happen, and it’s beginning to feel like it never will. This year I’m questioning it again. The thing is that I don’t want to hang onto an identity that isn’t mine. I don’t want to co-opt characteristics, bounties nor penalties that belong with others. I do want to question, in this precise case, what my fatherhood actually means.
My father died when I was 14. He had been very ill for much, much longer. Other than myth and various constructions, I’ve no real sense of what fatherhood means in terms of an identifiable set of traits. When I was fathering my child, I was thinking of sex. When I was in the process of fatherhood, I was guessing, trying my best, getting it wrong. Now, well, I’ve no idea how or even if I qualify as ‘a father’.
A straightforward response to the question is obvious – as straightforward responses often are: “Your sperm fathered the child. You DNA was involved, so of course you qualify.”
Straightforward answers with their lack of complicating nuance, with their directness of approach usually based in dictionary definitions and the currently functional and consensual scientific fact can often be comforting. That comfort can work when building a shed or cooking some bread but they rarely help bring any sort of clarity to more complex questions.
In the case of Fatherhood and Fathers’ Day (or Motherhood and Mothers’ Day, I’m not taking the male line on parenting here), we’re surely all aware of the sperm donating fathers, or ‘natural’ fathers who mistreat their offspring or simply abandon them. Do they qualify as anything other than meat mechanisms? Directly, yes they do. They have fathered therefore they are fathers. If you’re happy with this definition, then you can stop here, exit, read something else elsewhere.
Certainly the abusive or negligent parent can self-identify as a father – so much so that not receiving Fathers’ Day gifts and appropriate abasements will result in self-righteous lashing out. But how useful or even relevant is this idea of ‘self-identification’?
In reality, in a wider world, can identity vest with the individual? Is self-identification anything other than a form of narcissism that enables the individual to filter the world even more subjectively and entirely via his or her own, limited experience?
Given that self-identification operates both at levels as diverse as the social and sociable identity of sports team fan, also to the anti-social identifications of racial, religious or political superiority, and also my current quandary as a father of a dead child, you can see how the nuances spoil my preferred answer.
So, right now, while I imagine receiving a father’s day card from my daughter I am going to self-identify as a loving, doting father at least for a day or so. The rest of the world, in this case, won’t be adversely affected I think, and I don’t think my delusion or unnuanced desire will hurt me. At least not until next year, and even then maybe not.