I am a father. I am a son. Those are the biological facts. But Father's Day is not a celebration of biology. We don't honor fathers simply because of their donation of 50% of our genetic material. Yes, that genetic material is part of what makes us who we are, but that fact itself is not at all profound. To honor genetic material is no more rational than for us to hold a day to honor water; we would not exist as we are without that either. Genetics is simply a biological fact that is no more honorable than digestion.
There are lots of men who do simply act as genetic donors. They do their job to continue our race's existence and move on with their lives as if they have done nothing more than get high score on Pac-Man or read a good book. They see the event as nothing more than an experience from their own perspective; not seeing the reality of another human life coming into existence because of it.
Men are able to do this because women are the ones who carry the child. The man can leave, but the woman must bear the child and make the choices. From the beginning of life, fathers are there only by choice; while mothers are there by biological necessity. Fathers donate genetic material, but mothers do more: they give food, shelter, protection, and an environment in which to grow. One of the strongest evidences of this truth is that the argument over abortion is about the woman's choice, not the man's. The genetic contribution is equal among parents, but the mother is immediately expected to give so much more.
This explains Mother's day just fine - we honor the one who has given of herself from the moment of our conception, and honor the one who chose to keep doing this job despite the cost to herself. But what of Father's Day?
Fathering is far more of a choice than mothering. Mothers carry the child, and mothers have the equipment to feed the child even after birth. Fathers, on the other hand, are on the outside looking in. I remember the first time I looked at my oldest child and thought about the immense part this little person would play in my life from this moment forward. He would be in my life until I die, and I would be in his. I was overwhelmed. When I expressed this to my wife, she shook her head and smiled. "I have known that for the past nine months, and you are just figuring that out." she said. That moment cemented for me the enormous difference between mothers and fathers.
Father's Day is the honoring of more than genetics; it is a tribute to choices and sacrifices made in our favor that were entirely voluntary. It's not always easy to do so. As a father, I have sometimes felt like I was the odd man out. When I tried to enter into a relationship with my child, it sometimes seemed like I was intruding on the deeper relationship that he or she had with their mother. I was inserting myself into this family by my own decision and belief, but doing so caused a break in the relationship between the child and their mother.
Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that there isn't a natural need for a father; and I am certainly not saying that my wife and kids didn't want me there. But those who are fathers probably know what I mean. I think this is why many fathers give up and leave parenting to the mother. It seems awkward and intrusive to be a dad at times. It's much easier to be protector and provider, leaving parenting to mom.
And that's why we honor fathers on this day. The fathers who have entered into relationship with their child have done so by choice, and so are choosing the child's needs over their own. Children clearly crave relationship with their father and get different things out of it than they do out of their relationships with mom. In that sense, fathering is a gift given by the father to the child. On Father's Day we honor that gift.
This is bittersweet to me as a father, because I see times when I have done just the opposite. I see times where I should have been giving of myself but instead chose to look after my own needs. We all understand the regret of poor choices, but the poor choices made as a parent are more significant in their outcome, as they can affect the child so profoundly. But then I think of my own father, who is no more perfect than me. He certainly made some selfish choices over the years he cared for me. He certainly let Mom do things that he should have been doing. But I don't see any of these when I honor him on this day. I know his faults well (and have adopted many of them for my own), but those faults fade when I consider the reality of his fathering. He is still my father, and is still blessing me with his choices to care for me when he could be self-absorbed.
So happy Father's Day to all the fathers out there. While it is good to strive to be the perfect father, none of us will accomplish this. Don't let that cloud the reality of the facts. If you are sad over bad choices, it simply shows that you do care about your child. Apathy is the opposite of love, so even your regret should be worth celebrating. Fathering isn't as natural as mothering, but it certainly is an enormously important thing. If my feelings of gratefulness toward my imperfect father are any indication, then I should not hang my head too low. I should accept the honor and let any regret spur me toward a deeper relationship with my children.
So go ahead and enjoy the day. Have a beer. Hug your kid. Believe what they say when they express their love.