“Are you talking about your biological dad, about Mark, or about your grandpa?”
“Oh, I meant Mark!”
From adolescence to adulthood, any time I mentioned my “dad,” close friends and family often sought clarification on which “dad” I was referring to. To them, there were three options to consider: my biological dad, my mom’s ex-boyfriend named Mark — who I credit as the man who raised me since my angsty pre-teen years — and my maternal grandfather.
Growing up, I thought that there was something wrong with not being able to define my family in a concise, easily comprehensible fashion.
I was reminded of this difficulty in subtle but detectable ways throughout my everyday life. Whenever I was prompted to fill out emergency contact information at my physician’s office, I’d automatically list my mom’s information. If a form prompted me to list a second person, I often had to choose between the three different father-figures in my life. In school, when my class was assigned the task of creating a family tree, I felt conflicted about diagramming my family by ancestry. This left out so many key people in my family, including Mark.
Whether I was participating in a school activity or completing a legal document, I was frequently reminded that my definition of “fatherhood” was too complex.
Having three different father figures fulfill various fatherhood roles in my life was too messy for many other people to understand.
I remember the first time that my definition of family and fatherhood was put to the test.
In high school, as the rest of my senior class and I were preparing for graduation, we were provided with a very limited number of tickets for our baccalaureate ceremony. The baccalaureate was considered more intimate than a graduation; it was a time for students to be recognized individually for various awards, with a dinner provided by my school to follow.
When I asked my best friends who they were inviting, I was envious of how easily they decided which immediate family members would get tickets. Meanwhile, I panicked — how could I explain such a political decision to my biological dad, to Mark, and to my maternal grandpa?
How was I going to choose between three key men in my life? My graduation was a moment that all three of these father figures had patiently and excitedly anticipated. They had all served me as a parent, and, to this day, continue to view themselves as my dad — each imparting wisdom, sharing life experiences, and providing support throughout my life.
I’d even lived with each of these men during various times of my life. When I was younger, my mom would drop me off at my biological dad’s place, where I could expect to start my morning with a hearty Filipino breakfast of tapa (a Filipino cured beef), garlic fried rice, and a cartoon. Then he’d drive me to school.
When I was living with my grandparents, I knew I’d wake up at 5 a.m. to my grandma cooking garlic fried rice and longanisa, otherwise known as Filipino sweet sausage. Upon devouring my breakfast with complete satisfaction, I knew I’d next find my grandpa reading the Los Angeles Times in the garage at 6 a.m., ready to drive me to campus.
In high school, it was Mark who dropped me off every morning — after he prepared a cheesy omelette to-go so I could eat my breakfast while he drove.
Looking at how each of these men had raised me, how could I distribute tickets to my baccalaureate ceremony as if it were some exclusive event? Who would attend and who would be left out?
I despised the anxiety it caused me — and simultaneously reflected on how these important occasions, like graduations and holidays, often remind non-traditional families like mine that America is socially (and purposefully) constructed to reinforce the traditional nuclear family.
This is especially true given that two-parent households are still considered the norm for the majority of Americans.
It may have taken my high school baccalaureate ceremony for me to realize that my idea of family didn’t “fit,” but many others arrive to this realization on Father’s Day. Father’s Day may be conventionally recognized as a day to pay homage to your dad, but I invite non-traditional households to remember that Father’s Day can be repurposed into a celebration of multiple father figures in your life.
Before, I was insecure about how Father’s Day shed light on the complexity of my family, but now, I use the day to honor my biological dad and the two other men who have haphazardly, but happily, emerged as my real dads, too.
While I am grateful for my biological father, I am also grateful for the fact that my grandpa and Mark have assumed multiple roles in my life: grandpa, father, chauffeur, babysitter, editor-in-chief, and life coach. With their guidance, I have learned to thrive outside of a nuclear family.
This Father’s Day, I have a message to those who have an extended family, have a two-father household, have a two-mother household, have a parentless household, have a non-nuclear family, have been adopted, have a single parent household, or have any other family structure that varies from the nuclear family:
Empower yourselves this Father’s Day by recognizing and celebrating the fact that “family” and “fatherhood” can be redefined on your own terms.