The Hurtful Assumptions in Our Celebrations

party yieldThis is a tricky topic to write about. I wish that just saying, “This is really hurtful to me,” or “This is really hurtful to many people,” was enough to cause others to at least reconsider their words and actions. But, for whatever reason, those words are often not enough. So, I am going to attempt to explain the circumstances around the hurt.

We are a culture* that structures celebrations around a box of what we believe is “normal.” Father’s Day assumes everyone has a father around, and whether he’s around or not, that the relationship between that father and his children is one to celebrate. Mother’s Day assumes the same, just about mothers. Other holidays–like Thanksgiving and Christmas (if one celebrates them)–involve plentiful food, family (however well you do or don’t get along), and presents. Beyond holidays, there are the events that produce typically expected celebrations–like bridal showers or baby showers–while other events are typically ignored (those ignored events include both those events that merit a celebration and those events that put someone in a situation of desperately needing support).

*When I say “culture,” I am broadly discussing the culture of the United States, probably of the lower middle to upper class variety. More specifically, I am discussing my experience with and observations of that culture. If none of this sounds like the culture you live in (United States or otherwise), then take what you can; leave behind what isn’t helpful.

This topic is one I’ve been thinking about for some time (see, for example, and A Twist on the Thankfulness Trend and When Christmas Gets Real). Most recently, however, I thought about it in regards to Father’s Day… a season during which I avoid the grocery store card aisle at all costs and commercials can suddenly alter my mood. Birthdays and the anniversary of my dad’s death are hard enough, but Father’s Day–and especially the commercialization surrounding it–seem like unnecessary cruelty. So, on Father’s Day, I mostly stay home and try to avoid social media. But, this past Father’s Day, I did decide to post the following on facebook:

“Thinking of everyone who never knew their dads, have lost their dads, have or had complicated relationships with their dads, and people whose dads were or are abusive. There’s no Hallmark card for us today to give or to get, but our stories are no less significant. Grace and peace to you.”

The responses to that post reminded me of just how many people my sentiment applied to. It also reminded me of how many people don’t realize that there are people in different situations than they are. So, I want to share some resources with you that can help us all expand our perspectives (our imaginations, if you will). These first two address Father’s Day and Mother’s Day,

How to Talk About Suicide on Father’s Day: “This Father’s Day, as with every Father’s Day, Facebook is going to become a cascade of carefully chosen, lovingly captioned dad photos… Just now, even just typing those first few sentences, I’m filled with an unspeakable, almost suffocating sense of dread. How do I describe the death of my father? Did he “kill himself”? Or “take his own life”? Neither of these sounds entirely truthful—and that’s why it’s been so hard to talk about the death of my dad, both now and over the last 11 years.”-Ashley Feinberg

Why I Hate Mother’s Day: “I hate the way the holiday makes all non-mothers, and the daughters of dead mothers, and the mothers of dead or severely damaged children, feel the deepest kind of grief and failure. The non-mothers must sit in their churches, temples, mosques, recovery rooms and pretend to feel good about the day while they are excluded from a holiday that benefits no one but Hallmark and See’s. There is no refuge — not at the horse races, movies, malls, museums. Even the turn-off-your-cellphone announcer is going to open by saying, ‘Happy Mother’s Day!’ ” –Anne Lammott

Before anyone gets defensive, let me say I’m not going to tell you to stop celebrating your favorite holidays (like I can “tell” you to do anything, anyway). I am, however, going to challenge you to reflect on the way you interact with others regarding those celebrations.

When a first grader excitedly decorates a project for her father and suggests I make a card for my dad, too, I simply redirect the conversation. The student is six or seven years old; they know little beyond the structure of their own life. It’s certainly not an appropriate context for me to launch into an explanation of why I can’t give my dad a card because he is no longer living.

But we are adults. We know that not everyone’s life looks the same… right? Then why have adults asked me so many questions–made so many statements–surrounding holidays and celebrations that assume I am just like them? Why I have I witnessed and heard so many stories about others having similar–and even more excruciating–experience? I think some people are willfully ignorant, but I believe a lot of people truly do not know.

It is with that in mind I share this final resource, What I Want You to Know, a series of guest posts on Kristen Howerton’s blog. The posts are submitted by readers, some anonymously, about aspects of their lives that others might not understand. Having a child with a disability or condition. Being a widow. Being a victim of abuse. Losing a parent. Not being able to have children. Losing a child. Being suicidal. Being given a terminal prognosis. Struggling with addiction. And this list hardly hardly begins to cover the breadth of the hundreds(?) of stories that readers have submitted.

After you read some of those personal stories, the very next conversation you have–whether it’s someone you know very well or someone you don’t know at all–imagine that person wrote one of the stories in that series. What would you change about what and how you ask them about their lives? How would you change how you share your personal story or celebration?

I don’t want you to treat them as strange or different. That’s the opposite of my point. Instead, I’m suggesting you remove the sting of assumptions from your speech in an effort to treat the other person with dignity and compassion.

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