A Season of Gratitude – A Dad’s Guide to a Mentally Healthier Holiday Season

Being a single father on Thanksgiving can be daunting. As a single father of one child, on odd years, I’m trying to make the day special by preparing enough food for us, or, on even years, I’m spending the holiday alone. This reality has become the norm since the onset of the pandemic. Add into the mix growing up in foster care and not having that traditional family to spend time with over the holidays and those even-year holidays can easily have someone descend into a state of depressing isolation. So, this blog represents my guide for maintaining a mentally healthier approach to the holiday season.

Reading and hearing the stories of other single fathers who are struggling in their specific way over the holidays can be a source of weakness or strength for someone – all depending on the mindset of a given father.

Fathers being denied access to their children because they’re behind on child support seems to be a common occurrence.

Some fathers share stories of dealing with the effects of parental alienation when their children suddenly refuse to spend the holiday with them.

All too familiar are the stories of fathers giving up because they exhausted all of their financial resources fighting just to be in a constant presence in the lives of their children.

On occasions, I’ve reached out to strangers who shared that life wasn’t worth living anymore. To those fathers, maybe I shared my struggle and how I overcame specific challenges or simply tried to offer another perspective that we can create our happiness if we wanted only to never receive a response. Thinking about those conversations now, makes me wonder whatever happened to those fathers.

Since this was a year where I knew I wouldn’t have family or friends to lean on for Thanksgiving as many have permanently moved elsewhere or traveled somewhere for this holiday, I became intentional about how I would spend my time rather than allow depression to get the best of me.

Dad and son with their hungry men faces.

Celebrate Thanksgiving When Your Child Is Home With You

Yes, families across America celebrated Thanksgiving on Thursday. This year, PJ and I celebrated Thanksgiving Eve on Wednesday, which he loved! If you are a father who is fortunate to have your child with you at some point around the holiday but not on the actual holiday, celebrate on that day as if it is the holiday. Reframing an experience is a powerful way to manage your mental health. Rather than focusing on not having your son on the actual holiday, shift your attention to the time your son is with you and make the most of the moment!

Cupcakes, air fired chicken, instapot spicy asian chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans.

Create And Maintain Traditions

Last year, I stumbled across a Gratitude Tree at Target. Since it was an odd year, PJ was with me for Thanksgiving. This was the second Thanksgiving since the pandemic started. Years prior, my surrogate family would gather for Thanksgiving dinner and use this occasion to share what we were most grateful for — from the youngest to the oldest.

This tradition left an indelible impression on me because there’s something powerful about shifting our mindset to focus on those people or experiences that we appreciate. The power of intentionally focusing on gratitude forces our minds to shift from dwelling on the negative or what we don’t have to see what it is that we do have.

Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage first introduced me to the concept of “inattentional blindness”. Inattentional blindness will cause dads to miss out on what we do have because we aren’t disciplined enough or obsessive enough to love all that is right about our lives. Inattentional blindness happens when we are focused on not having our child on the specific holiday and instead miss out on maximizing the time that we do have together. Inattentional blindness can cause you to focus on the early drop-off time on Thanksgiving morning compared to recognizing that your child’s early wake-up time could be leveraged to create another tradition no matter the exchange time on a given year.

The Happiness Advantage - Book Cover

This year, my son was saddened to learn that he’d only have one overnight to spend with me this Thanksgiving when in prior years, half of his Thanksgiving week off was spent between both families. Now I don’t want to spend time explaining why things changed this year but the point of referencing how things were is to illustrate how I made the most of the time before the 8:30 AM Thanksgiving Day exchange.

PJ is an early riser and on Thanksgiving morning he was his usual bright-eyed and bushy-tailed self at 6:40 AM. We approached the day as we do a school day — blueberry and banana oatmeal for breakfast, teeth brushed, face washed, curly hair detangled, Daddy Blue Whale grabbed, jacket and shoes all on as we left at 7:40 AM. Instead of spending the 20 minutes driving to school, PJ was excited to drive to the park to play catch with our football before the 8:30 AM exchange. As we excitedly drove to the park, I explained that playing football is an American tradition on Thanksgiving and we were going to start the tradition this year.

Between trees barren of leaves that carpeted the grass in orange and brown hues, we zipped the football through the crisp morning air. Shouts of joy echoed through the park whenever the ball was caught just as shouts of exasperation when it was inexcusably dropped. Then when PJ bobbled my errant pass before finally securing it in his hands, we raced towards each other, embraced each other, and triumphantly jumped up and down to the sound of the brittle leaves crunching beneath our feet. And, as if on cue, PJ told me at the same time I told him, “let’s end it on a high note!”

Father and son after a game of catch.

When the exchange was made, PJ was beaming in pure delight and I was content that I made the most of less than 24 hours that we had together during his week off from school. As soon as I arrived home, I added one more leaf to the gratitude tree — “Grateful for playing catch before the exchange, Dad 2022”.

Define Your Intentional Vision

Dads, never take for granted that you know everything that your child cares about nor that they know what matters most to you. We have the responsibility to model for our kids what positive thinking looks like, what those small things are that amount to the big things that we need to embrace, and how we can learn to make the most of any situation. A Gratitude Tree represents an opportunity to make known what father and son truly care about in their respective lives.

Dads, have an intentional vision about how you want to cultivate your relationship with your son compared to allowing inattentional blindness to govern your headspace. Your intentional vision will allow you to strengthen yourself. Strengthening yourself will build up your son. Together, this intentional vision will focus on all that is well about your relationship with your child and will strengthen your bond with one another.

So, to the dad who is reading this, I challenge you to get your Gratitude Tree and start the tradition of accounting for those people, places, or moments you are most grateful for and for which their very existence brings joy and meaning into your life. When you do so, invite your child to partake in the experience. If your child cannot write, have him share out loud what he’s grateful for and write it down on the leaf. Each leaf should have each person’s name on it along with the year.

Repeat this process each year to “grow” your Gratitude Tree. This year, I bought another tree from Target for $3.00. The leaves for this year’s gratitude tree were different than last year’s tree. This contributed to the uniqueness of the tree as we added new leaves to it. Each person wrote what they were grateful for and shared it for everyone to hear. We’d pass the leaf to PJ who then had the responsibility of placing the leaf on a branch. Watching PJ read what we wrote last year warmed my heart. Listening to him recount what we added this year while reading the leaves during breakfast on Thanksgiving day left me looking forward to that time when the tree is passed on to him and his family.

Dads, always remember through hardship comes ease. Become intentional with your vision for yourself and your child. Lean into gratitude so you can embrace how much you have grown since becoming a single father and invite your child into the experience whether it’s a gratitude tree for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, or any holiday that adds purpose to your existence.

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