Washington - One year for Father's Day, Mike Cabotaje bought a picture frame for his daughter to give his partner. It read "Greatest Dad Ever," which was odd he says, "because it suggests I'm second best at most."
Many parents with young kids struggle, at least to some extent, with how to observe these holidays. Matriarchs of the blogosphere pen articles with titles such as "I Have To Pretend I Want To Spend Time With My Family" and "Give Yourself Permission To Celebrate YOU on Mother's Day."
Others, such as Cameron Smith, a partner at a large New York law firm, think of Mother's Day and Father's Day as "Hallmark card holidays" that don't merit a celebration. Smith's husband, Jeff Edwards – a former leading dancer with New York City Ballet and now a faculty member at the Juilliard School – says he didn't do much for his parents when he was young, but for a more practical reason: His working class family didn't have the leisure time to "mark the day in any dramatic way."
Growing up with Filipino immigrant parents, Cabotaje, a San Francisco resident and Department of Health and Human Services attorney, says holidays were always different in his house than his friends' homes. "One time, Santa Claus rang the doorbell on Christmas Eve and left presents on the doorstep," he says. "On Mother's Day, we went to Denny's."
But additional ideological, logistical and cultural issues surrounding these holidays come into play for these men now that they are same-sex parents.
Smith says, "I think for a straight couple there's a lot of the 'give them the day off' thing, and we don't do that obviously, because how would we do that for both of us?" In this way, their experience echoes that of many single parents who, Heather Buen, the woman behind Dallas Single Mom, says, "don't have the luxury of having someone else make plans, decide on breakfast in bed or brunch on the patio."
And the other holiday can take on a melancholy tinge when a child doesn't have a mother or father to fete. "Father's Day gets harder as the kids get older," says Danielle Ramo-Larios, an assistant professor at University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine and mother of three with her wife, Sandy. "We get a lot more questions now that they hear about it from school, commercials and store displays."
Cabotaje can relate: "There's a little anxiety for me on Mother's Day, since schools make a big deal of it and since most of our daughter's friends have moms."
The holidays can "create a perception of something being lacking," agrees Smith.
Of course, every family is different. Ted MacGovern, a Seattle stay-at-home dad, and his husband Dan Shih, who recently ran for the Washington State House of Representatives, put the focus on their daughters' grandmothers and aunts, giving them the projects made at school.
"The girls don't think much about it," MacGovern says: "They don't have mothers, so no big deal."
In some ways though, the experiences of married or partnered same-sex parents are distinct from those of single parents. Cabotaje says his daughter video-chats with her birth mother on Mother's Day. Also, gay parents often do have two people, just not one who isn't implicated in the holiday. Like Buen, Ramo-Larios and her wife "want Mother's Day to be about the spoiling of the parent," but with two mothers and three young kids, "to try to have a holiday that focuses on both parents individually has become absurd."
Moreover, "same-sex parents don't have any models on how to make that day work," she says. "Do we focus on half a day for each parent? Just give up on the idea of being treated and have a family celebration? Do we get each other gifts? Do we both separately organize the kids to make things for the other mother? Or do we just say that's too much work on a day that's supposed to be relaxing for us?"
Thus far, Cabotaje and his partner have taken the group approach: "We just treat ourselves to a nice family meal out and hope that she won't insist on Rainforest Cafe," he says, laughing.
Ramo-Larios considered splitting the holidays. She, Mommy, would get Mother's Day, and her wife, Mama, would get Father's Day.
"That would fix the problem of focusing on one parent, but it brings up a whole other set of issues that may be confusing for the kids and invalidating for us," she says. "Our four-year-old would have the responsibility of telling his teacher, 'I'm actually going to make this Father's Day card for my Mama.' And she isn't their father. Neither of us is their father."
Others agree that attempts to include gay couples in the off-holiday, though well-meaning, often don't help. "We had an experience when someone wished us 'Happy Mother's Day' and that felt very off and wrong, almost offensive," says Smith.
MacGovern agrees. "I find it weird," he says. "I may provide a motherly role, but I'm still a father."
That said, Cabotaje recalls being pleasantly surprised by one such effort. When he picked his daughter up from her Saturday religion class, he says, "I saw her classmates rushing out and giving roses to their moms. My daughter wasn't with them. I was a little worried at first, but when I found her lingering in the classroom, her teacher acknowledged our family situation, gave me the rose, hugged me, and said that I was a good parent and that Mother's Day was for me too. That was awesome."
Since their kids are young and their Brooklyn preschool is too "child-centered" to make gifts for parents, the Edwards-Smith family has passed the holidays largely unfazed. But Smith has a feeling that will change.
"We were surprised one Sunday evening last summer when we were taking the boys out to dinner," he says. "We passed a group of teenagers, at least one of whom appeared to be gay, and afterward they turned and loudly called out, 'Happy Father's Day!' It made us think maybe the day is important to other people. Maybe it will be to our kids. Maybe we should start acknowledging it."
They might throw a big party, he says.
"Since there are two of us, the celebration should be twice the size, right?" Edwards adds, "We can just call it 'Parents' Day' and observe both, because there's never enough celebration of parents."
Ramo-Larios isn't as sanguine.
"I'll never forget the first time someone said, 'Who's the man?' When people assume a butch and a femme persona, it shows how much they want to shove relationships into traditional gender roles," she says. "And these holidays tend to highlight and facilitate that."
On Mother's Day the whole Ramos-Larios family brunches along with grandparents and friends. It feels "celebratory and special," she says, "but we haven't figured out how to bring an individual focus to the day. That may just be something we never get to have, and that's okay. We'll make our own tradition."