When my step-dad asked me if I wanted to use his surname I said no. I was only 11-years-old at the time, but I was unwavering in my decision and knew that his surname sounded funny attached to mine. He delicately invited me to call him 'dad' if I fancied, but obviously, I declined that too. 'I'll just call you by your name, please, okay?', I asked. He, of course, said okay.
Looking back, clearly my pre-adolescent mind was entirely unaware of what that might mean - to me, to him, to how I identify with my parents - but at the time I'd given up on the traditional 'dad' concept and thus decided that I didn't need one of those. It worked for Disney princesses (have you ever noticed how many of them don't have a father figure?), and it could work for me, too.
To skim over the sob-story, I'm yet to meet my biological father. He was never part of the picture and while my mum has left that avenue of exploration open, I've not wanted to take it. I assumed my little brother's father was also mine until one messy day in the midst of our parents' divorce when I stumbled across some legal documents discussing his right to custody of me and, at the age of ten, connected the paternal dots. He didn't bother fighting for me in the end, tried and failed with my brother and a little while after the complicated formalities were wrapped up we had the aforementioned step-dad whose surname I did not want living with us instead.
I can’t remember the last time I referred to someone as ‘dad’. I am convinced, though, that I could pin point all of the moments in the last fifteen years that I’ve agonised over the awkwardness of referring to my now ex step-dad by his name instead. My friends would then have to tentatively confirm that I was talking about a parent, not a colleague, ex-boyfriend or other random man somewhere in the periphery.
It sounds so inconsequential, but you can't un-notice it. Just like I can't ignore the fact that there is an entire day reserved for my unwilling acknowledgment of my missing dads - the biological one, the one who turned out not to be mine, and the one with the rubbish surname. While my friends buy gifts, plan surprise days out and head home for Father's Day, I don't. I stifle the lump in my throat in the week before and pretend to believe it's just another shit Sunday.
I’m sure that there’s an uncomfortable Neo-Freudian reason why I won't address the unresolved trauma of spending my teenage and adult years unable to refer to the last father-figure in my life by that three letter word, but the reality isn't all that dramatic. There's no hypersexualised rage, no tears, no desperate hunt for the man whose DNA I share and no hysterical argument with the men who's knees I never felt comfortable sat on as a kid. In fact, it's quite monotonous.
It doesn't fit the well-refined stereotype. Among friends I'll flippantly joke about it all, blaming my poor taste in men on complicated 'daddy issues' when I know full well that I just have really, really bad taste in rebound men specifically. But every year when Father's Day comes around I find myself lost. And every year it takes me by surprise. The discomfort that is so easily dismissed every other day of the year rears it's head on that unremarkable Sunday in June, to remind me that the thing that's lacking - a dad, not a 'father figure' - does mean something.
Not that I'd ever let anyone else know that, of course. I've never been a fan of pity and my heart crumbles at the idea of my mum ever worrying about there being something that significant missing from my life. But the majority of my father-free life doesn't involve me having 'daddy issues'. More often than not, it's just a lot of pretending not to notice.
You ignore the heavy silence that follows when someone asks what your parents do and you stop talking after describing your mum's career. You resign yourself to the fact that you'll never be able to follow the stupid tradition of having your father give you away at a wedding. You pretend you don't feel a little cheated out of having a man to look up to, and you tell yourself you didn't hear that sigh of relief when a guy your dating realises that he doesn't have an imposing, protective father to try and impress.
You go about life just fine until that stupid Sunday comes around and you realise what the elusive 'something' in your heart is. It's denying myself a daddy-daughter relationship when I could have had one for at least a little while, and so forever resenting the 'you don't know what you've got until it's gone' cliché. It's allowing myself to be angry at the absent biological father who seems not to be the tiny bit curious what his now adult daughter is doing with her life. It's feeling both awful for and proud of my incredible mum who powered through and gave me enough to allow me to sometimes forget that I didn't have a 'dad' dad.
You wallow, you get frustrated and you're confused, but just for a moment. It's saved for that Sunday in June when all of your friends are busy and you've not had to buy an overpriced greeting card on the way home from work. Because when Monday comes around you're allowed to forget what's missing again. And then it's just another year double bluffing yourself into believing that you stand by not taking that stupid, unflattering surname 15 years ago.