At noon on Sunday, nearly two-dozen divorced men will gather at a lakeside park in Madison, Wis., for an unusual Father's Day event - a picnic for noncustodial fathers.
Some will come alone. Others will bring their children, their second wives, or their girlfriends, swelling the group to 50 or 60. Whatever their family status, these fathers hope the event will help them get through a day that is built around images of close and loving families.
"I've seen men crying because this is the day that celebrates their relationship to their children, and they don't have their children," says James Novak, president of Wisconsin Fathers for Equal Justice, which sponsors the picnic. "Even if their children are with them, Father's Day can bring up the pain of the divorce."
As more parents and children join the ranks of divorced families each year, this dark side of Father's Day deserves attention. Noncustodial fathers themselves offer a range of ideas for making the day happier. Above all, they hope the mothers of their children will set aside any anger and help their children observe the event.
"Usually for Mother's Day and Father's Day, it's the other parent who makes it happen," says Mr. Novak. "Young children don't know how to buy gifts. They're prompted by their other parent to buy a gift or make a card saying, 'I love you Daddy' or 'I love you Mommy.' "
James Luscher of Madison, who sometimes attends the Father's Day picnic with his teenage daughter and son, has a special provision in his divorce settlement that grants visitation on Mother's Day and Father's Day to the appropriate parent. He explains that he and his former wife have also become "incredibly supportive" of each other. They realized that just because their marriage didn't work out, that should not get in the way of their love for their children.
Other men recommend keeping busy on Father's Day. "I don't sit waiting all day expecting to get the phone call that might never come, because that drives you nuts," says Richard Polkowski of St. Petersburg, Fla., a father of three who has been divorced for 11 years. "I say, 'It's Father's Day, I'm going to do something for me.' Then if you get the phone call, it makes it that much nicer."
Whatever the challenges, Mr. Polkowski urges noncustodial fathers to give unwavering love. "You keep making the phone calls even though they may not get them. You've got to keep letting them know that you love them and that you're there for them."
Bob Zeller of Reddington Shores, Fla., founder of Dads Assisting Dads, a support group for divorced fathers, offers another suggestion: Be flexible. "If you can't have them that exact 24-hour period, celebrate another day. That takes away the pain and frustration."
In families where children have no contact with their father, Ken Canfield, president of the National Center for Fathering in Kansas City, Mo., advises mothers to help children honor other father figures in their lives - teachers, coaches relatives, neighbors.
But even cards and gifts and picnics have their limits. Noncustodial fathers point out that the best Father's Day - and Mother's Day - present for many divorced families would take the form of fundamental changes in the legal system. Many decry an adversarial court system that pits divorcing parents against each other in custody disputes, making a mockery of the phrase "in the best interest of the child."
What would help to improve a situation that can never be ideal? Some men's wish lists include: More mediation when parents file for divorce. More equality in the time children spend with each parent. And more enforcement of court-ordered visitation.
When changes like these occur, fathers say, the best interest of the child could also become the best interest of the whole family.