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Are You There, Dad?

Your relationship with the man or the mystery

Published June 16, 2010

Collaboration with Lauren Ladoceour

Design by Laura Brunow Miner

Who doesn’t have daddy issues? Recent showcase Sorry, Mom was poignant and enlightening, but when writer Lauren Ladoceour came to me with the “Are You There, Dad?” theme, I had an immediate sense for the impact it could have. The truth of the matter is that dads don’t always stick around. When they do, they tend to be more elusive with their emotions than their maternal counterparts. Given that each of the photo stories featured below show only a vignette of each contributor’s paternal experience, I’m thrilled to have Lauren go into more detail about growing up without her father and how she’s piecing together a clearer picture of a familiar stranger.

It didn’t take long to forget what he looked like. After he died, we packed away the pictures and didn’t really talk about him much. I wasn’t sure what to call him when he did come up. Not Daddy, but he was surely more than just Leo, the man who married my mom and provided half my DNA, right?

Confused, I sort of forgot about him all together. I looked, talked, and acted so much like Mom, that for a long time, it never occurred to me I was anything but her child. And then a few years ago, I found this portrait in the back of a closet. It’s his nursing school graduation picture and the first image I have of my father as a healthy, young man. But what really shook me was how familiar the face looked. I could suddenly see myself — or maybe just a new side — in his image.

In so many ways, children measure themselves by their father and look to him for the merest reflection of themselves, writes Clea Simon in her book Fatherless Women. “We see ourselves in their eyes, and define ourselves by who they are, who they want us to be, and who we want them to be.”

It’s no wonder, then, that I wanted to know more. Anything that could tell me how much I have in common with this man, what kind of relationship we might have had, and how different I would have turned out, if only. I started with a call to my mom, long-lost aunts and uncles, and a patchwork of family history. There wasn’t a whole lot to glean from my sources — it seems everyone forgets. So I asked other people what their fathers were like, hoping to at least shed light on what that relationship — the kind I was newly craving — could feel like.

After listening to these stories and taking a survey of popular studies — much of them from the field’s leading researcher and fathers’ rights advocate, Michael Lamb — what I’ve found isn’t a big surprise: Fathers are complex characters, and relationships with them aren’t any more straightforward or ideal. But what is interesting is how everyone, both young and grown, tends to talk about good old dad with a sense of mystery. Even if they insist that they have a close buddy for a father, there tends to be an underlying note of longing for something more.

That something, says Simon, Lamb, and many of the expert sons and daughters out there, is a father’s total acceptance of the child before them. And in that way, my whole search has painted a better picture not so much of my own dad but of a figure a lot of people yearn for: Someone who can tell you who you are and that you’re all right, kid. So now, when I find myself studying the faded portrait of my dad in his white lab coat and bow tie, I see that I’m not just trying to discover who he was or what we missed out on together — but who I am too.

I’m still collecting stories about dads and how people see themselves in their father’s eyes as part of a larger online project. Join me at bigwordnerd.tumblr.com for more info. —Lauren Ladoceour

one
The Man in Me

The Man in Me

I was raised by strong, independent women. But I could never forget my father. He left for California after a bitter divorce, and more than a decade later, I followed him in search of a male role model. I walked in his shadow, wanting to grow tall like him, but it wasn’t long before his mental illness and drug abuse made it hard for him to take care of himself, let alone a teenager. So I left. A day away from home turned into two years on the run. My mom thought I was living happily with my dad, but the fact is he was alone, getting high so he wouldn’t have to think about anything. Eventually the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department returned me to the safety of my mother’s new home in Alaska. There, I found a male role model of sorts in the rugged masculinity of the land. I found stability in this bipolar land of ice and heat, light and dark. Alaska taught me how to catch my first fish, load my first gun, and climb my first mountain. I see my estranged dad in my shadow, the mirror, and this self-portrait on the Homer Spit. While I may stand in his image, I stand straight because of Alaska.

Photographer: Tyler Colin

A young man trying to sort out life after college in Anchorage, Alaska.

two
On His Terms

On His Terms

My father is a generous and giving friend, but a terribly selfish husband. He’s the kind of father all your friends love, but who leaves you wondering if he loves you. He has a heart of gold, but will instantly cut you out of his life if he thinks you’ve done him wrong. He hasn’t spoken to me in eight years and probably never will again, but he loves my kids more than he’s ever loved anyone — and that’s good enough for me.

Photographer: George Causil

I was born and raised in Brooklyn. I’m a husband, a father, a son, and a brother. Everything else is superfluous.

three
Through the Looking Glass

Through the Looking Glass

My father is a psychologist and has taught me a great deal about analysis. We tend to discuss the world around us rather than our personal lives, but I trust him and know that he would provide me with great counsel if I needed it.

Photographer: Christopher Jagers

I am a technology entrepreneur and an amateur photographer. I love art, innovation, technology, and emerging media.

four
Father Nature

Father Nature

Dad loved the environment so much that he repopulated the three acres of his hillside property with hundreds of native trees. In the middle of this future forest, he left a heart-shaped patch of grass only visible from the other side of the harbor. He loved his land. Humans, on the other hand, he could do without. Those who dared litter near him were likely to incur some verbose humiliation. He also held an irrational dislike of short people, and the song “Short People (Got No Reason for Living)” was on heavy rotation in his home. Dad’s calm came from the forest; there he would wander and listen to birds, forage for magic mushrooms, and talk to giant ferns. That’s what I picture him doing now. I miss him.

Photographer: Zoe Brock

Zoe Brock is a model, actor, and writer for The Nervous Breakdown. She lives in San Francisco in constant fear of The Fog, and is very much her father’s daughter.

five
In His Hands

In His Hands

The man’s been lost in sorrow since my mother’s death years ago, but this isn’t a photo of his sadness. He’s just taking his usual after-lunch nap. Dad’s found a way to be serene and happy with his life in a way I admire. Some say he acts out of indifference, but I know better and appreciate the freedom he’s always given me to find my own path. I hope to do the same for my kids.

Photographer: Arianna Sanesi

I am a 33-year-old photographer currently living in Milan but about to move.

six
Take Care

Take Care

I know my father well. He raised me right and gave me more than he ever had. And I love him, maybe too much. This photo was taken several months ago, just before he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and not long before my daughter was born. My father’s health has been in steady decline since his mother passed away seven years ago. She had always been the glue for her children, and it seems as if nothing can snap him out of his sadness over her loss. I’m desperate for him to change his habits and turn his health around, but he won’t. I’ve always been great at fixing things, a trait inherited from him, but I don’t know how to fix a broken man. I feel like I’m reaching out to save someone who just doesn’t want to reach back.

Photographer: Dan Higbie

I am a web designer and amateur photographer living in Florida.

seven
Where He Belongs

Where He Belongs

I was afraid I would never see my father sitting in his favorite chair again. He had a debilitating stroke that put him in the hospital for months and left him with a spotty memory and poor communication skills. Now he spends most of his waking hours in this chair. I flew back from New York to see him, and as I approached the house, the sight of him was overwhelming. Standing knee-deep in snow, I took this shot, wondering if it would be my last opportunity.

Photographer: Caren Litherland

Caren Litherland is a graphic designer who lives and works in New York.

eight
The Way We Were

The Way We Were

He made me walk around the house with weights strapped to my ankles because he thought it would help me jump higher in recreational league basketball. He let me stay up way past my bedtime, after my mom went to sleep, and watch scary movies no 5-year-old should see, like Jaws, Alien, and Godzilla. He took me mini-golfing on balmy summer nights. He called me “snuggle bunny” and sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” to put me to bed. The life I’d known for nine years ended on June 18th, 1999, when he had a heart attack. Now I work harder every day to make him proud, wherever he is.

Editor’s note: Photo by Hayley’s aunt, Val Boyle.

Photographer: Hayley Boyle

Hayley is a student at La Salle University in Philly. She’s learning the world person by person and place by place. She might not be able to save the world, but she’ll die trying.

nine
Bedside Stories

Bedside Stories

A few weeks ago, the morning after Memorial Day, my dad landed in the emergency room with intense stomach pain. As he laid in his hospital bed, we shared old stories like the time he fell asleep on our couch with my favorite stuffed animal. I’m relieved to say that my dad was just suffering from gall stones and is doing fine now, but after that day in the hospital, I can’t help but appreciate our past, present, and future together all the more.

Editor’s note: Photo by Rick’s mom, Rhonda Harlow.

Photographer: Rick Harlow

Addicted to t-shirts.

ten
The Space Between Us

The Space Between Us

When I was a child, I would wait eagerly for my father to come home. Upon arrival, I’d sit by him, eat with him, and then ask him for a car ride (to which he almost always obliged). We still reminisce over memories like this, and it breaks my heart when I see the look in my dad’s eyes. We both long for things to be that simple again, for us to be that simple again. I’ve grown up, said things I didn’t mean, resented, complained, and underappreciated. But despite it all, I’m still the child waiting for my father to get home, and he’s still the man who will stand by me. There’s nothing I would change about who we are now because having a father like him has made me who I am today. I hope he knows how much he means to me.

Photographer: Dorothy Adjovu

Dorothy Adjovu is a 19-year-old currently located in Tucson, AZ.

eleven
Live and Learn

Live and Learn

It was the spring of 1968. One night, I was awakened by a mass of sirens looming in the distance. I was frightened, but my father managed to rock me back to sleep. The next morning, he took me for a walk and explained that there had been a riot, one ignited by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. He pointed to a storefront with broken glass and another damaged building. Then he got down to my level, cupped my face in his hands, looked me in the eyes, and said “This is what happens when people hate, don’t you ever forget this.” I never have. This was just one of many valuable lessons I learned from my professor-father, a gentle soul with a firestorm of compassion.

Photographer: Brenda Thomson

Brenda Thomson is a writer and photographer living in Oklahoma City.

twelve
Going Soft

Going Soft

I can’t remember what sparked the rare, deep smile that spread across his face that day, but I’m thrilled that I got to capture it. A fierce negotiator and man of strength, he terrified me with his discipline and stern nature when I was young. Little did I know then that his tough exterior harbored such a warm heart. He teared up reading Grover Goes to School, typed country songs into poems for his wedding anniversaries, and provided a belly for me to nap on when I was small enough. And he’s happy just to wake up every day — to a warm cup of coffee and a poppy seed bagel — and protect the rest of us softies of the world.

Photographer: Jana Carrey

Jana Carrey is a freelance photographic artist, visual anthropologist, writer, interaction design studio manager and ethnographic researcher. She currently lives and works in San Francisco but considers herself a global citizen.

thirteen
Playing the Part

Playing the Part

Are you there, Dad? Because sometimes I think you never aged past 13. You love video games, playing in the snow, making your famous stuffed animal bikes, and trying to take the “coolest jump picture ever.” You made my lunch every day before school and always remembered to draw a colorful picture on the bag, too. Don’t worry, though. Even with two grown daughters, you’re more youthful than ever. So let’s never stop having fun.

Photographer: Lauren Randolph

I am a photographer in Los Angeles. I carry a camera everywhere.

fourteen
Baby Faced

Baby Faced

I photographed this brand-new dad as part of a project about birth. His vulnerability made me think of my own dad, who seems so immovable and eternal in his opinions and rules. But the truth is, none of our parents really know what they’re doing — they’re all improvising.

Photographer: Alice Proujansky

I am a photojournalist based in Brooklyn, NY, and I’m working on a project about birth and culture.

fifteen
On the Line

On the Line

When this photo was taken, he was just a 22-year-old living his life. This was before he had to change diapers and check for monsters in the closet. Before he nicknamed me “baby girl,” checked the oil in my car, slipped me cash behind my mother’s back, and taught me about love without ever discussing the subject. He gave up his independence to raise me, and today, I thank him for my life.

Editor’s note: Photo by Paige’s mom.

Photographer: Paige Ricks

Paige Ricks is a graduate student living in Berkeley.

sixteen
Just What I Needed

Just What I Needed

It wasn’t until the last day of summer camp, when my friends’ parents began to arrive, that I realized how much I had missed Mom and Dad. I was overcome by emotion, and my parents found me crying on cabin steps. Dad took me into his arms and put me at ease in a way that only a father can. He expressed so much with that embrace: his understanding, his love, and a promise of security. He’s always there when I need support and understands when I want space. Thanks to him I know what it means to be sensitive and love unconditionally.

Photographer: Kat Green
seventeen
Indelible Ink

Indelible Ink

How could I go wrong with a tattoo of my daughter? She’s the one woman in my life who isn’t going anywhere. It’s a safe bet.” Dad jokes about his tattoo of my senior portrait, but the truth is, I am the person he’s closest to. (He divorced when I was 3 and never remarried.) Being adored is at times a tremendous responsibility, like when he called me sobbing after a cancer diagnosis and later as I stood by him through treatment. Now that the cancer’s in remission, I hope he joins me for some fresh ink when I get my “safe bet” tattoo.

Photographer: Victoria Fiorini

I’m a web designer living in Boston. Baked goods, bacon, and beer belong together — I’ll make you a believer.

eighteen
James and James

James and James

My dad often stole me away on weekends and summers for business trips. Together we traversed the northwestern states in our family station wagon loaded with bikes that only rested during sales pitches or while we slept. That’s how my father shared his life with me. Most people blame their dads for everything from anger problems to receding hairlines — but why not focus on the positive?

Photographer: James

I climbed a tree once.

nineteen
Father Figure

Father Figure

When it comes up that I have two moms, people always ask if I know my father. The answer: Sort of. This is him. I know that 18 years ago, he was 29 and a friend of my mothers’, who were already in their 40s. I know that when they asked him to father their child, he said yes. I also know that he’s been around most of my life — at birthday parties and grade school graduations — but not really hands-on. I know that he has kids with my stepmom and that he loves Lorna Doone cookies, Nilla Wafers, and bagels. But I don’t know much about his life before me. I don’t know much about how he felt, having a child with older lesbian women in 1992, nowhere near the low point of gay familial rights, but definitely not a high point either. I don’t know what he thinks of me or how I turned out so far. But, yes, I do know my dad. Just don’t ask me much about him.

Photographer: Hannah Moch

Hannah Moch is a high school student living in New York City. She enjoys photographing the benign and fantastical parts of her life and hopes to continue to do so as she finishes her last few months of high school and goes on to college.

twenty
Rocky Road

Rocky Road

While my pilot dad was flying airplanes, I would try to catch a glimpse of one in the sky, imagining it was his. He sometimes missed my birthday or Christmas, didn’t teach me to ride a bike, and never met any of the guys I dated. But despite living on different continents, I feel so close to him. He was by my side in the hospital when I dislocated my knee. He helped me move my stuff from Queens to Brooklyn when nobody else could. Last year, the two of us revisited my childhood home and stopped by the ice cream shop he used to take me to when I was a toddler. Decades later, they still have Rocky Road, his favorite. We are apart most of the time, but I live for beautiful days like this when I don’t have to wonder where he is — because he’s right in front of me.

Photographer: Katrina Villanueva

Katrina, a 25 year-old Brooklynite, studied visual arts and is currently exploring outlets for her passion in design, fashion, food, travel, and culture.

twenty-one
Modern Family

Modern Family

Classmates never understood my family tree, even after my attempts to explain with drawings and biblical stories. It goes something like this: I grew up in El Salvador with my mom and sister in the apartment building where my dad grew up. He lived 35 minutes away with his wife and my two half-brothers. His third daughter, my half-sister, lived nearby with her mom. An unconventional family, but it’s my family. There were bad moments, but I mostly remember the good ones, like eating ice cream at the park or yelling from the balcony for the man pushing the sorbete cart below to wait for us. Us kids have grown up and moved all over the world, but my papá still lives in El Salvador. We met up two years ago after several years apart, just the two of us, and spent a couple of weeks together. We shared trips, stories, food, and lots of conversations. And ice cream. Only this time, it was my treat.

Photographer: bertha gutierrez

Bertha Gutierrez is a tropical soul and sunset admirer currently living in Northwest Arkansas.

twenty-two
Flying Start

Flying Start

In order to support all of us, my father spent most of his time on his budding company and away from home. Such is the life of a CEO’s family. He worked long hours and wasn’t physically or emotionally present, while my mom took care of everyone’s needs. All of that changed when I was 15 and she passed away. My sister headed off to college, and we went from a well-oiled family of four to a broken and emotionally distraught household of two. My father and I have very different personalities, but we found some common interests. Flying over Dallas together in a B-24, I saw a man enjoying the life he’d worked so hard for. Over time we developed the relationship we’re proud of today. Somehow, through a deep loss, I gained the father I never had.

Photographer: Megan Brunow

I am a photographer moonlighting as a SharePoint Manager for a family-owned janitorial business in Dallas.

twenty-three
The Day We Met

The Day We Met

I wish we’d had you around when I was a child, but Mom didn’t want it that way. I felt empty inside and tried to figure out what the void was in my heart. When I was 18, I finally gathered enough courage to find your address, go to your house, and knock. You answered, and I cried. I learned you had loved me all along and were hurting just as much as I was. I still remember seeing the smile on your face when you opened the door. That was the day my life began.

Photographer: Eric Shoemaker

Hello,
My name is Eric Shoemaker.
I’m a designer. I live in San Francisco with my wife Amanda.

twenty-four
Finding Our Way

Finding Our Way

We’ve always had a sort of funny relationship. He has a hard time sharing how he feels, and it isn’t any easier for me. But I do know that no matter what, a big chunk of who I today am stems from him. Hopefully one day, I’ll have the guts to express all my love and appreciation to him.

Photographer: Michelle Wallace

Michelle Wallace is an art student at Illinois State University in Normal, IL. She works as a photographer and photo editor for the school newspaper there: The Daily Vidette. After two years without touching a camera she finally decided to pursue what she fell in love with in high school, and life has been getting better ever since.

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