“I was never particularly interested in having kids. When friends came over with their kids, I treated them like radioactive material. Tolerable for short periods of time. Prolonged exposure would have unpleasant effects, like hair loss, or inexplicable stains on the sofa.”
“I had been downsized. Meet my replacement: the alien.”
NYC-based photographer Phillip Toledano‘s series The Reluctant Father is a frank and witty account detailing his less-than-enthusiastic reaction to his newborn daughter Loulou during the first year-and-a-half of her life. Rather than experiencing the “tsunami of love” most of us have been taught to expect, he instead confesses that “it was like trying to have a relationship with a sea sponge, or a single-cell protozoa. She didn’t DO anything. Or at least, nothing I could understand,” he recalls. Nor was he enamored of the shift that occurred in his and his wife Carla’s relationship, saying he felt he’d been replaced by an “alien.” Of course, as a short time would tell, he fell utterly and completely under Loulou’s spell.
Toledano kept a blog last year chronicling this initial struggle for connection that received quite a lot of attention. His photographs, combined with his honest—and entertaining—thoughts about his transition into fatherhood, were published into a book in 2013 by Dewi Lewis. We recently asked him more about the project.
“It was like watching a wildlife documentary. She’d savage the nipple (rubber, or Carla) with a crazed animal ferocity, and then slip into a deep opiate slumber, mouth agape. I imagined myself doing the same at a dinner party.”
“And then there was my wife, Carla. When Loulou was born, she vanished.”
Even though this “tsunami of love” didn’t occur the second your daughter was born, you still took photos like any new parent would. Did you hope photographing Loulou would make you feel connected, or did you take photos simply because you’re a photographer?
“I didn’t think the photos would make me feel connected. I took photos because I was trying to understand what was happening. If you look at the early images, they have a scientific objectivity to them. There’s a distance. You can clearly see that I’m looking at Loulou like an alien object. What’s interesting is as my love grows for her, the images become less interesting, photographically.”
“Even our dog had no interest in Loulou. Except for when she was eating.”
Was there a specific turning point when you began to feel more connected to her, or was it gradual?
“Well certainly, as she became less of a sea sponge and more of a sentient creature, I began to connect emotionally. I’ve always interacted with the world through a prism of odd humor, so the definitive moment was when I teased her, and she teased me back. We had forged a common language.”
How did people react to your public proclamation of your lack of emotional connection to your newborn daughter?
“It’s true that people looked at me as though I was Charles Manson. But when the blog went up, and when people read the whole story, and then later the book, the reaction has been overwhelmingly good.”
“Some men deal with their baby rage by drinking. I made plates.”
“I resented the enormous cultural pressure that demanded only one response from me [when asked about being a new dad]. When I told people I didn’t like it very much, their faces would wrinkle like a walnut. They’d look at me as though I’d taken off all my clothes, and the results were slightly unpleasant.”
How did you feel about the reaction to your honesty?
“Children tend to be treated as a religion in this culture, and, like any religion, you’re not supposed to criticize, or veer from accepted theology. I love Loulou more than anything, but it took me a while to get there, and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t be honest about the journey.”
Did you assume that others like you were just too fearful to ever admit having a similar reaction to their newborn children?
“In all my delusion, I just assumed that I couldn’t be the only guy who was having a hard time with it. As it turns out, I wasn’t the only guy—or, for that matter, the only woman. As hard—and expected—as it is for a man to grumble about babies, it’s almost impossible for women to do it.”
Since the publication of this book, have other fathers or mothers come out of hiding to confess a similar lack of immediate bonding?
“Yes. I’ve gotten a huge amount of emails, mostly from women, actually…”
“Both of my parents died in the last four years. In fact, my father died four months before Loulou was born. Oddly enough, her arrival has made their absence even more tangible. There are so many things I wish I could ask my mother. And of course, I think about my father. When you have a child, she becomes your past, present and future. I not only see myself and Carla in Loulou, but I see my parents too.”
“I look back at all these photographs, and see how they reveal my slow and inevitable metamorphosis. From bewildered observer, to eager participant. From photographer, to father.”
“It amazes me. There is such a sense of love in these pictures that wasn’t there before.”