He was never involved in our lives from the very beginning – but that didn’t prevent questions from her. So I gave her as much as she asked for. No more, no less.
“Where is my father?”
As she got older, her questions became tougher.
“Why isn’t he here?”
“He’s not capable of being a father right now, but that has nothing to do with you.”
I called him every year on her birthday, to tell him the same thing. How she was doing, where we were, my unchanged contact information. I considered this an open invitation to our lives – but all of this information was left on his voicemail, and he never returned my call. On her eighth birthday, I was met with the automated nonworking phone number message, and resorted to email, giving me a better venue for my case. I wrote that we were at the cusp of the land of teenage Anna, and it was a perfect opportunity to change his mind. He could have a relationship with his daughter. He could help with the more difficult questions by simply showing up.
He responded a few weeks later. He’d done his research, finally. He’d seen videos I’d posted on youtube, and my blog, and could no longer avoid admitting there was a human on the planet that was his daughter.
Our email conversations were timid, and guarded. I didn’t trust he was sincere in his newfound need to be in Anna’s life, that he wouldn’t walk away again if the discussion continued. He, it turns out, didn’t trust me entirely either. When a business trip came up that would have me passing through Chicago, I asked if we could meet in person. I wanted to see him, and have these discussions face to face. I needed to watch him as he answered my questions, and see his reactions when I answered his.
I booked a room at a Bed and Breakfast in my old neighborhood, thinking I’d feel safest in the area of the city I knew best. I walked the 3 blocks to the restaurant where we agreed to meet, in the center of the six corner intersection of Wicker Park where I’d spent so much time. I saw him across the street before he saw me, and all of the awful from our short-lived relationship came back. My stomach dropped, and I wanted to run.
Over our first drink, he talked about what was going on in his life. His wife and their somewhat rocky relationship. How she didn’t know. His career, or lack thereof, and aspirations to write a screenplay. He talked enough that the good came back, too – he was funny, I’d forgotten that. He had a quick wit, something I attribute to intelligence and therefore find incredibly attractive. I forgot, just for a minute, why we were where we were. There was a shift in our conversation though, and I woke up. He was my daughter’s father. We were not on a date.
I then apologized – for treating my pregnancy like a press release, rather than something that was affecting the two of us and our lives. I owned what I thought I could. I recognized how selfish that was.
A week prior to finding out I was pregnant, my best friend’s partner died in a tragic car accident, killing three men I knew, one I loved, leaving my best friend without her partner. The accident had been caused by a young girl on a mission for suicide – carrying out that mission by pushing her foot down on her gas pedal, as far as it would go, until she hit something – and that happened to be Doug’s car. He was on his lunch break.
She broke her foot.
When the last funeral ended, and things had become quiet again, I realized I was pregnant.
I don’t think – if the circumstances were different, my choices would have been either, but the power of finding out I was pregnant after the unexpected loss of three lives put a halt in any discussion I could possibly have. I didn’t think about how he would feel, or how this wasn’t planned, or whether he wanted to be a father at all.
In turn, he explained and apologized for his initial reaction. He’d grown up in a neighborhood where presenting yourself as pregnant was either a relationship tactic or a request for money, and had not built trust for women presenting that information because of that.
Over the next few months, we got to know each other again, or maybe, for the first time. And then we agreed to talk to my – our – daughter.
A friend of mine once told me you could not always plan difficult discussions that happen with your children. The questions that precede those discussions will happen when you are least prepared – when you’re making a sandwich, or driving in your car on the way to soccer practice. You won’t be sitting at the top of an isolated mountain, a breathtaking view in front of you, perhaps appropriately composed music lightly playing in the background.
I registered my friend’s advice, but like all parenting advice, like all parenting in general, thought I would tackle it perfectly. No matter what forefront of parenting I encounter, I think, I’ll get it right this time. That parent had a different experience, but I’ve done my homework. I’m good.
So I brought her camping in Northern New Hampshire.
The second night there, when the surrounding campsites had quieted down, and we started a fire, I started talking. She listened and watched me, intently focused on my every word, with no apparent reaction. No questions. Complete silence. I told her, as I’d told her so many times before, that her father was in Chicago. That although, up to this point, he had not been a part of our lives, he wanted to change that. That we’d been talking – and the content of our conversations. And when I’d said all I thought I could say – I asked her if she wanted to see pictures.
She said yes, a smile so small and quick showing on her lips I wondered if I imagined it. I scrolled through the album her father and I collected, noting the captions I knew to be true behind each shot. He was travelling, he was a teenager, he was smiling next to me the night we met. When I finally finished, she sighed, loudly, and slumped back in her camping chair.
“Are you disappointed?”
I went through every possible question I could think of that would have elicited this response. Was he not handsome enough? Was it the color of his skin? Were his features not similar enough to her own, or were they too similar? Was it something I said, or how I presented the information overall? Each time, she answered no.
“What is it then, honey? Can you tell me?”
“Well, you said he was black.”
“And you said he lived in Chicago.”
“That’s right, he does.”
“I just thought it must be Obama.”
She further explained, while I stared blankly, that it made sense to her that his identity was secret, since he was the President? And I loved him so much. (Which I mean, I do.)
I noted that while I was some lady (right?), I was not a first lady.
And then her father came to meet her.
And it sucked.
Not because it didn’t go well with the two of them – because each moment in the same room together, with each other, was difficult. I was angry, it turns out – something I hadn’t realized I was holding onto until he was in front of me, with her, laughing with her, or teasing her. Instantly in those moments – I would get flashes of her presenting me with her final projects at art camp, or throwing up in the middle of the night all over me, or the worst one – flashes of my bank account, and I would grow quiet.
And I realized I had been quiet for 8 years before that.
Because while for those 8 years – I assumed it was his responsibility to contact us – to be the one that aggressively fought for a relationship with his daughter, it was clear that my phone calls were a checklist for me, so I could walk away feeling like I had done something, while in actuality, I had ignored the fact that he really existed, and the fact that he could in fact, have a positive impact on both of our lives.
And I have not quit being angry, but I have quit assuming that someone else is responsible for this relationship, because if I want my daughter to be happy, and I do – I am 100% responsible for making it work.