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Thursday, February 13, 2014

‘The Reluctant Father’ Comes Clean

Toledano wrote a blog last year, "The Reluctant Father," chronicling his struggle to connect with his baby daughter Loulou, pictured here with his wife, Carla. (Phillip Toledano)

Toledano wrote a blog last year, “The Reluctant Father,” chronicling his struggle to connect with his baby daughter Loulou, pictured here with his wife, Carla. (Phillip Toledano)

Like all new fathers, Phillip Toledano was thrilled. Actually, that’s a big lie.

Toledano was resentful and felt he’d been downsized. He said that bonding with his newborn Loulou was “like trying to have a relationship with a sea sponge, or a single-cell protozoa.”

He wrote about those feelings in a blog that went viral last year. His thoughts and pictures of his daughter and wife are now part of a new book, “The Reluctant Father.”

The book has a very different ending from the way the blog began: “even though I found the beginning of her life quite bewildering, I’m so glad she’s here now.”

Interview Highlights: Phillip Toledano

Photographer and writer Phillip Toledano compared attempting to bond with his newborn daughter, Loulou, to "trying to have a relationship with a sea sponge, or a single-cell protozoa." (Phillip Toledano)

Photographer and writer Phillip Toledano compared attempting to bond with his newborn daughter, Loulou, to “trying to have a relationship with a sea sponge, or a single-cell protozoa.” (Phillip Toledano)

On not bonding immediately with his daughter

“I think what happens is that we are trained to behave in a certain way from birth, to react to certain experiences, and I felt definitively with Loulou’s birth that everyone was expecting me to say that thing. When people asked me, ‘How is it being a father?’ there was this kind of look of eager anticipation for me to read off the teleprompter, which is, ‘Oh my God, life was black and white before, and now it’s in color,’ or an assortment of horrifyingly saccharine-coated phrases. I just didn’t feel that stuff, and I felt, to be honest, that I didn’t want to participate in that charade, really.”

How his relationship with his wife was affected

“She disappeared into this kind of vortex of love and affection and everything else. It was sort of like I was waiting at the bus stop and I’d just missed the bus, and I was watching it disappear down the road. So there was Carla on the bus, and I was going, ‘Hang on, what happened? We had, you know, this magical relationship together, and now you’re off with Lou!’ And, look, I’m aware that that’s kind of what happens, but it’s one thing to be aware of it and another thing to feel it.”

“I just wanted to be honest with my wife about how I was feeling, and I think in retrospect, I was slightly too honest.”

On the moment he finally connected with Loulou

Toledano says he eventually grew into "the proud father" role after struggling to bond with his daughter, Loulou. (Phillip Toledano)

Toledano says he eventually grew into “the proud father” role after struggling to bond with his daughter, Loulou. (Phillip Toledano)

“I kind of interact with the world through humor, with my own peculiar sense of humor. And I think that when Loulou became a sentient being, when she — and I know this is going to sound funny, but when I made fun of her and she kind of made fun of me back, it was this enormously emotional experience for me, and it still, when I talk about it now, it makes me tingly, because we were interacting in a language that I could understand. And it was a huge, huge thing for me, and ever since then, it’s become more and more blissful. And I always joke about this with Carla, I always used to say she was the cult leader, and now I’m a fully paid-up member of the Loulou cult.”

How his readers responded to the blog

“Surprisingly, almost all of it has been unremittingly positive … only because I don’t think it was because I was an absent father. I was perfectly present to do the stuff I was supposed to do — change the nappies, and get the milk and get up in the middle of the night, and all that stuff. It’s just the emotional aspect was missing for me. And I found that in talking to my friends and in listening to emails from strangers, a lot of people felt that they had felt similarly, and that there was a kind of cultural pressure not to voice those feelings. And so people were frankly saying, ‘Look, I’m so happy you said this, because I couldn’t say it.'”

Guest

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

Like all new fathers, Phillip Toledano was thrilled. Actually, that's a big lie. Phillip Toledano was resentful. He felt he'd been downsized. He said that bonding with his newborn Loulou was like trying to have a relationship with a sea sponge or a single-cell protozoa. And he said these things out loud in a blog that went viral last year. But his thoughts and his pictures of his daughter and his wife are now issued in a new book, because it has a very different ending than it ever could have had in the beginning.

The book is called "The Reluctant Father," and Phillip Toledano joins us from the NPR Studios in New York. And, Phil, you know, lynch mobs are forming, as we speak.

(LAUGHTER)

PHILLIP TOLEDANO: Yes. I've got a fake mustache in my pocket. When I go outside, I'll just change appearances.

YOUNG: Well, no one says things like that about a newborn. And no one takes the pictures that you have of, you know, wide-angled lens pictures of her tiny, little mouth screaming. Some of the ugliest pictures of an infant I've ever seen. Why? What was going on for you?

TOLEDANO: Why?

YOUNG: Yeah.

TOLEDANO: Well, it's fair to say that before Loulou was born, I was not really sure what to expect. I was sort of - I guess neutral would be the best word. But then when she was born, I was completely surprised by the lack of the sort of love tsunami that I was expecting to occur when I sort of - you know, you hear all the stuff about, I held her in my arms, and immediately, I felt this - I was aglow with love, and all that kind of stuff. And that didn't really happen to me.

YOUNG: Well - and you resented that it was supposed to, that there's a lot of pressure on you to react a certain way.

TOLEDANO: I think what happens is that we are trained to behave in a certain way from birth, to react to certain experiences. And I felt definitively, with Loulou's birth, that everyone was expecting me to say that thing. When people asked me: How is it being a father? There was this kind of look of eager anticipation for me to read off the teleprompter which is, oh, my God, you know, life was black and white before, and now it's in color, or a whole assortment of horrifyingly saccharine-coated phrases, which I couldn't - and I just didn't feel that stuff. And I felt, to be honest, that I didn't want to participate in that charade, really.

YOUNG: Well, that's so interesting, because some of us look at a baby and we're just in pieces.

TOLEDANO: Right.

YOUNG: But it wasn't happening for you. And then, there's your wife, or there she isn't.

TOLEDANO: My long-suffering wife.

YOUNG: Right. But there she isn't, because as you write, when Loulou was born, she vanished. And this is accompanied by a picture of, like, one toe sticking out of bath water to symbolize how she just disappeared for you. Tell us about that, the change in your relationship with your wife.

TOLEDANO: Well, my dad had actually died a few months before Loulou was born. So my whole world was quite different. And then Loulou appeared. And then I think because I felt I didn't feel this connection to Loulou, but Carla, my wife, clearly did - and obviously, she'd had, you know, nine months of gestation time to sort of have this biological connection to Loulou. So she disappeared into this kind of vortex of love and affection and everything else.

And I kind of - it was sort of like I was waiting at the bus stop, and I'd just missed the bus, and it was - I was watching it disappear down the road. And so there was Carla on the bus, and I was going, hang on. What happened? We were, you know, we had this magical relationship together, and now you're off with Lou. And, look, I'm aware that that's kind of what happens, but it's one thing to be aware of it, and another thing to feel it.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well, and it's another thing to say it.

TOLEDANO: Well, yes.

YOUNG: You know, when this was - we'll hold the story up here for a second. But when this was in blog form and you were confessing these things, what were you hearing?

TOLEDANO: Well, actually, surprisingly, almost all of it has been unremittingly positive.

YOUNG: Really?

TOLEDANO: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

TOLEDANO: I know - I feel - I hear the disbelief in your voice. But only because I think that it's not that I was an absent father. I was perfectly present to do the stuff I was supposed to do - change the nappies, and get the milk and get up in the middle of the night and all that stuff. It's just the emotional aspect was missing for me. And I found that in talking to my friends and in listening to emails from strangers, a lot of people felt that they had felt similarly, and that there was a kind of cultural pressure not to voice those feelings. And so people were frankly saying, look. I'm so happy you said this, because I couldn't say it, or, you know, I'm going to give it to my friend or my friend's father.

And actually, oddly enough, a lot of women have emailed me, which - and I think the pressure for women to not say that is obviously much, much greater than for men. So the thing with this was I just wanted to be honest with my wife about how I was feeling. And I think, in retrospect, I was slightly too honest.

YOUNG: Well, she does write a little coda at the end, that it was very hard for her, but, of course, it changed. And you fell in love with your daughter. That's Phil Toledano. His book is "The Reluctant Father." You're listening to HERE AND NOW.

And, Phil, so, you started as a reluctant father. When did it change? How did it change?

TOLEDANO: Everyone always told me it always - it gets better. It gets better. And I was waiting for that moment when it got better. And when it got better for me is I kind of interact with the world through humor, with my own peculiar sense of humor. And I think that when Loulou became a sentient being, when she - and I know this is going to sound funny, but when I made fun of her, and then she kind of made fun of me back, it was this enormously emotional experience for me. And it still, when I talk about it now, it makes me tingly, because we were interacting in a language that I could understand. And it was a huge, huge thing for me.

And ever since then, it's become more and more blissful. And I always joke about this with Carla, that she - I always used to say that she was the cult leader, and now I'm a fully paid-up cult member of the Loulou cult.

YOUNG: Well, and she is quite extraordinary. She is beautiful.

TOLEDANO: Thank you.

YOUNG: And as you can - you can see in the pictures, she's funny.

TOLEDANO: Yes.

YOUNG: And there's another thing happening. You see your parents in her.

TOLEDANO: Well, I was never very sure if it's a thing that I'm wanting to see or if it's really there, but I certainly see certain aspects of my mother and my father in her. And they both died before she was born, so it's incredibly gratifying and brings me an enormous amount of joy to be able to see aspects of her, or of them in her.

YOUNG: Well, meanwhile, she's going to read this and, you know, there's pictures of her.

TOLEDANO: Yes.

YOUNG: She looks like a Maurice Sendak character, the way you've shot the pictures. Your wife at one point, you know, extremely pregnant, looks like a - oh, gosh, she's just really very big.

TOLEDANO: Like the Hindenburg.

YOUNG: OK. You know, she's going to see, someday, that you didn't love her immediately.

TOLEDANO: Well, you're right, and I've thought about that. But she's also going to see that I loved her in the end. And I hope that that's what counts. I mean - and I hope what she'll take away from this story is - something that I say in the book is that I hope she realizes that before I was a parent, I was a person, and that like any person, we're not perfect. And it took me a while to come to grips with the thing and the idea of her. But once I did, she became an incredibly bright light in my life.

YOUNG: Well, and you can see that transformation in Phillip Toledano's new book "The Reluctant Father," his photographs and text of his transformation from a real jerk - no, sorry.

(LAUGHTER)

TOLEDANO: Well, I think my wife would have agreed with you at the time.

YOUNG: From a reluctant father to an enamored one. Phil, thanks for talking to us about it.

TOLEDANO: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YOUNG: Well, staying with relationships, combining it with Valentine's Day tomorrow and, as you can hear, with the ongoing Olympics, Jeremy, you'll notice that I'm performing kind of a triple salchow there.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: If you're looking for a sentiment for your card tomorrow, you might check out some hashtags on Twitter. Jimmy Fallon started #OlympicPickupLines. There's also #SochiPickupLines. Here are a few: I've been carrying this torch for you all night. Let's go put it out at my place. Or, want to come to my hotel room? I have a door.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

There's a lot of - there are a lot of them that have these hotel and not-finished-hotel theme to them. Here's one: I'm no curler, but I think I could sweep you off your feet. Or, I may be Russian into things, but would it be Sochieesy to ask for your number? Or, Robin, how about this one: I promise to care about nothing but you for two weeks, and then not at all the rest of the year.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: That's the Olympics.

HOBSON: #SochiPickupLines.

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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