Daddy Figures

by Ellen Carr

Even in the throes of our courtship, when quirks charm rather than annoy, Martin thought it was weird that I still called my father Daddy.

“A lot of Southern girls do.”

“Well, you’re the first I’ve met.”

I was pushing forty and living in Los Angeles when Martin and I slammed into each other’s lives and accidentally became co-parents. Both of us would have been voted “least likely to participate in an unplanned pregnancy,” if there were such a yearbook superlative. When we met, I was in fact trying to get pregnant another way entirely, with icy sperm from a test-tube Daddy that my eggs spurned cycle after cycle. Who are these groggy, half-frozen little men? asked the egg-of-the-month (or eggs, if some pharmaceutical ovulatory enhancement were leading my ovaries like a spinning instructor, shouting “More! More! More!” even as my belly swelled to accommodate ten or more wannabe babies). The semi-thawed sperm swam sluggishly, only to be met with scorn and rejection at the bar of my womb.

Can I buy you a drink?

Nah, you’re not my type.

So, I’d given up on my anonymous donor, whom my best friend had dubbed “Barry Zito” after the Giants pitcher in light of his partial Italian heritage (carefully chosen to counteract my pale skin) and professed love of baseball on his Cryobank application (carefully chosen to counteract my lack of hand-eye coordination). I assumed that my stubborn, lazy reproductive system was preventing conception, not Barry’s little men, who the Cryobank assured me had sired multiple children.

Martin’s sperm would never have passed my screen. He was five-four (I chose Barry for his six-foot frame, which I hoped would balance my five-two), fair, and had a higher BMI than I liked thanks to his muscled physique. The night we met, I was so jacked up on estrogen in advance of an in vitro fertilization procedure that any man would’ve found me an easy target. Despite its physical origins, our relationship got serious enough for me to put conception on hold. Martin gave me a hiatus from a life of ultrasounds, injections, and herbal tea that tasted like a combination of squishy gone-by tomatoes and dirt. Either things would work out with him or they wouldn’t, with a deadline of months not years, and I would start over with a new (tall and dark) cryogenic mate, still safely sub-forty. My sense of control intact, I didn’t bother to contemplate a third, anarchic option: that my ovaries would sneak around with Martin’s energetic sperm like teenagers in the backseats of cars and achieve what drugs, acupuncture and meditation that involved envisioning my womb as a fertile rain forest, ripe for planting, couldn’t.

At first I was ecstatic about getting knocked up. Even Martin, no friend to unintended anything, understood the joy of a thirty-nine-year-old presumed infertile woman who saw those two blue lines form on a stick. But his misgivings had a sturdy foundation. The problem with conceiving the way I did was that I had my future all figured out before I met Martin, and it didn’t involve a father for my child.

In my late thirties, I had started to plan my triumphant homecoming, a return to the Tennessee farm that raised me and the nuclear family that still lived there. My job gave me the flexibility to go home often (and I still called it home, like a college student), but I wanted more than just the weekend a month I was spending there. As my body aged, I came up with the crazy idea of becoming a single mother, parent to a child who’d grow up as I did, with the small addition of “grand” to Mama and Daddy.

I picked a public place with a strict time limit to tell Mama about my plan: an airport restaurant with a half-hour before my flight to L.A. I crunched ice and picked at wilted iceberg lettuce as she reacted with the loving support that she always musters when I come up with some wacky idea. Her calm response gave me the courage to put forth one of my assumptions.

“Well, didn’t you and Daddy always kinda dream of me and Anna staying single, having our own kids, staying part of this family?”

Mama, a preacher’s daughter, replied in kind. “No—it’s like the Bible says: Leave thy father and mother, and cleave unto thy husband.” Her answer surprised me. Didn’t she want us in her nuclear family, her two adored girls who stayed single well into their thirties so that their parents could continue to claim them as their daughters?

Shrugging off Mama’s words as old-fashioned, I grew new roots in my old neighborhood. I bought a piece of wooded property adjacent to my parents’ farm, land I’d loved since my early teens, when I used to gallop my pony up and down its hilly maze of old logging trails. At fourteen, my fertility made itself known in those oaks and pines: when I stopped to pee and found evidence of my first period (finally!) on the leaf I used to wipe. When I started trying to get pregnant, I communed with that special sacred forest where I became aware of my womb.

A huge oak with an hourglass-like orifice in its trunk became one of my way-posts. Each time I passed it I took a moment of meditation with rough bark beneath my palm. How many children did the mighty oak have? Heavy with acorns, she was so fertile that she could afford generosity to the squirrels that took shelter in her limbs after eating her embryos. In contrast, I produced one egg every two to three months without the aid of drugs. Once I moved on to IVF from turkey basting, my luck didn’t improve. My fertilized eggs mostly died, although two “Grade B” (an offense to my Type-A mindset) embryos managed to make it in the freezer for a couple of months. I channeled my inner mom, knitting images of embryo-sized earmuffs and mittens, sending them to my little babies-to-be during savasana and in the short moments before sleep that I normally reserved for a mush of prayer and begging. The embryos ultimately met their end in the inhospitable tropics of my womb. It was a rain forest, all right. An acid rain forest.

In the end it wasn’t that I couldn’t get pregnant, but that I couldn’t get pregnant alone—nature’s oldest truism. My body knew that I didn’t want to be a single mom, and that I didn’t want to be Daddy’s daughter for the rest of my life. So it waited to conceive until it identified the man tough enough to give me an ultimatum: leave home, and my father, or leave him, the father of my child.

Martin and Daddy hit it off quickly. They shared many passions: farming, forestry, repairing machines, woodworking. They spent an afternoon under a tractor together. Martin returned home grease-streaked, in love with Daddy. I basked in the glow of their initial bromance, happy that Martin had found the mentor he’d always wanted, happy that Daddy had found the boy apprentice for all things farm-and-fixing he’d always wanted. Yet my real, selfish pleasure lay in Martin’s embrace of my family. I had chosen wisely! Here was a man who would integrate himself into my family.

That fantasy didn’t survive my first trimester.

Every year since I was born my parents have taken The Christmas Picture. My sister and I plaster smiles across increasingly wrinkled faces to humor them. Some friends claim to have saved every one, 1971-2011, which I imagine them flipping through like an animated film—watch the Carr girls age from toddlers to teens to twenty-somethings to spinsters! Martin refused to join The Christmas Picture the year our son was born. He wanted what any new father wants: a Christmas Picture, a family, of his own. He loved to quote George Clooney’s line in O Brother Where Art Thou: “I’m the pater familias, goddamn it!” I thought he was kidding at first. Then our son came, and his statement clashed with the life I’d tried to have, the pater familias I still have.

When I met Martin, all the choices that Daddy made, which by and large I was embracing, came under scrutiny, starting with zip code. Why should we settle in Middle Tennessee, a place remarkable only for my parents’ presence? A year after he moved to Nashville to become a father to our child, and a month after it became unbearable for him to live there, we moved to Asheville, his turf. One of my friends emailed: “So—going to follow your man, huh? Doesn’t sound like you.” She was wrong. I’d been following my man since birth.

During my Africa phase (a phase I need only two words to justify: Kilimanjaro guide), I read a book called Secrets by a Somali writer. Its protagonist doesn’t know who his father is, and repeats throughout the novel: Fathers matter not! Mothers matter a lot! I thought I could be the mother who mattered so much that the absence of a father would matter not.

What a hypocrite I was to consider bringing a fatherless child into the world, when Daddy was the most important man in my life. Martin throws this and other contradictions back at me, and I hate looking in the mirror he holds up sometimes. I have cried more in our two years together than in the previous twenty. Maybe they’re the tears I didn’t shed when I left home physically all those years ago.

Rural Tennessee is a good place to grow up. It’s an even better place to leave. But leaving home doesn’t mean leaving the family farm. Career success and physical distance don’t confer adulthood. I have to leave behind my identity as Daddy’s girl. I owe it to Martin and my son, who both deserve a strong mother and a nuclear family of their own.

But I still have one too many Daddy Figures.

Ellen Carr grew up on a farm outside Nashville. After college, an MBA, and a career in money management on both coasts, she returned to the South to raise her son and pursue a second career as a writer.

About Daddy Figures—This piece explores the midlife crisis I’m experiencing in the transition from the world of finance to the softer, grayer pursuits of writing, philanthropy, motherhood, and from daughter to mother/partner.

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