Welcome to The Daddy Issue, our very fatherly tip of the cap to the father figures in our lives as well as all the fatherly stuff they can’t help but do — from pretending they’re not asleep on the couch, to the dad jokes that make even Tony Soprano smile. We’ll talk to famous dads and their equally famous progeny and also deconstruct fatherly influence in each and every one of its forms. In doing so, we hope to come out the other side with a better understanding of our own — and everyone else’s — daddy issues. Read all of the stories here.
I was six years old in 2002 when I saw the newly released Wild Thornberrys Movie. Early in the film, Eliza, our main character, says goodbye to her parents as she climbs into a small propeller airplane destined for boarding school in London. Her father tearfully buckles her into the back seat, and as the plane lifts off, a gentle melody begins playing along with the following words:
If you leap awake in the mirror of a bad dream
And for a fraction of a second, you can’t remember where you are
Just open your window and follow your memory upstream
To the meadow in the mountain where we counted every falling star
Just as Eliza reaches London, we hear the end of the chorus: “There could never be a father who loved his daughter more than I love you.”
These, of course, are the lyrics to “Father and Daughter” by Paul Simon of Simon and Garfunkel. It was for this song that Simon received his first (and only) Oscar nomination, a momentous occasion for which he was recognized not only as a stellar songwriter, but a father as well.
Back in Western Massachusetts, I was having a first of my own — the stinging heat of jealousy and melancholy now interpreted as “daddy issues.” Unlike Eliza, I didn’t have a doting dad, and even today, the song is still a mournful reminder of that fact.
“Father and Daughter” is an original track written for the Wild Thornberrys Movie, but it’s since become a perennial staple of grocery store background music and the anthem of countless father/daughter wedding dances. It gets its power from its brazen earnesty — Simon wrote it with his seven-year-old daughter Lulu in mind, and his 10-year-old son Adrian accompanied him in the chorus. It’s about the simplest, purest bond in the world: that of a father and the unconditional love he has for his daughter, and his commitment to always remind her of that as she grows up in the world.
From the time of its release, I was acutely aware of the fact that this was something I did not have. It wasn’t as though my father didn’t tell me he loved me — he always made that clear — but he was rarely conscious enough to prove that commitment or observe my growth. For most of my childhood, he chose drugs instead of me. And so, I had no memories of counting falling stars like Simon suggested.
As I look through the comments on the YouTube video for the song, I’m reminded of the emotions I felt the first time I heard it, repeated throughout my childhood in moments where I saw my friend’s dads give them rides on their shoulders, or in one particularly sweet slideshow, a high school math teacher who couldn’t help but beam with pride about his adopted daughter. Beneath the video are dozens of fathers discussing how it reminds them of the way their life transformed the first time they looked into their infant daughter’s eyes, or daughters remembering how their since-passed fathers put the song on a mixtape for them. But there are also people like myself, for whom the song is painful in a different way.
“This comment is for all the other daughters who also did not get the love they needed and deserved from their fathers,” one such woman writes. “I remember watching The Wild Thornberry movie so many times as a kid and always bawling my eyes out when this song came on because my dad left me when I was five,” another adds. “This song actually makes me cry, and it’s not because I relate to it, it’s because I never had this relationship with my father,” a third agrees.
Every now and then, I experience those same feelings when I hear “Father and Daughter” on the radio or in the checkout line at Walgreens. It doesn’t matter how fine, healed or content with my family I think I am, I feel that same warm tinge in my cheeks and chest, almost like a subtle embarrassment. As an adult, I know that my father loves me, that I needn’t be upset about a Wild Thornberrys song or jealous of Paul Simon’s daughter. But it still feels as though I’m hearing the song as a six-year-old girl, confused why I didn’t feel the same sense of security from my dad.
Twenty years on, the girl watching Eliza get on the airplane hasn’t entirely healed from the void that “Father and Daughter” introduced. But I’m okay. There are plenty of other lives left to live, memories of meadows and mountains and falling stars yet to be made. Earlier in the chorus, Simon sings, “I’m gonna watch you shine, gonna watch you grow.”
Doting father or not, I’ve been able to do that just the same.