For filmmaker Daphne McWilliams, life has always been about mother and son. The single mother and her teen son have long tackled the world together, going down a road full of emotional ups and downs in the absence of a constant father figure. Now, Daphne seeks to put that journey in perspective with Talk to Her, a film in progress with a Kickstarter campaign that's intent on revealing the raw, often unspoken emotions driving the relationship between single mothers and their sons.
The film comes at a time when the number of single-parent households is on a sharp rise in America. In 2013, a quarter of all households in the U.S. were run by single mothers, but discussion around single-parent households still hasn’t changed. Type in “single-parent households U.S.A.” into a search bar, and pages upon pages pop up that link single-parent households to poverty, stunted job mobility and other economic factors. While there are whispers of positive single-parent households, much of it is swept under the rug in favor of the classic economic approach to the issue.
Though economics do play a huge part with single parents, an emotional aspect exists that has faded somewhat into the background, and it's one that McWilliams first noticed in her son.
“I always think of when he had to tie a tie for the first time,” she remembers in an interview with Her Campus. “He came up to me and asked me to teach him, but then ended up going to see a male teacher at school and asked him to do up his tie instead. He felt like he needed to see a man for this because there are some things that boys look to a father for.”
As McWilliams’ son, Chase, grew, she gradually picked up on an emotional need that seemed to be missing, one that inspired her to film Talk to Her. McWilliams’ determination to provide an intimate portrait of young men raised by single mothers led her to gather interview subjects for a documentary.
Kevin Keenan was the first to sit down with McWilliams. Unlike the other men interviewed for Talk to Her, Kevin had never met his father, yet he was still suppressing the same thoughts and feelings as Chase and had no one to turn to for guidance. As he and his mother grew ever more estranged from each another, Kevin couldn’t help but feel lost as he struggled through his teen years.
“I wanted to be more independent. I wanted to talk to girls, and I had so many questions about so many things,” Kevin says. “But I couldn’t express any of that because I just didn’t feel like there was someone who I could talk to, someone who could give me advice and tell me what to do. I didn’t have an outlet.”
It was years before Kevin could start to emotionally open up, thanks to an art teacher and a special agent named Pete Dowling, who served as Kevin’s father figure. Even then, speaking out was still a challenge until he met McWilliams at her son’s school a few years later
McWilliams then approached Kevin about Talk to Her.
“I said ‘yes’ but then hesitated -- I didn’t know if I should do it,” Kevin recalls. “I was gradually becoming more comfortable in my own skin, but I hadn’t ever talked to anyone about a lot of things that had to do with my mom and my dad, and I never thought that I would.”
But the story changed once cameras started rolling.
“We talked for four or five hours, and I told her things that I honestly hadn’t ever told anyone in my life,” Kevin says. “It was such a release; a huge weight just lifted off my shoulders because everything that I had wanted to say all these years just came out. I cried a few times because it had been so tough to keep everything in.”
After the interview, McWilliams knew she wanted to make a full-length feature film. Nine men came and volunteered their stories, helping McWilliams realize some things about her son, who’s in his early teens.
“One of the things that I discovered was the importance of a mentor in these young men’s lives,” she says. “It didn’t matter what background these men came from. Those that had a strong mentor, like Kevin with Pete, were in a better, more stable place than those who didn’t."
She adds, “A lot of them did suffer not having a father. There were certain things that they felt they missed out on, even something as simple as playing catch, which we all take for granted.”
For the interview subjects, the long unspoken feelings uncovered a whole new perspective on their relationships with their mothers. In Kevin’s case, the post-interview thoughts prompted a serious discussion with his mother, one that eventually led to acceptance and closure.
“[My mom] was actually upset at first when I told her about the interview because we never, never talked about my dad,” Kevin says. “But we sat down, and we talked about everything we felt, everything I felt, and just cleared up so many of the questions that had been in both of our heads. It was our way of finding acceptance, and then moving on.”
As she prepares to conduct follow-up interviews in April, McWilliams’ will once again give these same young men an opportunity to talk about their emotions. The emotional aspect behind single-mother parenting has been avoided for too long, she says, but a lot of these feelings are ones many men and women can relate to -- not just men who grew up with single mothers. Everyone, agrees Kevin, develops insecurities, and that fact will drive Talk to Her home for all viewers.
“In the end, [Talk to Her is] not so much about the story as it is about human emotions that every man, woman and child feels at some point in their lives,” Kevin says. “Everyone feels pain, and this is a group of young men whose situation might be very different from yours, but they’ve gone through the same feelings of helplessness that everyone is familiar with.”
In the process of unpacking those emotions, McWilliams hopes to debunk many of the myths and stereotypes about men raised by single mothers, especially as the number of single-parent households continues to rise.
“When people talk to me about my son, they’re always talking about how he’s the man of the house or they call him a momma’s boy, but he’s neither,” McWilliams says. “From what the men I’ve interviewed have said, you really start to notice that men raised by single mothers are put into those two categories all the time, but the truth is my son is my son, and like those men, he’s neither one of those things.”
But most of all, she hopes to give the men a safe space to speak.