Latest Articles and Papers

Free Associations

| Home | Contents | Rationale | Search | Feedback | Interesting Links |




Ros Minsky


This paper argues that in the contemporary confusion about what 'masculinity' really is and what it is to be a man, psychanalytic approaches generally  suggest that male identity needs to be clearly placed within the context of fathering or the potental for fatherhood rather than only becoming better at mothering which may always be unconsciously associated with castration anxiety. The paper explores a range of ideas about the father drawn from both Freudian and object-relations perspectives and concludes that the world of work, skill and job security, especially for young men, represent the symbolic father with whom the boy needs to make a clear identification in order to achieve his full humanity and potential as a man. The paper also concludes that if the symblic meanings of the father are not firmly established as central to the meaning of male identity, alongside a capacity to nurture though not one to give birth, men may, in under-valuing this part of their identity in favour of other idealised and commodified media images of men, succumb to overwhelming feelings of loss and annihilation and destructive defences against them. 




An eclectic reading of psychoanalytic approaches suggests that what has been described as a crisis in male identity in some, but perhaps many men, may be intimately connected with recent psychical as well as social changes in the position of women which have taken place in the context of unprecedented high levels of male unemployment and job insecurity in recent years. A major psychical change in many women has been the acceptance of their bisexuality, that is the 'masculine' as well as 'feminine' dimensions of their identity. As many have suggested, this development which seems to  have led to a striking increase in their capacity for creativity and emotional growth (often aided by psychotherapy) suggests that many men also need to gain greater access to their bisexuality, that is an acceptance of the 'feminine' connection with the mother within male identity traditionally culturally denied to men. However, psychoanalytic approaches to identity suggest that this needs to be clearly placed within the context of the role of fathering or the potential for fatherhood rather than mothering. Among other things 'femininity' which is firmly established within this this context is less likely to be associated with castration anxiety and fear of potential annihilation than the alternative proposal of simply becoming 'more nurturing' like the mother. Psychoanalytic theory as a whole has a great deal to say about the importance of the unconscious meanings of the father and the symbolic father in the formation of identity, particularly in the context of widespread unemployment and family breakup. Before looking at the psychical significance of these cultural changes, this paper explores a range of ideas about the father drawn from Freudian and object-relations theory.

The acceptance of psychical bisexuality

In recent years many women have gained increased access to the power and sense of identity associated with what was previously male territory in the social world of work, education and knowledge. Many women have increasing 'owned' the previously prohibited 'active' dimensions of their identity (traditionally defined as cultural 'masculinity') alongside their cultural 'femininity' and capacity to be mothers. Highly significantly, this development in women has meant that many men can no longer unconsciously project culturally unacceptable feelings of loss and lack onto women because it so obviously flies in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. Few women in the western world at least, can any longer accept these aspects of being human as something which belongs exclusively to men.

Freud took the view that women had a greater tendency towards a bisexual form of identity than men because the little girl's first love object is the mother. Only later does she feel compelled to move across to the father (Freud 1933). Perhaps this unconscious phenomenon has something to do with it being psychically easier for women to accept their 'masculinity' than for men to accept their 'femininity', particularly in a culture in which 'masculinity', in whatever bodily form, is valued more than 'femininity'?  This suggests that, as many have argued that some men urgently need to find an alternative form of male identity which does not entail the continuation of some men's psychical dependence on women. The projection of lack and loss onto women seems to have been heavily implicated in women's historical subordination and crucially involves the denial of the bisexual experience and gender fluidity inherent in all identity. But this should not mean, as some feminists have suggested, that men should simply be encouraged to re-build their lost connection with the mother and become substitute or alternative mothers. Psychoanalytic theory as a whole suggests that although many men may need to get in touch with their vulnerability and their capacity for nurturing and withdraw their destructive projections from women as women have needed to get in touch with their assertiveness previously,(also often destructively) projected onto men, this needs to be in the context of being, quite distinctively, a potential father rather than an alternative mother with a man's body. An eclectic view of psychoanalytic theory suggests that the role of the father is central to the development of identity, ideally alongside that of the mother. Crucially this involves the idea of the father as someone distinctively different from the mother who helps the child separate from the fused relationship with her which it wants to continue for ever. Psychoanalytic perspectives strongly suggest that the child's emotional intimacy with the father needs to be framed within a different order from that of the mother, that of 'masculinity' in a male rather than female body (which may, biologically, make him more interested in building bridges and towers than most women) but of a non-patriarchal, non-oppressive kind.

Freud's notion of the symbolic father in the form of an  identification with work and cultural institutions can help us explain the psychical as well as economic injury caused by widepread unemployment, especially among young men. This social context seems integral to many, if not all, of those phenomena which suggest the erosion of male identity in many quarters in Britain and America,in recent years, particularly among young people: the predominance of young men between the ages of 18 and 25 in crime, the substantial increase in attempted suicide rates among young men in the last ten years in Britain, the growth of a cult of 'laddishness' celebrating macho forms of male identity as a response to notions of 'new man' and, most recently, within the sphere of education in Britain, the outstripping of boys academic achievement by girls at primary and secondary levels of schooling, nationally. Symbolically, this latest development appears to reinforce women's move into the previously male-dominated territory of knowledge and the cultural power this confers. This increased tendency for girls and women to identify with the culturally 'masculine and the crucial social factor of an overall context of high male unemployment compared with women, (albeit women's work is mainly low paid and part-time work), may be understood as a form of symbolic male castration on at least two counts. The film 'The Full Monty', in the midst of the laughter, with delicacy and sublety, directs our attention to the effective castration of a group of men compelled to resort to stripping, by unemployment and the growing redundancy of their roles as protectors, both socially and psychically.

If there is a need to find the source of a new 'norm' of male identity which can accomodate the recent social and psychical changes in women (in the context of, if not unemployment, a dramatic increase in short term contracts and loss of security) psychoanaltic theory suggests that we should be looking very seriously at the unconscious meanings of fathering as a pivotal component of a viable, creative identity, whether or not individual men choose become fathers or not. This is nowadays in the social context of massive increases in divorce with all the trauma this inevitably involves for most children, the consequent increase in lone-parent families normally headed by mothers and, in the case of around half of fathers in Britain and America, the complete absence of contact with their children after two years.

Cultural change and the father

The second half of the twentieth century has seen significant changes in the perception of the social role of the father largely as a result of social changes in the position of women making many of them less vulnerable in a variety of ways. In previous centuries women were self-evidently frequently physically vulnerable at times when they were heavily pregnant and when they were nursing and caring for babies and small children. At such times, they and their children's economic survival normally depended on support from the father who fulfilled the role of provider and protector. Until the introduction of contraception during this century, the times when a woman was physically and economically vulnerable extended over a large period of her life until the menopause (babies were often born at one or two yearly intervals if she survived childbirth). This 'real' rather than constructed vulnerability inevitably served to sustain conventional gender categories of women as psychically vulnerable, needy and dependent and men as strong, powerful protectors whose physical viability remained unimpeded by pregnancy and child-birth. This justified attribution of vulnerability to women on the basis of one feature of their life seems, within patriarchal societies, to have been elaborated to include all dimensions of a woman's being. A conception of women as constitutionally vulnerable (and we need to remember many women died in child-birth) may well have contributed to the concealment of many men's sense of vulnerability and lack. But since the introduction of contraception when women became able routinely to limit their fertility, the basis for the traditional role of the father as protector and provider has become increasingly difficult to sustain as a central plank of male identity. Now that the very real vulnerability that accompanies pregnancy and nursing lasts for only relatively short periods of most women's lives, many women have demonstrated that they also can be providers when nursery provision or good quality child-care is available to provide support. Nowadays, for large parts of their lives, many women in Western countries work full or part-time (women now represent one third of the work-force) and, increasingly, frequently fill the role of sole provider in single-parent families. For those mothers with children under five who choose not to work while their children are very young, or who cannot find decently paid work during suitable hours, the state has temporally taken over the role of the father, although as a subsistence level provider.

If, as psychoanalysis suggests, significant numbers of men have historically projected their unconscious sense of lack and loss onto women, the cultural peeling away of the need for men to provide for physically and economically vulnerable women may risk exposing many men's vulnerability for the first time. This in itself may threaten many men with potential psychical annihilation together with the unconscious reminder of symbolic castration inherent in women who are acknowledging more of their 'masculine' capacities. As I have argued in an earlier paper 'Women as 'too much of a good thing': male envy of women', some men's envy of women's additional capacities to have children and remain in touch with the emotional world of the mother may only compound the problem.

In recent years, in the wake of feminism and significant changes in the position of women, ideas about the meaning of fathers and fathering have become increasingly confused. Some women seem to have come to the conclusion that the only way a man can be a good father is if he recognises his repressed 'femininity' and nurturing capacities and becomes a substitute mother. Certainly many men have become much more emotionally involved with their children and practically involved in their day-to-day care (despite lack of support in the work-place), but since 'masculinity', for a long time, appeared to rest unconsciously on the idea of being 'not the mother', 'not woman', it also seems important to discuss in what ways the psychical meaning of the father entails something more than simply sharing the role of the' good enough' mother. To what extent is the unconscious meaning of the father for the child related to the father's difference from the mother in terms of the psychical space he takes up in the baby's mind?

Leaving aside for a moment Lacan's idea that language is the symbolic 'place of the father' rather than the actual father, psychoanalytic ideas about the unconscious meaning of the father suggest that although he is usually not as crucial as that of the mother in the first few weeks of the baby's life (where the mother is available), he is nevertheless vitally important to the development of the child for the very reason that he is qualitatively distinct from the mother. The baby has never lived inside the father's body so the sense of bodily connection is likely to be of a different order from that with the mother. The father smells different from the mother because his body is chemically different, he lacks breasts, possesses different genitals and feels generally different when the baby is held against his body. In psychoanalytic terms all this makes him admirably suited to symbolising a dimension of existence which extends beyond the baby's sense of still having a merged existence with the mother's body, that is non-fusion and distancing. This is quite different from his symbolising a radical break with emotional or intuitive ways of being and relating which has been traditionally implicit in the patriarchal conception of fathers. Marie Maguire, in the context of the fluidity of gender, suggests that among her patients there are men who are much more emotionally containing and intuitive than their more career-oriented female partners (Maguire 1995: 36). However, the child may still turn first towards the mother for emotional comfort because of its earliest bodily connection with her when she and it were indistinguishable. But psychoanalytic theory as a whole suggests that the father, as well as having the capacity to be emotionally nurturing, also crucially needs to symbolise the baby's eventual psychical move into a life beyond the comforts of the mother's body. In this sense, the father as the symbol of culture needs to be something that is not part of the magical sense of physical and emotional connectedness that the baby experiences with the mother before it begins to separate.

In this context, let's look again at some different Freudian and object- relations psychoanalytic accounts of the unconscious meanings of the father all of which stress the need for him to be experienced as someone whose meaning is psychically distinct from the meaning of the mother. Let us start with Freud's idea of the symbolic father. This is the Oedipal father who, crucially, sets boundaries to the child's so far unboundaried, phantasy- based existence with the mother so that it is able to cope creatively with the frustrations and pleasures of living in culture.

The symbolic father

For Freud, our early identification with the father installs culture at the very centre of our being. It symbolises the world beyond the mother's body which we eventually have to learn to inhabit in spite of the limitations it puts on our phantasies. Freud suggests that this identification is easier for boys than girls who have less to gain from such an identification, feeling themselves, according to Freud, already castrated and lacking. Their fear of the father is therefore reduced and so they have less motivation to identify with him fully. Little girls are also encouraged to make a secondary identification with the mother (one which is no longer fused with her) which is not open to the boy as an alternative in the same way. But for children of both sexes, to different extents, Freud's symbolic father as the symbol of culture, represents the third term in the child's mind which breaks in on its phantasies of unending bliss with the mother. The father represents the reality of the world beyond the mother-baby couple and, importantly, one half of the sexual couple which preceded the child from whose relationship the child must inevitably be excluded. He helps the child make the vital transition from a state of merged oneness with the mother to a state of twoness by converting the mother-baby couple into a triangle. This triangle crucially symbolises the incursion of the laws and constraints of culture into the child's phantasies of continued merged bliss with the mother. Freud stresses that the Oedipal crisis always contains three people. But it is not only about the child's desire. It is also about the desire of and between the mother and father which, together with the discovery of sexual difference, sets in motion the Oedipal crisis and makes the child, in one sense, into an outsider. So in Freud's theory the father represents the reality principle, the boundary which permanently blocks and resists the child's omnipotent phantasy of total possession of the mother (the pleasure principle). The father confronts the child with a tangible cultural obstacle which produces the sense of loss which has to be repressed into the unconscious, what Lacan later calls the unobtainable 'want to be' that undermines, but at the same time enlivens, all identity. For Freud, it is the father that necessitates a loss that must be at the centre of all human identity and the child's eventual recognition of this loss enables it to form part of a new sexual/emotional couple also able to tolerate the addition of a child and the beginning of a new generation beyond their own. Freud suggests that if the child fails to adequately internalise this cultural block on its dreams of omnipotence and perfection the child may never be able to distinguish clearly between its desiring and murderous phantasies and the demands of reality. So Freud suggests that the boy simultaneously needs to identify with the positive strengths of the father and other men and face the the fact that he will never possess the mother or have her reproductive capacities.

So essentially, in Freud's theory, the symbolic father seems to stand for the following ideas: we cannot remain permanently in a merged state of being with our mother dominated by phantasies without destroying the possibility of 'growing up' in the sense of having satisfying, relatively un-merged relationships with other people; we can never achieve a state of wholeness, perfection and complete fulfilment because other people can never be entirely predictable so we have to learn to tolerate frustration; we have to submit to the law and authority of culture to the extent that we cannot have incestuous relationships with our parents and, in normal circumstances, we should not murder those people who stand between us and our desires; our anatomy is out of our control in the sense that it is unrealistic to hanker after a penis if we are a woman or a womb if we are a man. This suggests that without cultural inhibitions, we can, ideally, lead creative, fulfilling lives whatever sex we are. These ideas, taken together, seem to amount to a recipe for developing the capacity to cope creatively rather than destructively with both frustration and happiness, with which many of us would agree. In essence, they highlight the resistance that reality offers to our omnipotent childhood phantasies of incest, murder and the idea that nothing is ever going to stand in our way.

Some writers, among them Christopher Lasch and Bob Weatherill have suggested that modern western cultures actively encourage an infantile narcissistic quest for the immediate satisfaction of desire. They suggest, controversially, that this is linked to unparalleled levels of violence in western societies. They argue that this situation arises from a cultural failure to recognise the importance of the meaning of the symbolic father as the link which makes possible the development of our ability to move from a state of mind based on the fused mother-baby dyad to one more realistically based on a triangular relationship involving the father, culture and the idea of 'not me'. Without access to paternal boundaries, they argue, we are all abandoned to a meaningless 'maternal' soup of potentially unsatisfiable desire, psychically unable to move away from the symbiotic and impossible fused love for our mothers into identities that can find a creative rather than infantile outlet for our sexual and aggressive desires. In other words, like Freud, they are suggesting that it is our identification with the father and culture, and the guilt and inhibition of our desires that it provokes, which allows us to accept loss and achieve our human potential. It is the father who helps us to comprehend the gap between what we are and what we want to be so we can use it creatively. This is the alternative to what they see as the infantile delusion that we can fill the gap in our 'selves' through cultural substitutes for the mother such as, in today's western culture, sex, drugs ('ecstasy' as the phantasy of bonded bliss with the mother?), consumption of consumer goods and cultural celebrities, religious and spiritual cults, political ideologies. These offer us the illusion of a completion they can never deliver, the loss of which the symbolic father represents.

Psychoanalysis more generally suggests that if the constraining meanings of Freud's symbolic father (together with, as Marie Maguire emphasises, the 'masculine' aspects of the mother), are not sufficiently internalised by the child, or are unavailable or actively rejected, the child has nothing to put the brake on its unrealistic omnipotent phantasy of unending pleasure with the mother or cultural substitutes for her. Without the boundaries of the binary oppositions the father represents, the child lacks the ability to find its place in the fluid, infinite space of culture. But the symbolic father should not be confused with a patriarchal or authoritarian father, though these may often have been synonomous throughout history. If the father can be sufficiently emotionally available to the child he can allow it to separate from the mother without too much sense of loss and anger because the father is ready and willing to support the child's need to come to terms with the 'reality' of culture.

However, contrary to Lasch's view, the reasons for violent crime cannot be laid exclusively at the door of a failure of children sufficiently to internalise the symbolic father's constraints on their violent impulses or even at the door of violent, abusive fathers with whom there has been a strong correlation with violent behaviour in sons. As we know there are also social roots to violent behaviour such as poverty and, more recently relative poverty in the midst of others' affluence, new technology and labour market changes, unemployment, low-pay, economic insecurity and poor conditions of work, bad housing, homelessness and social discrimination which inevitably interact with individual psychical factors. All of these create societies of insiders and outsiders which breed frustration, despair and violence.

Lacan's re-development of Freud's theory withdraws from the world of experience and emphasises 'the place of the father' as language, thought and culture while relegating experience of the actual father to the world of phantasy or what he calls the Imaginary. Nevertheless his notion of the meaning of the father is suggestive. For Lacan, Freud's symbolic father becomes specifically the constraints and opportunities offered by ordinary language and knowledge. But although these appear to endow men, at least, with power and subjectivity, Lacan argues that this power is riven with symbolic castration and loss (the father kept the mother, not the child). For Lacan, it is the repressed 'feminine' unconscious desire for the mother which drives our futile search for the ultimate 'truth' in language. He insists that only free association in language can harness this unconscious desire in the service of the provisionality, indeterminacy, fluidity and ambiguity of poetic 'truth'. For Lacan this is the only kind of 'truth' capable of subverting what he sees as the necessary but bogus law of the father enshrined in language which claims a certainty and authority which is never justified. For Lacan, without the incorporation of unconscious desire, the law of the father as culture can be only a fiction and 'reality' can never be more than a kind of cultural dreaming, divorced from the deepest 'truths' of our existence which can only be encountered in the challenge of the poetic. Although Lacan is not interested in actual embodied fathers, his ideas do deepen our understanding of Freud's notion of cultural substitutes for the symbolic father and their roots in distance and loss.

The father as an alternative psychical space

Klein's view of the father is distinctively different from that of both Freud and Lacan. Klein sees the father much more as a vital psychical space for the baby and later child which protects it potentially from the intensity of the bond with the mother.

Klein argues that fathers are, at first, understood by the baby through its phantasies about the mother. Her idea of the symbolic breast contains the notion of the penis (father) and siblings who, in the background of the baby's mind, are implicated in the painful absences of the mother. In therapy with adults it is possible to meet individuals who have never learned to distinguish between the meaning of the breast and that of the penis, mother and father, so continuing oral needs for the mother becomes mixed up with the penis and sexuality. However, Klein thought that in the early months, the baby often experiences the idea of the father as its ally who helps it  to protect the mother from its destructive phantasies which the father sometimes is able to carry instead of the mother. The sense of the father diffuses the intensity of the baby's relationship with the mother. But as the baby enters the depressive position, it becomes increasingly aware that the father is another person who sometimes deprives the baby of the mother's presence. This gradually destroys its illusion of unity with the mother and provokes jealousy with which the baby has to learn to cope. The father may then directly become the container for the baby's hostile projections but he may also represent the baby's reparative and creative impulses which help it deal with its destructive ones. In this way the father may be the catalyst for new creative phantasies which can help the baby separate from its initial merger with the mother and, eventually, grow up and lead a relatively independent existence. Unlike Freud, Klein argues that the child eventually wants the father primarily as a love-object rather than a means to the possession of the penis and the power associated with it. But she also suggests that the quality of the baby's relationship with the mother often dramatically colours what is possible with the father so that the latter may be regarded with more or less envy or gratitude depending on the baby's overall attitude to the mother and life in general. If the child has had a good relationship with the breast, the baby is likely to feel love and concern for both parents but if the child feels less secure or envious it may seek refuge with the father although this hatred towards the mother may emerge later in the relationship with the father. In some circumstances the child may also turn towards the father because it perceives him to be as deprived as itself and this may lead to a perception of him and other men as lacking any power of their own. This may affect future relationships with men. The child's perception of the father as weak and needy may be confirmed or contradicted by the way the mother represents him to the child. If the mother continually denigrates the father the child may never be able to see the father in any other light, whatever he is actually like. The presence of the father also provides an alternative model for the child or, if he is violent, weak or abandoning, or denigrated by the mother, someone who the child definitely does not want to be like. If the child actively tries not to be like the father it may be forced into a false, shallow way of being because the father's place in its identity is empty because it has had to be denied. This denial of a part of the self may be particularly likely where a family is split up and either or both parents denigrate the other. Because both parents are a part of the child's inner world of loved objects out of which it constructs its 'self' through its identifications, this represents a denigration of part of the child's identity. If one of its crucial internal objects is made to seem bad or worthless, the child may feel a corresponding unconscious sense of worthlessness and emptiness which it may have to split off and deny.

In marked contrast to both Freud and Klein, Winnicott has very little to say about the father, always placing the emphasis on the self-sufficiency of the mother and baby couple. In his theory the father seems to hover in the wings as one whose role is primarily to offer sexual and emotional support for the mother so that she feels able to provide the child with the kind of 'good enough' mothering it needs. For Winnicott, the 'good enough mother', within the transitional space, through her own intuitive and empathic responsiveness, is able to allow the child, untraumatically and almost imperceptibly, to creatively play itself into an identity which is no longer symbiotically and erotically merged with her own. These days, however, most analytical therapists would challenge this rather isolating view of the mother and baby and argue that the father, ideally, should also be a part of the transitional space. But Winnicott distinguishes carefully between the capacity for 'being' in a state of merged oneness with the mother's breast and also the capacity, later, to feel 'at one' with others (what he calls the feminine) and 'doing', which involves active relating and passive being related to (what he calls the masculine) which both exist in all of us. This suggests that the mother can compensate for an absent or unavailable father by making sure she brings her own culturally 'masculine' qualities into the transitional space. However, Winnicott also suggests that male misogyny and the cultural need to control women may well be directly related to the child's early experience of the mother's overwhelming power, both in phantasy and actuality during infancy and childhood. He also suggests that the mother is associated with the baby's earliest chaotic, potentially annihilating experience of non-being. We might conclude that the presence of an adequate father is likely to help to diffuse some of the fear of being overwhelmed by the mother's power.

The third position

Recently, Kenneth Wright, in his book Vision and Separation, has persuasively built on Winnicott's ideas to generate a striking theory of his own about the psychical role of the mother and father (Wright 1992). He argues that the father is central in both the structuring of identity or the self and in the development of symbol formation. He suggests that the third position, (that is when the baby first becomes an observer) begins to exist in the emerging space between the mother and baby pair as the baby begins to experience the mother as a separate, observing object rather than one always fused with itself. At this moment the baby discovers that it is not only a subjective 'I', though one still merged with the mother, but also an object of the Other's look. Wright argues that the growing importance of the mother's smiling, resonating facial gesturing both endows the baby with a self through mirroring the baby to itself, but also, because it is primarily visual rather than dependent on touch, at the same time opens up the possibility of space and distance. The mother's face cannot be incorporated and possessed like the breast. Whereas the breast is the first object of the baby's drive, the mother's face is the baby's first 'not me' object which because it is visual, suggests a distance between the mother and baby which cannot be totally captured and which is the harbinger of the baby's eventual need to separate. Wright argues that the opening up of this third position culminates in the triangular position with the father who is originally seen as outside the mother-baby pair. It is the firm establishment of this third position, for which the distancing meaning of the baby's visual perception of the mother's responsive face has been the vital preparation, which acts as the guarantee for this space as the eventual site for thought and representation. Wright suggests that the third position is an essentially 'looking' position created by the exclusion of the child from the separate space of the parental sexual couple during the Oedipal period. Here, the child experiences itself as an object of looking from someone with whom it is not merged. Here, in contrast to the fused relationship between the baby and mother, 'looking' means the father's looking at the mother-baby couple and the beginning of an absolute prohibition on touching or doing in relation to the mother. Although the visual nature of the baby's response to the mother's face had opened up the possibility of distance and separation, the touching and doing so central to the baby's earliest merged identity with the mother could remain part of the baby's psychical world right up until the onset of the Oedipal period. But, for Wright, the father's space in the baby's mind means the separation of a looking space from a touching, doing space. In this way it paves the way to the development of the vital space for symbolic representation where touching and doing, although implied in the experience which lies behind the meaning of the symbol, are at another level, banished by it. In this sense, the word or symbol, empty of touch, becomes all that remains of the child's early, blissful attachment to the palpable mother's body which the baby believed to be a part of itself. But nevertheless, it is something which allows it to complete the crucial exploration of the world for which the mother's body and face, prepared it. In the context of the triangular position, Ronald Britton, in his paper, 'The Missing Link', emphasises that the baby at this time also has to learn to differentiate between types of relationship. It discovers that the sexual relationship between the parents is different from the parent-child relationship and that although it may still have a relationship with the mother it cannot be a sexual one (Britton 1989:85).

So Wright stresses the importance of the child's experience of the father as essentially different from the mother so that he will also be loved and hated like the mother but for different reasons. Crucially, Wright argues that apart from smelling different, holding and handling the child in a different way, the father is experienced as radically different from the mother who still has an aura of remembered oneness about her. In this sense the father replaces the mother, standing for an unknown world away from her body and another dimension of experience. Wright argues, that rather than the father having a subsidiary role to the mother, the father stands for continuing progression and development and exerts a positive pull on the child drawing it away from what he describes as the 'regressive undertow of the maternal, merged identity'. This means that the absence of a father may mean that the child collapses back into a continuing state of merger with the mother. But Wright emphasises that a father can be emotionally, if not physically, absent as is the case when there is a weak father who is not sufficiently separated from a dominating wife. He may strive to be a mother to his children so depriving the child of the experience of difference and as Wright puts it, 'a star to steer by'. Importantly, in the context of recent suggestions by some femininsts, that men should become more like mothers,if the child turns the father into a substitute mother, it may try to re-create the fused state it once had, or lacked, with the mother. This means that opening up meanings of the father are obscured and the child may have only a fragile hold on separateness and difference. Wright suggests that for the little girl this situation might mean a blurring of the distinction between fusion and sexuality and for the boy, there may be difficulty with homosexual longings for a substitute father.

Wright suggests, like Freud, that in the Oedipal period the child is forced into the position of the outsider or third person, but in contrast to Freud he argues that the child feels threatened by the father not so much because of its sexual desire for the mother but because of its continual need for security. Wright argues, following Winnicott and Bowlby, that the most important issue is that it is the child's attachment to the mother which is being threatened. Wright emphasises that although the space of the father represents a firmer, more absolute kind of boundary and distance than the one the child has known within its distancing experiences with the mother, this space is precarious throughout life and its boundaries can be relatively easily invaded by more 'embodied' rather than symbolic objects (like consumer goods or a romantic infatuation) that can attempt to fill it up and obliterate it.

Wright suggests that the father identification, in representing both the reality of a taboo against incest together with earlier fusion with the mother, can be compared with Winnicott's transitional object (such as a piece of fluffy blanket), also used by the child as a way of negotiating a sense of loss and separation. But he argues that the extent to which the boundaries and constraints represented by the father are durable and lasting depends, as we might expect, on the actual experience of the father. It rests on whether they have been unwillingly or willingly accepted within the context of a loving relationship with the father and, integral to this, the overall balance of love and hate. This powerfully suggests that the quality of space for symbolisation and self-aware thought rather than for rebellious, regressive 'acting out' or 'doing', which might, for example, entail violence or the blind following of authoritarian hero figures and causes, significantly depends on the experience of fathering.

So Wright's work suggests that actual fathers are vital in the psychical development towards the capacity to symbolise and think in language for children of both sexes.

The baby in the father's mind

Christopher Gibson (1) interestingly focuses on the meaning of the baby in the father's mind rather than the other way round. He argued that for both parents, the positive decision to have a child, in spite of the loss of freedom and the change that this normally involves, requires the voluntary giving up of the narcissistic phantasy of omnipotence and indestructibility which lingers for so long in many of us. The decision to begin a new generation which will outlive us compels us to face up to our own mortality and the idea that one day we are going to die. Psychoanalytic theory suggests that we cannot live creatively and relatively autonomously or be generous, holding parents until we have been able to recognise the fact of our own mortality. It also suggests that our acceptance of this recognition is a continuing part of the process of separation from the mother which begins in childhood, and represents the final part of the transition from phantasy to reality. Gibson, focusing our attention particularly on the father's mind, reminds us that before the baby's birth the baby exists in the mind of the father as well as the body of the mother. After its birth, it continues to exist in the mind of both parents, not as an extension of the self but as an other who will carry the parents biological 'line' through into the next generation. He cites Klein's theory, in particular, as suggesting that this awareness of the child in the father as well as the mother is communicated to the child non-verbally throughout its infancy and gives the baby a sense of a context which goes beyond the immediate merged relationship between itself and the mother. Klein's concept of the mother as containing the idea of the penis (and other siblings) as well as the breast reminds us of how the mother represents the father to the child non-verbally right from the beginning. But, a father who is unable to make a conscious decision that he wants a child, may leave the mother soon after the baby is born or always feel hostile to the child because of his dread of facing up to his fear of death and loss of phantasised omnipotence symbolised by the arrival of the next generation. So, Gibson stresses that the willing father's involvement in the child's conception and the emotional process of anticipating and nurturing a child as someone distinctively different from the mother is ideally, a crucial part of the formation of the child's identity. It is also a crucial part of an authentic male identity which may, in some men, have been culturally obscured by an identity based on the overvaluation of the phallus as a symbol of power and control rather than generation and life, in some ways both like and unlike the repressed creative meanings of the breast and womb.

Finally, let us look at the phenomenon of physically or emotionally absent fathers and how, among other things, this can offer us insight into the meaning of fathers when they are present.

Absent fathers

Physically and therefore, often emotionally absent fathers are now central to both culture generally (particularly in relation to the payment of maintenance) and to the concerns of psychotherapists dealing with some of what are seen as the psychical damaging effects of absent fathers. In the context of a dramatic rise in the number of single-parent families in recent years, most often headed by mothers, a recurring question among women has been about how necessary fathers are in the development of their children's identity and if so, in what ways children may be affected by physically or emotionally absent fathers. Many divorced fathers see their children frequently, but almost an equal number become increasingly absent and eventually lose contact with their children altogether. In this cultural climate feminists have tended to emphasise the importance of the mother but there has also been a climate within psychoanalytic psychotherapy which has tended to favour mother rather than father-centred approaches although the tide is now turning. This question, sometimes posed anxiously and at other times more defensively, has formed the basis of numerous articles in the press in recent years. As we have seen, Freud's theory suggests that fathers perform a vital role in compelling the child to give up its phantasies about the mother and cope with the 'realities' of life within culture whereas object-relations approaches stress the father's importance as an alternative space in the child's mind which also prepares the child for symbolisation and representation. But, importantly, Freud also suggests that there are ways in which children can compensate for an absent father through access to substitute symbolic fathers. These may be male friends or relatives of the mother, male teachers but they may also include powerful cultural institutions such as the church, political parties, companies or other cultural organisations. Let us look, for a moment, at Freud's idea of the existence of cultural substitutes for the symbolic father within the contemporary context of widespread male unemployment in much of Europe, especially among young people.

Unemployment and Young people

As mentioned earlier, Freud thought that psychical health lies, essentially, in the successful combination of the capacity to love and work. This suggests that work may often function as a vital cultural substitute for the symbolic father, especially among the young. In such a context, high unemployment, especially among young men, may be a particularly psychically as well as socially damaging phenomenon. This may be especially true when it is combined with high levels of single-parent families and absent fathers. In this situation, jobs cannot substitute symbolically for these absent fathers.

At a Council of Europe Conference on Adolescence in Vienna in 1997, almost every country reported a rise in divorce and a growing proportion of adolescents living in single parent families. Research in Britain and America suggests that between forty and fifty percent of fathers lose contact with their children soon after divorce. Freud's idea of cultural substitutes for the father suggests that for young men without the emotional and psychical support of a father, a job can act as a crucial psychical as well as social entry in to the adult world of culture. A job offers a sense of achievement, self-respect, social camaraderie, contact with a generation of older, more experienced workers and boundaries in what may up until then, have been experienced as a lonely, unsupported, atomised, boundary-less world. Recent research shows that many young people in Britain, many of them men, are still living at home and have never been economically independent. Psychically and socially they are trapped in the prospect of a perpetual adolescence. Dr. John Coleman, Director of the Trust for the Study of adolescents comments,

'Fifteen years ago, some 50-60 per cent of sixteen year olds went into work; now its 7 per cent and fifty percent of young people aged 21-24 are still living at home. ' (Watts 1997)

As Helena Kennedy argues, on the same theme,

'They become marooned in an adolescence that goes on for ever. There are no rights of passage for these young men as there were for working-class men like my uncles, who moved into the world of work through apprenticeships, among older men'. (Watts: 1997)

Psychoanalytic as well as  social theory suggests that a situation in which new technology has created moral and economic anxieties and uncertainties and two-parent family structures have crumbled, is likely to breed a climate of vulnerability, alienation, frustration and despair. Tom Whylie, of the National Youth Agency argues

'We risk having a status zero population - a group of 200,000 young people living in the outer rings of major cities who are not in education, training or employment, and have no stable place to live, viable income or secure adult identity. I don't call them 'disaffected' because its a label, and in some cases they are right to be disaffected. So they have closed themselves into a ghetto mentality, in music, dress, speech and forms of risk-taking [including drugs and crime] which doesn't connect with the world outside it [culture or the world of the symbolic father](my parenthesis) (Watts 1997).

To what extent does this description graphically represent one version of what Freud calls narcissism and Lacan calls the Imaginary, a largely socially induced confinement to a psychical dead end of sterile, self-reflecting, infantile phantasy?

In this kind of context, the comment of Helena Kennedy, Chair of the Further Education Funding Council, on how Further Education is also failing young people, seems tellingly relevant. She says 'There's a real feeling that having aspirations is not cool, that its 'poncy' to go to college'. She traces this 'what's the point' attitude to a deeply entrenched sense of failure (Watts 1997). From a psychoanalytic perspective, this rejection of Further Education as un-'masculine' suggests a fear of failing and an underlying despair about the possibility of ever being able to 'measure up' as a man. This has the whiff of an emotionally or physically absent father whether in a one or two parent family.

In Britain today four out of ten children in lone-parent families lose contact with the absent parent who is almost always the father (Family Policy studies Centre 1992 in Watts 1997). Similarly, in the United States, 50% of fathers lose contact with their children after two years (Arendall 1995). In Britain, it has been estimated 160,000 children annually have parents who divorce and one in four of all children is affected by divorce. It seems very likely that the disappearance of fathers from their children's lives stems not from lack of feeling in many fathers but from an emotional inability to cope with the situation both in relation to their ex-partner, their children and new partners who may be seen as competitive rivals for the love of their children. If most men have been culturally required to cut off from their emotions in early childhood, a potent mixture of feelings of grief, sorrow, guilt, anger, resentment and regret provoked by the experience of divorce may be almost intolerable for many men. Denying and obliterating potentially overwhelming feelings by removing themselves from any reminder of these feelings, which tragically often includes cutting off from their children, may be the only emotional option for many men. Walking away may be the best they feel they can do. Men's tendency to re-marry more rapidly than women may reflect the intensity of the denial of what is seen as failure as well as the desire for emotional comfort.

The issue of maintenance is of course of huge importance when family split-up causes major poverty. 70% of lone-parents in Britain are on income support and 1.7 million children living on income support are in lone-parent families (Family Policy Studies Centre 1992). But refusal to pay adequate maintenance may also often stem from a wish to deny the existence of children and ex-partners who are associated with huge emotional pain and anger. The irresponsibility and denial involved in starting a new family making it necessary to withhold money from a previous one may also result from an inability to make contact with potentially overwhelming emotions of loss in some, perhaps many men.

So psychoanalytic perspectives overall suggest that ordinary fathers, and by this I mean those who are not violent, sexually, emotionally or physically abusive to their partners, children or others, are central to the unconscious emotional development of our identity. In other words, all other things being equal, fathers are vitally necessary to the child in a different way from the mother and the emotional or physical absence of a father is a often a major reason why adults seek psychotherapy. Of course this kind of absence may often occur within two-parent families where a father may be emotionally, if not physically, absent.

An attempt to help men contain painful feelings of vulnerability and loss which go beyond the sometimes superficial idea of 'new man' or men as, predominantly, substitute mothers, necessarily entails emotionally honest and mutually supportive relationships between men and women backed by progressive, supportive social change. This might eventually lead to fewer families needing to break up simply because emotional communication between men and women is so fraught and difficult. Women may also be increasingly able to make the culturally 'masculine' dimensions of themselves more available to their children so that in the inevitable emotional or physical absence of some fathers, some of the time, boys are more likely to be able create some kind of distanced space from the merged meaning of the mother which would allow them to feel they can become creative men with the capacity to both love and work. But, crucially, this latter capacity depends on cultural priorities that recognise the vital psychical as well as social, and economic meaning of jobs and training.

Men and women continue to develop and integrate emotionally long after childhood and psychoanalytic understandings powerfully suggest that culture must provide the symbolic forms of good parents. Culture increasingly fails to provide sufficient containing, symbolically maternal institutions and the new technology which has produced such high levels of unemployment, especially among young people, means that symbolically paternal (not paternalistic) institutions such as reliable, meaningful work are fast disappearing as well leaving a generation dangerously marooned in a state of 'status zero'. In psychoanalytic terms, this means without a sense of identity which can allow them to cope with the ordinary demands of living.

Psychoanalysis suggests that if the symbolic meanings of the father are not firmly established as central to the meaning of male identity, alongside men's capacity for nurture, it seems possible that many men, in undervaluing this part of their identity, may, in response to changes in women, succumb to overwhelming feelings of loss and annihilation and the defences against them. This inevitably shuts them and their children off from the possibility of achieving a viable, creative identity which can allow them to enjoy changes in women and their own potential for creativity and emotional growth..



Arrendall, T. (1995) Fathers and Divorce, London, Sage.

Britton, R. (1989) 'The Missing Link' in Britton, R.,

            Feldman M. and O'Shaughnessy, E. The Oedipus Complex             Today, London, Karnac.

Freud, S. (1914) 'On Narcissism: An Introduction', SE 14: 67-102.,    PFL 11.

Freud, S. (1930) Civilisation and its Discontents, SE 21., PFL 12.

Frosh, S. (1991) Identity Crisis: Modernity, Psychoanalysis and the             Self, Macmillan Educational.

Galbraith, K. (1993) The Culture of Contentment, Penguin.

Gibson, C. (1995) 'On Becoming a Father', Conference

            Re-Finding the Father, Institute of Psychoanalysis, London,             1995

Hawton and Fagg (1992) 'Deliberate  self-injury or self-poisoning             in adolescents, British Journal of Psychiatry, vol 161,816-23.

Hornby, N. (1992) Fever Pitch, London, Gollancz.

Klein, M. (1957) Envy and Gratitude, London, Tavistock.

Lasch, C. (1990) The Culture of Narcissism, London, Sphere Books.

Maguire, M. (1995) Men, Women, Passion and Power, London,             Routledge.

Minsky, R. (1998) 'Control or containment: coping with change' in             Free Associations, forthcoming.

Samuels, A. (1985) ed. The Father: Contemporary Jungian             Perspectives, London, Free associations.

Segal, H. (1979) Klein, London, Fontana. Modern Masters.

Seidler, V. J. ed. (1992) Men, Sex and Relationships, London,             Routledge

Weatherill, R. (1994) Violence and Privacy: Psycho analysis and             Cultural Collapse, London, Free Association Books.

Watts, J. (1997) 'A Future in the Balance', London, Guardian,             (Society section), June 25.

Wright, K. (1991) Vision and Separation, London, Free Association


Copyright: The Author

Address for  correspondence:

The Human Nature Review
Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

US -
Keywords: logo

UK -
Keywords: logo

 | Human Nature | Books and Reviews | The Human Nature Daily Review | Search |