The Absent Father
From a psychoanalytic perspective, Freud (1856-1939) thought that the father played an important role in the early phases of child development, the latter especially for boys in the development of a gender and sexual identity (Jones 2007, p.44). Despite this, in classical psychoanalytic theory which assumed the patriarchal family, the father is essentially absent in the early stages of the mother/child enmeshed, fused relationship. He enters the relationship as a disruptor of fusion supplying a sense of time, order, rules and links to the outside world otherwise absent in the cradle, kitchen and playpen (Lichtenberg 2008, p.106). This is the first way in which father absence can be defined and it is historical. Now for example, fathers are encouraged to be at a birth, and in the UK, are legally entitled to 1-2 weeks paternity leave or to shared parental leave. A significant social and cultural shift indeed.
Adrianne Harris (2008), a psychoanalyst based in New York, argues the distant and emotionally unavailable father – another kind of father absence – is a myth. Even if he was physically or emotionally absent, he can be conjured up for a child and made present by the thoughts and feelings of mothers and others.
Whilst some of the research on fathers supports the view that fathers are very available and involved (see my blog Fathers – Part 1), it is also widely challenged. For example, The Fatherhood Institute (2016) say that in the UK men do 24 minutes of childcare for every hour a woman does. Additionally, Relate’s (2015) report ‘The Way We Are Now: The state of the UK’s relationships 2015’ identified that in the UK one in four children experience the breakup of their parents’ relationship with only 57% maintaining a good relationship with their father. This could mean that 1 in 8 children in the UK may spend a significant portion of their childhood apart from their father.
Further statistics come from the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS, 2015) who record that divorce has increased 4.8 times between 1957 and 2013. Whilst male and female single parent households with dependent children have increased by roughly the same percentage (4.2% and 4.9%) between 1996 and 2015, there are 9 times more female than male lone parent households with dependent children and this has not changed during the same time frame (ONS 2016). These statistics seem to highlight the prevalence of father absence, at least in the sense of the father and mother living together with their children. However, this is in contrast to the research on parenting practice (see my blog Fathers – Part 1) which suggests that even when parents are living apart this does not mean that fathers are not involved with their children.
Related to divorce/separation, Hirschberger et al (2009, p402-3) state “research has consistently shown that the transition to parenthood poses a serious challenge if not a crisis for marriage”. Their research found that husbands’ initial levels of marital satisfaction were significant predictors of divorce. What makes for marital satisfaction is another matter, and it makes sense to have a solid relationship before bringing children into the picture. But life doesn’t always happen in a carefully planned way.
Nielsen (2011) argues that the father-daughter rather than the father-son relationship is more negatively affected after divorce for many reasons, but primarily because the bond with the mother is stronger. Her argument rests on studies in the US with teenagers of intact and divorced families. Yet, placing this in context, in a survey of seventy-two US family lawyers, 60% agreed that the law was biased against fathers who wanted to share parenting (Nielson 2011).
Significantly, research from South Africa indicates how nuanced father absence is in that cultural context where the nuclear family may never have been a ‘norm’, and suggests that the term ‘father absence’ needs more nuanced understanding in any cultural context. Padi et al. (2014) say that father absence in African black families is high: 65% of children under the age of 9years do not live with a father. Given this high percentage the authors argue that the term ‘father absence’ needs to be deconstructed to be more clearly understood and useful. Undertaking qualitative research using narrative interviews with seventy-three women aged 14-36years old led to the identification of a variety of categories of father absence: absent and unknown; absent but known; absent and undisclosed; and unknown and deceased. The authors found that “knowing one’s father was personal and subjective with varied and different degrees of knowing” (p.51) and the research “indicates that the term father absence can be defined by various experienced forms of connections and separations” (p.55). Certainly for the practice of psychotherapy, this research is very important. Individual circumstances, a client’s personal or subjective meanings around absence, connections and separations, would crucially shape the work.
Given widespread discussion in Australia about father absence, Perlesz (2005) argues from a lesbian feminist perspective, that there is no research-based credibility in promoting patriarchal, nuclear family formation as a preferred social and family structure to optimise children’s emotional, social, physical, and economic outcomes. A ‘father absence fear’ is a pretext to retain the hegemony of patriarchal nuclear family life and restore fathers to their ‘rightful’ positions of power and control within families. This is by implication a critique of opposite views expressed in the US, i.e. in a thesis on the impacts of absent fathers which concludes that it is “critical that fathers remain to be a crucial ingredient to healthy and successful families” (Mancini, 2010, p.32).
Finally, the scientific and technological interventions in conception, i.e. IVF for single women or lesbian couples gives the idea of the absent father a new historically-specific meaning.
From this research it seems clear that in modern society the role of the father in the family is not homogenous and that father absence is also more complex than such a blanket term suggests.
Categories: Research on Fathers