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Fathers and Daughters – Part 1

The history of psychoanalysis begins with Freud (1856-1939) considering the role and importance of a father in the gender and sexual identity development of children. However, later analysts and writers such as Melanie Klein (1892-1960) and Donald Winnicott (1896-1971) focused on the role and significance of the mother for the child and the importance or contribution of a father to child development was marginalized in psychoanalytic thinking. As attitudes and practices of parenting have changed in the 20thcentury to now, the role and importance of fathers for children has been revisited by many writers across the fields of sociology, psychology, health, economics and psychoanalysis/psychotherapy. Here I will consider some ideas I have encountered in the course of my research which sheds light on the importance of a father – and possibly a social father – for a daughter.

Thinking specifically about daughters, Andrew Samuels (b.1949), a British Jungian analyst has argued that a daughter needs to experience a deep connection to her father as a child (1985, p.31). This connection is erotic and needs to be so for the relationship to matter. A father’s difference to his daughter, both his body and age, is what gives him the potential to stimulate an expansion and deepening of her personality. His role as father makes him ‘safe’ in the expression of the erotic in the relationship and is the reason for his emotional investment. Only by a daughter having an image/sense of herself as an erotic being, can she liberate herself from identification with her mother (p.32). Ultimately, this helps a daughter to enlarge her femininity, to become a “multifaceted woman-person, free not only from symbiotic relating with her mother, but free to grow in all manner of unpredictable and exciting ways” (1989, p.85).

The word ‘erotic’ may be troubling to some readers given the prevalence of child sexual abuse. However, the erotic is a natural life energy that according to London based psychotherapist Shoshi Asheri is a,

‘… force that changes and invents new structures and forms new ways of being and relating. It is the energy that sits on the edge of change, where the habitual patterns end and the risky zone of new possibility begins. If you like, it is the desire to flirt with life and aliveness. When this desire is welcomed it can induce sexual feelings. So erotic desire can include sexual desire but it is much wider than that.” (2004)

Given this, what I understand Samuels to mean is that a father, with all of his differences (age, gender, physicality, stage of emotional and psychological development, interests), is potentially able to stimulate change and new perspectives for his daughter, ones that perhaps a mother in her gendered sameness cannot/does not provide.

Mazliach (1994) in the literature review of his PhD study on the impact of absent fathers for early child development, draws together a number of other psychoanalytic writers who point to the importance of the presence of a father/male in the development of a three-dimensional gender identity of a female child: that is the capacity to incorporate and relate to difference.

From the USA, Litchtenberg (2008) discusses a paper by Harris (2008) who argues that desire and identifications are a two-way street between father and daughter. The daughter must be free to identify selectively with her father, sometimes in gendered aspects, sometimes in non-gendered aspects. The implication is that the father must be open to feminine identifications himself in order to help his daughter establish her full subjectivity or sense of self. He also argues that the dynamic effect of the mother in the father-daughter relationship has been understated (p.112). A daughter will reject or accept her mother’s view of the father, but she will be influenced by it nonetheless. (p.112).

The above ideas all cover the psychological aspects of the father-daughter relationship, but there can be other emotional and practical dimensions to the relation as well that are important given the prevalence still of the idea, supported by some research data (see my blog Fathers – Part 2), that mothers bear the most responsibility for the care of children. In their qualitative research based on oral life history interviews with four daughters, all white, middle class US citizens, Goodsell and Meldrum (2010) found that each narrator expressed feeling close to her father and distant from her mother during childhood. They found two distinct fathering patterns emerged: compensatory fathering and self-assertive fathering (p.254). The first compensated for a nurturing void that the mother was not able to provide although she was present, and the second describes a father who is the primary attachment figure due to the mother’s limited involvement and the father’s own characteristics or behaviours. Their data suggested that fathers can and do exhibit versatility as nurturers, they may be both a playmate and a nurturing attachment figure, and that fathers may assume a nurturing role in addition to providing financially for the family (p.255).

Given the clear contribution – in ideal form – that a father can make to his daughter’s life, what might it mean for her if he is absent – physically and/or emotionally? This will be covered in Part 2.

Categories: Research on Fathers

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