The question of fatherhood is an important one not only for the individual and for psychoanalysis but for our society as a whole. In times when traditional family structures are changing and parenthood is no longer restricted to a man and a woman per se, the role of the father needs to be revisited. I just finished reading Michelle Obama’s book “Becoming” and she has some beautiful examples of fatherhood – the role her father played in her life and the role that her husband, President Barack Obama, played as the father of the country. I could go into a discussion of the Presidency as the embodiment of the father function on a national level but to avoid any politically charged discussion, let’s just focus on the father function on an individual level.
Think about the relationship you had with your father. If you are among the lucky bunch out there, your father was present and supportive, strict but fair, encouraging and authoritative, consistent and predictable, a role model with his own human flaws that were minor enough not to have a negative impact on you psychologically. It is probably fair to say that you will father similarly, while also finding your own way in conjunction with your partner. It is easier to be a good father when you had one!
Not everyone is that lucky, however. A high percentage of children, adolescents, and adults, who come for therapy, either struggle to connect with their fathers or have fathers who are absent, unavailable, abusive or too permissive? This is especially true but certainly not limited to people, who struggle with psychosis, autistic spectrum disorders and self-injurious behaviors. Do not read this wrong – I am not trying to blame fathers for these disorders; rather, I am trying to emphasize how important fatherhood is for mental health and psychological development.
Fathers play a crucial role in their children’s growth and upbringing from the very beginning. In order for a person to be able to mother a baby, s/he needs the emotional support of a partner with a father function. This is easier said than done. In fact, many men and women struggle with postpartum depression, anxiety and other mental illness during the first few years of their children’s lives due to the renegotiation of priorities and the changes a child introduces into a person’s life. Some psychotics, for example, who have never shown symptoms of mental illness, may develop their first psychotic breaks when they enter parenthood.
To call yourself a father, it takes more than simply giving your last name to a child. Just because you made a baby, doesn’t make you their father either, and vice versa – you can be a father to a child you did not conceive. One of the main tasks of the father is to introduce the law and to usher his child into social responsibility.
Fatherhood is a function – that of raising a human being into a world of social responsibility where actions have consequences and where one knows the difference between right and wrong, and good and bad.
How does a father do this? Most importantly, a father is someone, whose word holds true. A father’s law is the law of his word and his word is supported by his actions as well as by the actions of his partner. The same is true in society – we live by the letter of the law and we face real life consequences if we brake it. The law has no value of it is not properly executed.
Similarly, a father’s word holds no value if it’s empty of actions; something that we often observe in the mental health field when working with troubled children and adolescents. The ultimate failure of the father function is evident in tragic cases such as the shootings at Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary and the Boston Marathon bombing, to name a few.
This isn’t to say that these young men’s fathers (or lack there of) were to blame for their sons’ ruptures from the social link. The human mind is more complex than that – more than one variable contributes to any single event, and this is especially true in cases like the aforementioned, where the surge of adolescence, family history and social circumstances such as gun availability play a role.
It does, however, mean that the function of the father to usher a human being into social responsibility has failed. This is often why young men like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who push the limits of society, choose to end their lives after committing the crime – facing the consequences of their actions could only mean death. (I am hoping to come back to this topic when discussing the issue of bullying and school shootings when I return to the second season of 13 Reasons Why).
Why is this a failure then? Because the function of the father is to promote life, not destroy it. The father puts forward certain limits on the human drive and jouissance (a French word that means enjoyment or ecstasy), in order to allow for other, socially constructive pleasures that promote growth and development as opposed to destruction and nihilism.
Constitutionally, this holds more true for boys and men than for girls and women. There is a difference between fathering a girl and fathering a boy with different social consequences. This is a topic I will save for another time. For now, it is important to say that the role of the father is equally important for girls and the function remains the same – to introduce a law, a necessary limit, a boundary if you will, that promotes life.