The Disappearing Father

It was last week that it finally got through my thick skull that something in our society has changed. There has been a fundamental alteration in the roles that are available to us and, more importantly, the roles that will be available to our children.

For about fifteen years I have stood before groups of various ages and sizes and talked about things. Sometimes, to my audiences relief, I show pictures and slides and what formerly was called videotape, but now involves shoving a cassette into a VCR and pushing a button. At first I talked about psychology and then about fathering and then about crime and finally I talked about the psychological effect of fathering on crime. When some young man came into my office for a crime related interview I asked him the following question: What comes into your mind when I say the word father? Then, in my talks, I described how these young men would stare at the floor, and fidget, and stare at the floor some more until finally they said the young persons equivalent of, Not a damn thing!

I would say, to my audiences, that for a young man not to have a clear idea that his father represented mature adult male functioning was less than wonderful. It was probably not good for young women either, and, if pressed, I would venture an opinion about the effect of the lack of a clear father image on girls, but generally I would say that I was a male, that my three children were male, and my father was male, so I didnt think I had enough personal experience to speak on the subject. But generally, at least back then, most of the people who were getting into trouble were boys or young men so I shared with my audiences the powerful and revealing events that occurred when I sought to get men on their way to court or in prison to talk about their relationship, or lack of relationship, with their fathers.

Methodically, perhaps even laboriously, I would then draw my conclusion; there seems to be something about fatherlessness that makes it more likely that a man will end up in jail or some such movement-denying institution. I would present this conclusion to my audience, which, by and large, consisted of men and women who were very familiar with the image that came to their own minds when one said, or thought, the word father.

But last week I noticed a change. I saw for the first time that the audience to whom I was presenting my conclusions – working class college students – were, in an important way, themselves members of the population I was describing. The inmates I talked about revealed angry, sad, anxious, or apathetic feelings about this hole in their lives called father. But for the first time I noticed that the large majority of the audience too had an unclear image of their fathers. Both in the subjects of the presentation, and in the recipients of the presentation, there was a decided lack of father consciousness. As I completed my presentation they looked at me with confusion, sadness, or boredom. As a teacher confirmed for me later, just about all of the students were lacking a father.

I felt a sense of vertigo. Before, there would be predictable responses; some women would be angry – Are you saying we are not adequate to parent our children? Some man would tearfully tell a story of losing his relationship with his father, or his children, and then rediscovering it in mid-life. But this time there was none of that. Instead, there was puzzlement, a kind of bemused confusion; What do you mean by this father?

Suddenly it was like trying to explain the nature of the sound of crashing waves to someone who was born deaf, or the beauty of a geometric equation to someone who, like me, is math-impaired. I started thinking about Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher, who said, among other things, that the world was coming to an end. He said that the world was coming to an end not due to a prospective nuclear holocaust or overpopulation or environmental catastrophe but rather because fewer and fewer human beings participated in the creative elaboration of things. He said that the world would fall out of existence because the objects and events of the world, from an apple to a flower to a father, require detailed, loving, repeated description by people if they are to survive. If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears, it may emit sonic waves, but sound is a deeply personal human experience, unique and rich and transitory. The falling will be unnoticed, undescribed, essentially silent. In the human world, things fall out of existence because no one cares enough to know them.

For the first time, as I stood before a large audience of modern students, I felt that the word father had become a term from a foreign language, an ancient language, a language that has fallen out of use and now is solely of interest to archaeologists. Some students wanted to learn more about this strange new concept. Others couldn’t have cares less. But for nearly all of them the fatherhood was a construct as old fashioned as wide ties and tight shorts.

Affected by this change, I began to ask fundamental questions; does a person have to be a male to be a father? Are we moving beyond or away from fatherhood because we are moving beyond or away from masculinity? Do we no longer nurture the image of fatherhood because we no longer want to nurture the image of masculinity?

More importantly, what kind of identity will our boys grow into if it is no longer possible for them to become men? Does the disappearance of the father from our experience mean that our culture will become homogenous, and how is this lack of diversity which even now is spreading like a silent plague, affecting our children’s development?

As I sat signing books after the presentation a Hispanic woman approached me and wondered how she could help her teen-age son, who had lost his father to divorce, become a healthy, productive man. She clearly cared deeply about her son and I thought, and said, how lucky he was to have such a mother. And maybe, if his father is responsible and she is accepting, I said, he may come back into his life. Maybe the hole her son feels about his father is the same hole the father feels about his son, and they will be drawn together like planets approaching each others sphere of gravity.

She smiled, knowing what she knew about her son, and his father, but was not willing at that moment to share.

If its not too late, she said, If its not too late.