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The Function and

Role of the Father


in the 21st Century
Ann Cebon
The function and role of fathers in our society is intrinsic to my work as a psychoanalytic
psychotherapist with children as well as with adults. Further, the concept of the father is of great
interest to me through my involvement in the Esther Bick model of Infant Observation. These
perspectives are the basis for the discussion in the paper.

I will begin with some clinical anecdotes. I will then review some ideas about the father derived
from psychoanalytic understanding. Last, I will introduce an idea of particular interest to me,
which is the role and function of the father in the development of the capacity for symbolic
thinking in the child.

I hope to raise more questions than answers. I believe that the nature of clinical enquiry is served
by such a disturbing state of uncertainty. It is in such a state that new ideas can take root.
Hence, my aim is not to give answers, but raise pertinent issues and questions, and create a
thoughtful and perplexed, even troubled space in our minds.

My first clinical vignette involves a couple with a little girl, nearly three years old. The mother
contacted me because of long-standing sleeping difficulties in the child. For the initial
appointment I asked that both parents come, without the child. What they told me was that the
child slept in their bed with them. Or, more accurately, she slept with her mother, as the father
increasingly withdrew to what was designated as the childs bedroom, I was told that this was
preferable to the alternative of getting up to her countless times, as, the mother said, the little
girl was still sucking the breast at night. In effect, the mother and child were in almost incessant
contact. When I asked the couple what effect this had on them, as a couple, the father became
increasingly upset and resentful. He implied how helpless and impotent he felt. The birth of his
first child had cost him his wife, he said. She was so preoccupied with the baby that he felt he no
longer had a wife, and he literally had lost his place, including in the marital bed. The power of
his feelings and the distress between him and his wife caused me to alter my plan to see the little
girl at the next consultation. My therapeutic work with this family remained weekly sessions
with the parents. What I think the therapy did, was to help the mother with her appropriate
physical and emotional separation from her three year old. As I see it, I became the symbolic
third element, intervening with a stuck dyad. They were all trapped. The father felt the only way
he could move was to leave. As this became clear in the sessions, the father realized that he was

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not the only one who was trapped and stuck. His wife and child were also not developing. With
time the father realised that he could have an active involvement as the rescuer of the stuck
mother-child couple. Significantly what this young family needed was help for the husband to
insist on the effect that he was meant to have, and to feel he could reclaim his wife. This is a vital
function of the father, and when he could find a way to do this, rather than leaving the scene,
they all felt relief and freedom.

The next clinical anecdote also involves a referral, this time from a woman who asked for help for
her 12 year old daughter who had been diagnosed with anorexia. I offered her and her partner an
appointment, but she said she was a single parent. When I met her, she told me she was
devastated by her daughters illness. They had always been so very close. There had always only
been the two of them, she said proudly. Weve always been like this she said, extending her arm
towards me forcefully, displaying her index and middle fingers as though they were fused to each
other. A shudder went through me as I thought, She doesnt need a psychotherapist, she needs a
surgeon. I did offer her daughter an appointment, and suggested that she too might think about
help for herself, as part of a therapeutic process for both of them, but the mother later rang to
cancel. She thought she would leave it, for the time being.

At this point I will leave these two vignettes, and return to the beginning.

Here is the beginning of the life of a baby, and of an infant observation. This is Dr. Joan
Symington, a child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst writing about what she was shown by Esther
Bick in the infant observation seminars that were part of her training in London

In these seminars she [Mrs. Bick] began by showing us in great and convincing detail from
the material brought by one or other of us students, that the new mother feels totally
responsible for her baby, so much so that she has a feeling of imprisonment. The new
mother has also lost her identity. She no longer feels competent. She used to be someone,
in her job, in her marriage, in her social life. She feels, therefore, very uncertain and, in this
sense, is in exactly the same position as her baby, who has not yet found his sense of
identity. The mother feels incompetent in her new task and in many other areas of her life.
Sbe no longer knows who she is. In some ways she feels like a little girl confronted with a
real baby instead of just a doll. In that she is suffering considerable loss, she is depressed.
Her depression manifests itself in her partial withdrawal from her baby. She gives the baby
her breast to feed from but withholds herself. She may hold the baby in her arms and lap
but not hold him with her mind. Mrs. Bick demonstrated this again and again in each
infant observation. In other words, depression in the new mother seems to be universal.

Dr. Donald Winnicott, a British paediatrician and psychoanalyst, also believed that a kind of
depression in new mothers was universal. He described the state of maternal pre-occupation,
which, he said, if there were not a newborn baby, would appear to be an emotional illness in the
mother. But because there is a newborn baby (and, I would add, a new born mother), it serves a
purpose and is even vital for the health of the baby, and for the relationship between mother and
child. So there they are, this vulnerable, new-born mother and her new-born baby, intensely
immersed in each other. In this poignant and vital relationship, what function, what role does
the father have? What do the infant and mother need from him? One reply which I find
interesting, in relation to the mothers possible depression, has to do with the fathers capacity to
emotionally absorb the mothers depression, thus shielding the baby from it. (This was
beautifully described in a paper in the International Journal of Infant Observation, Vol. 5. No.2
Summer 2002). I would also like to ask, what intense conscious and unconscious feelings might

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he, the new father, have about his partner and his new-born child? What ghosts might this new
course of events stir in the little boy part of himsuch as the birth of his younger siblings when
he was a little boy? Or, for the father who was last born or is an only child, could the birth of a
child and his new role as father evoke feelings, conscious or unconscious, of his guilt for his
omnipotent success in having stopped his mother from having more live babies? How many of us
have heard mothers say, in clinical interviews or socially, within hearing of their child, His birth
nearly killed me; the doctor said I couldnt have any more. I would have loved to have had more.

Contrast this view with an article in the magazine, SHE Australia, June 2002. It had the title on
the front cover: No Dad? No Problem! Why you dont need a relationship to have a baby. The
article begins: Jane had decided she wanted to get pregnant. She was 38 and single, but that
wasnt the problem. It was finding the sperm. Jane says, I knew from a very young age that I
wanted to become a mother in my mid-30sand nothing was going to stand in my way.

Jane asked a long-term gay friend to be the donor. He underwent blood-screening tests and had a
sperm count done. Meanwhile, Jane began working part-time in a childcare centre to ensure she
was making the right decision. It was a well researched process, she says. Eventually, Jane
decided to conceive in her bathroom using the turkey-baster-style insemination method. With
fresh sperm you have to self-inseminate within two hours, she says. Id been charting my
temperature, so I knew when I was ovulating, and I had sterile bottles and syringes. I was very
prepared. Then I let him do his stuff, and I did my stuff and I got pregnant the first time. Jane
continues as she cuddles her two-year old daughter, Amy, Shes brought so much love into my
life. Sure there are big sacrifices, but no regrets. Amy sees her donor dad often and Jane regards
him as an important member of her support network. In the first year single parenting was hard,
but you just surrender to it, she says. It gets easier, and I have great friends.

Eighty-five percent of one-parent families are, at present, headed by women, and it is projected
that the number of one-parent families will more than double by the year 2021.

So, what of the role and function of the father in the 21st century? How do we reconcile what is
evoked by these two contrasting pictures? I want to look briefly, at a few of the ways in which
psychoanalytic conceptualisation contributes to our understanding of the fathers function and
role.

The first psychoanalysts, as Alicia Etchegoyen points out, (p. 20) viewed the father as the central
figure in mental life. She writes: Early formulations by Freud, Ferenczi, Abraham and others
focused on the role of the castration complex as the major organiser for emotional growth. After
WW2 there was a shift in perspective. The evolution of psychoanalytic knowledge, including
object relations theories and the direct observational studies on child development, resulted in
an increased interest in the mother-child dyad and in the study of motherhood as a
developmental phase. Melanie Klein, Anna Freud and Margaret Mahler wrote about the babys
early dependence on the mother and about the effects of separation and the process of
individuation. Beginning in the 1960s Bion, Winnicott and Bowlby made further contributions
on the significance of the early mother-baby relationship and attachment as the bedrock of
mental health. This emphasis on the role of the mother was balanced most recently by Lacans
emphasis on the role of the father, about which you will hear later. Lacan used a structuralist
model, based on language, rather than a developmental one, but it is to the developmental
model that I now wish to return.

One of the basic tenets of psychoanalytic understanding is that all behaviour has meaning,

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conscious or unconscious. As I said earlier, becoming a father has multiple conscious and
unconscious meanings. (For that matter, deciding to have a child without being in a relationship,
as in the article, No Dad? No Problem! also has a meaning.) Another basic tenet of
psychoanalytic understanding is that the individual has internal objects, constructs in his or her
mind, derived in part from experience. In our internal emotional worlds, there are baby parts or
child parts. These I previously described in the context of feelings that may be evoked in a father
by the birth of a particular child. We also have internal parents, who have characteristics, and
relations to us and to each other. We have an internal mother and an internal father who, very
significantly, have a relationship with each other. Their characteristics affect how we feel and
what we do. Another way of putting this is to say that the psyche is bisexual. There is a structure
for the internal mother and a structure for the internal father, and these structures are composed
of their functions. What I am describing is a live, pulsating, internal emotional world. This
psychoanalytic conceptualisation is not at all at variance with the sociological theory regarding
the relatedness of structure and function: structure dictates function and vice versa. One of the
implications of the relationship between structure and function in this case, is that the presence
of the external father, or absence of the father, has profound, dynamic meaning. It is not without
meaning. For example, there is meaning in the difference between two and three, between the
couple, a two person relationship, and the oedipal, three person relationship. (I will return to
this later.) The psychoanalytic position is an attempt to explore that meaning, rather than
making judgements. For instance, in the article I quoted, the mother of Amy said that Amys
donor dad is an important part of her support network. She sees him often. The fact that there
are men in Amys life is reassuring. However, a network is different, emotionally, from a couple
in an emotional and sexual relationship with each other. It is different for the child, and it is
different for the parents. Donald Winnicott, whom I quoted before, also said, it depends on
what mother does about it, whether father does or does not get to know his baby. (Winnicott,
1957, p. 81). In this view, the mother stands between the baby and the father. Christopher Bollas
(in his book, Hysteria, p. 71) also writes that it is the mother who refers in the first place to the
fathers functions as protector, upholder of the law, and indicates her own loving feelings towards
him. It is this point, of the mother including or excluding the father, sexually, emotionally, or
even completely physically, that we heard about in the magazine article

Maureen Marks, in a paper entitled Letting Fathers In, (in the book, The Importance of Fathers),
also focuses on the internal emotional world of both parents. Specifically, she says:

The presence of a sexual father and mother couple, in each of the couples minds, (their
internal imagos), determines both the extent to which a woman will welcome her sexual
partner into the relationship she has with their infant, and whether or not he will be able
to be involved This configuration, in each of the partners minds, will affect whether or
not their child can have in its mind a linked mother and father. It also lays the ground for
the development in the child of a certain creative kind of mind and the capacity as an adult
and parent to welcome a sexual and potent father.

So here we have the trans-generational impact of the consequences, either way, of the
relationship between the couple, for the baby, and for the person that the baby will become. One
might wonder whether such a scenario might have had an impact on the women who chose,
deliberately, to conceive and not have a partner?

In order to think about these difficulties it becomes apparent that we need to know what are
fathers for? (Marks, p. 97) Donald Meltzer, a British psychoanalyst, writes:

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The fathers functions are generally those of supply and protection to the motherchild
relationship The parents are seen in the role mainly of providing a protected space
where the child may have intimate emotional experiences upon which the evolution of the
personality depends.

So, the father is there, traditionally, in a supportive, protective role, and the significance of that
cannot be overestimated. Conversely, his absence is far from without significance.

I now want to explore another of the positive roles and functions of the father, as the container
of the babys unwanted projections. As Christopher Bollas writes, (p. 42) childhood is a
distressing time.

When we think of how a mother fails her infant we are forced to conclude that all infants
are failed by the mother; indeed, childhood is a distressing time from which the self tries to
recover over a lifetime.

Winnicott writes about the task of mothering as gradual disillusionment, and he also wrote a
paper on Why Mothers Hate their Babies. In this area, none is better than Freuds beautiful
writing on weaning. In An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, (p. 189). Freud begins, A childs first
erotic object is the mothers breast that nourishes it; love has its origin in attachment to the
satisfied need for nourishment. The paragraph ends, And for however long it is fed at its
mothers breast, it will always be left with a conviction after it has been weaned that its feeding
was too short and too little. But of course we know, intellectually, that the weaning has a
purpose. At the right time, its purpose is to release the baby, who until now has been, to use
Bollass words, satiated by the breast-feed as a somatic, erotic and emotional experience. Now,
with weaning, the outside world of experience opens to him.will remind you at this point of the
example of the couple with the child-in-the-parental-bed in which, for various reasons, the father
was unable to help the mother and baby to extricate themselves from each other. Indeed, the
ideas of the-father-as-obstacle, (a term coined by Adam Phillips in his essay, Looking at
Obstacles), describes what I would like to say. Let me give a contrasting vignette which might
describe this function better than a theory. A patient I was seeing many years ago told me that
over the summer break from his therapy, he had watched his 15 month old eating a ham
sandwich. At this point the 15 month old was still breast feeding, but only the first feed in the
morning. Both mother and baby were loath to relinquish this last intensely enjoyable experience
of breakfast-in-bed each morning. As my patient watched his son devour the ham sandwich, he
said to his wife, Anyone who can eat a ham sandwich like that should be weaned. He then
devised a plan, together with his wife. When the baby woke, rather than carrying him to his wife
in bed, he went to him, gave him 5 Smarties, took him to the kitchen, and stood him on the
kitchen bench, where they went through the usual morning ritual of squeezing oranges for
orange juice for breakfast. When his wife appeared, a little while later, breakfast was already
under way. The breast feeding moment had passed. The second day the process was repeated,
but with 4 smarties, and so forth until day 6 when there was just the orange juice. Now,
whatever one might make of the symbolic meaning of this material, in terms of the 15 month old
within my adult patient, or in terms of the summer break, it is also an illustration of the father as
obstacle. The mother needed help to become a bad, withholding mother. She needed support
from her husband to sustain this function, and he became the container of the withholding
function for the baby and for the mother. And what further function did this father offer to his
son, his baby boy? He freed him from what had been essential for his development till now, that
is, the maternal, sensory, acoustic, holding experience, and replaced it with the symbolic, the
oranges. The father transforms that which had been untransformed. The breast, which had been

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essential, is doomed to become obsolete, though longed for, for the rest of the babys life. The
father is instrumental in facilitating the push, the thrust, to development which is so
fundamental within each baby, and each child, but which can also be sabotaged, both from
within and without. The structure of the family can also be vital. If there is no actual external
father, or if the function cannot be located elsewhere, say in the internal father of the mothers
mind (and that can be asking a lot of mother on her own), then what was vital can become
stuck, and obstruct the next exciting stage of development, which involves the child turning to
the outside world of experience, the world of the symbolic, the world of language. It is the
father, who as Bollas puts it (p. 86) would separate the child from the mother under cover of the
promise of maturational accomplishment.

The father plays a key role in introducing the baby to the outside world. I want to add here that
the father may be particularly well equipped for this task. When the baby is born and the couple
move, physically and emotionally, from two to three, from couple to parents, it may be the
father who has the experience of being left out. This was touched on earlier when I suggested
that the birth of a baby can rekindle in the father feelings of previous exclusion, by feeling left
out from his parents loving relationship, or by the birth of siblings. But there is also the reality of
the changes in his wife, as she, we hope, is utterly preoccupied with the new-born baby. It
actually is their newborn baby, but for the father, it can often feel like it is his wifes baby and he
is truly left out. To the extent that he is able to process these feelings of loss and displacement,
he may well have the empathy with his child to help the child to deal with his own feelings of
loss and disillusionment associated with his weaning, and his parents sexual relationship. The
father thus has a potentially important role in helping his child to work through, digest, or
metabolise, his feelings of ambivalence and love for the mother.

I said at the beginning that there was an area of particular interest to me in thinking about the
role and function of the father, and that is his role in the development of the childs capacity for
symbolisation. This is fundamental for the childs emotional health.

I will approach this topic with a story. A patient told me of a reunion with a relative. They had
been separated by war for decades. When the relative arrived at the airport and they first caught
sight of each other, they fell into each others arms. They embraced and cried and hugged each
other. This went on for quite some time. Eventually one of them said, Well, lets have a look at
you now, and with that he held the other at arms length. He understood that it was only with a
space between them that they could actually begin to be in relationship to each other. I think
this aptly describes a vital function of a father, as the third element, as third vertex (The
Importance of Fathers, Ricky Emanuel, p. 140), making a space between the mother and the child.
The father functions as a symbolic authority whose presence transforms the childs omnipotent
phantasy of control of the mother into a creative relationship with the mother, and with the
father, and subsequently with the world outside. The space thus formed, firstly between the
mother and child, is a prerequisite for the child to develop a separate state of mind, and have its
own thoughts, The father, as structure, facilitates the development of his space, as function. The
space signifies the difference between the mother having her child in mind and having things in
mind for her child. This is a crucial difference, first brought to my attention by a patient to
whom I am indebted. The creation of this mental space between mother and child is the source
of the development of symbolic thinking. Interference with the paternal role is seen as a major
source of psycho-pathology, including psychosis, (Rosenfeld, 1992), perversion (Chasseguet-
Smirgel, 1984; Britton, 1989) and hysteria (Bollas, 2000).

I conclude with the words of Kay Redfield Jamison in An Unquiet Mind:

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Science remains quite remarkable in its ability to raise new problems even as it solves old
ones.
(p. 195)

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Ann Cebon
8 Coombs Avenue
Kew Victoria 3101

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