Boys to Men

The science of masculinity and manhood

Father's Day and the Death of the Father

The End of Fathers?

Sunday is Father's Day. Currently, only one-third of the boys in this country will grow up with their natural father for the important years of their childhood. Some will know their father only occasionally in custody arrangements or meet him only after they have reached their teen years. There is little attention paid to this very important situation for boys. The consequences are immeasurable and since the situation is so recent, we do not know the full impact on our culture of the trend. This much is clear, however: a woman cannot be a father to a boy. Being a father is not a role, like being a mother. Although the natural mother is usually (though not always) best, a male or female can mother a boy, since carrying out functions of feeding, cleaning and providing ongoing emotional warmth is not gender-specific. At the time of identification with one of the sexes during late early and middle childhood, however, the need of a boy for a mature male in his life is profound.

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Boys who were raised without fathers fill our prisons. They are slower to launch, being more inclined to stay closer to the home, which is symbolized and embodied by the mother. The father represents the world beyond the boy's home. Just as important, a father transforms a boy into a son. A male and a female can create a boy, but only a father can create a son. This is a symbolic act. Luigi Zoja, an Italian Jungian psychologist, has written a full account of this in his wonderful book, THE FATHER. Last, consider this: In his relationship with his mother, a boy first learns he is lovable. A mother's love should be unconditional and infant boys do not respond to this with love, but rather with gratitude. Love for his mother follows in reaction to being loved. In his relationship with his father, however, a boy first initiates loving another human being. He does this as forming a foundation for identifying with a male. A boy identifies only with someone he first loves.

Most fathers respond to this with a love they have have not known since the relationship with their own father. It is important to realize that this first proactive loving is the model for a boy (then the man he becomes) in all his relationships of intimacy, with women, friends, and his own children. This is the crucial relationship in a boy's life. Father's Day celebrates this. Freud once wrote that the death of a man's (or boy's) father is the most important psychological event of his life. Here Freud was certainly spot on. But what of boys who have not known a father and there is none to lose? A world in which males grow up where this is a common scenario is one the like of which we have never known. The only comparable situations are times of war (1914-1918, 1939-1945) when so many men (many young fathers) died. The father as a cultural figure is dying. Think about the consequences of this. Then think of your father. I hope you were fortunate enough to have had one in your life ... as I'm happy to say I had.

Miles Groth, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Wagner College.

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