Boys to Men

The science of masculinity and manhood

Hector's Gesture: The Importance of the Father

On Father's Day, think about the role of the father in a boy's life.

First there was Mother’s Day (1905), then there was Father’s Day (1966). Yes. Sixty-one years later the States first formally recognized fathers with a national day of honoring them. Ironically, about this time the place of the father in the family was beginning to be devalued. Today, one of three boys will be raised for a significant period of their childhood without a father on the scene. The psychological consequences of this are only now being seen, as once fatherless men are trying to have a part in the social and emotional development of their own sons’ lives.

It is simply not true that anyone can be a boy’s father, including his mother. Occasional boyfriends of divorced mothers are also no substitute for a steady figure in the household. The occurrence of boy abuse among that population of surrogate or visiting fathers has been documented. So has an increased likelihood of involvement in the penal justice system of such boys and poor impulse control in general in their everyday lives. They often do not do well in school, and they do not relate as well to females as they reach and pass adolescence.

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In his important book, “Hector’s Gesture” (a translation of the book’s Italian title), Luigi Zoja explains in “The Father” what the father has meant and continues to mean for boys. The Jungian psychologist writes about a scene in Homer’s “Odyssey” in which Hector takes into his arms the boy he and its mother have created, raises it above him, recognizes the boy as his, and tells him “You will be even better than I am!” This moment of acceptance and elevation is at the archetypal symbolic heart of what father’s do.

Everyone knows who his natural mother is unless left at the doorway of a hospital emergency room, but it is up to the mother and father to admit and agree who the natural father is. This was a matter of honor until our days of genetic testing. Now we can be sure. But even if every woman slept with only one man and two have made one new human being, there is the additional public act that a father performs in raising a boy, literally and symbolically. Only a woman can make a boy, but only a father can make a son.

It is generally known that anyone can carry out the role of mothering, although this is best done by the natural mother. Her breast milk is best for the baby and the infant senses chiefly by smell the continuity from life in the womb to life in her arms and is more secure. Her arms accept the boy. Yes, there is infanticide and some mothers (like Medea and recent examples reported in the press) kill their older children. This raises a question about a “natural” instinct for mothering among women. Some women plainly do not want to be mothers, and that is fine.

A different pair of arms, however, take over from the mother their little son. Whether there is a “natural” instinct to do this is, again, unclear, but psychologists have identified something in an earlier moment, when a father is presented with an infant that he believes to be his own. This is called engrossment and it is expressed by the feeling that this is the best baby in the hospital neonatal ward! Later, however, comes Hector’s gesture, when a son is older.

On Father’s Day, June 15, we might think about Zoja’s observations and read the full history of fatherhood he has written, which includes observations about the beginning of the disappearance of the father during the Industrial Revolution and in the Modernity. There is clearly father hunger out there and the responses to it among boys are grim.

 

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

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