‘I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection’ —Freud, 1930/1961.
A woman with a disordered eating pattern may suffer two types of hunger. First, food. Second, a strange kind of yearning, an insatiable desire for a physically or emotionally absent father — a ‘Father Hunger’.
The clinical psychologist Margo D. Maine suggested in 1991 that eating disorders may be a symptom of a missing father, giving rise to a lack of self-esteem and the tireless pursuit of an unrealistic body image primarily in young women. In addition, girls disconnected from their fathers tend to be more vulnerable, self-destructive, distrusting and consumed by fear of abandonment later in life. It’s been found that 71 per cent of pregnant teenagers come from fatherless homes; 92 per cent of girls raised in fatherless homes later suffer a divorce; and pregnant women without a present father experience pregnancy loss at a 48 per cent rate. Suffice it to say, growing up fatherless leaves marks.
In boys, this unfulfilled hunger is not only a feeling of emptiness, but a feeling of living as half a person. In Christian theology, Christ is consubstantial with the Father. A father and his son are one. This is a worthy metaphor for understanding the divinity sons see in their fathers; the way they watch and imitate their every move, and become a man in their shadow. The archetype of the biblical Father — God, the eternal judge, the leader, the disciplinary, the protector — is subconsciously projected onto ‘dad’. For Carl Jung, the father is the arbitrator of our outer world, while the mother the reconciler of our internal world. A fatherless boy is thus deprived of his map to navigate and translate the external world. Similarly, Sigmund Freud believed a boy’s identification with his father to be a crucial stage in healthy male development. Psychoanalyst James Herzog later described the lack of a father as akin to a hunger; a void that paves the way to narcissism, pathology and uncontrollable aggression.
The role of the father is not only a psychological but a physiological one. In early fatherhood, a man’s neurobiology changes. Studies have found that fathers experience an increase in the hormone oxytocin, a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol and lowered testosterone, resulting in more sensitive care-giving behaviour. Fathers are also thought to experience higher levels of vasopressin, a hormone associated with bonding and the maternal stress response. Importantly, dads are wired to engage in play behaviour, helping boys to understand the boundaries of physical aggression and importance of rule structures.
The Scale of the Famine
‘Father Hunger’ takes place at the individual level because it is individuals that are burdened with its emptiness. This has many source, such as their parents’ divorce, or the disappearance or early death of their father. But, the hunger felt in our homes is a microcosm for wider society. With the wide decline of the traditional vestiges of Judaeo-Christian ethics, we have begun to undervalue the family as an institution. The effects of this are felt widely at the macrocosm. According to the US Department of Justice:
• 63 per cent of youths committing suicide come from fatherless homes.
• 90 per cent of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes.
• 85 per cent of all children who show behavior disorders come from fatherless homes — 20 times the average,
• 80 per cent of rapists with anger problems come from fatherless homes —14 times the average.
• 71 per cent of all high school dropouts come from a fatherless home.
• 5 per cent of all adolescent patients in chemical abuse centres come from fatherless homes.
All of this is a sobering thought, especially considering that 24 million children (34 per cent) in the US live absent from their biological father.
A Father’s Love as a Privilege
In the social science lexicon, privilege theory has gained considerable academic traction. Rooted in critical theory and identity politics, the concept of ‘privilege’ describes the unearned advantages that an individual possesses as a result of their personal characteristics, or membership of a particular social group. An influential figure in privilege theory, scholar Peggy McIntosh wrote in 1989 of the ‘invisible knapsack’ of white privilege, describing the resources and provisions she benefits from — a prejudice she would always carry as a white woman.
Looking at those statistics on fatherlessness, the study of privilege seems to be overlooking an important factor. Race, wealth and gender identity take the forefront, while fatherlessness is a critical and insidious problem — one that can affect any of us, no matter the colour or creed. It is undeniable that one of the most valuable, unearned social privileges is to be blessed with the unconditional love of a father. The scaffold to a stable and secure life, particularly for young boys, starts with the presence of their dad. Riches and luxury are worthless in comparison; no privileged lifestyle can fill the yearning of unfulfilled ‘Father Hunger’. Yet, the academic commentariat often exclude this from discussion.
Paying Attention to Fatherlessness
We know, intuitively, that fatherlessness is a problem. It is why so many of our ancient myths and stories follow an archetypal fatherless boy, either his life as a meaningless existence or the arduous journey he embarks upon to relieve his hunger. In Homer’s Odysessy, Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, sets out to find his lost father, developing along the way from a boy to a man. The story of Peter Pan situates an orphan and his gang of Lost Boys in the empty existence of Neverland, a place of never-ending childhood. But, strangely, fatherlessness rarely takes the focus of our political debates, nor has this concept properly entered the political terrain of privilege theory.
Understanding the effects of fatherlessness could create potential for real societal change. The common pathogens in our societies — crime, poverty, abuse, depression — may be soothed by a father’s loving presence. When we allow the importance of the father to ebb away at an individual level, our societies become malignant. The importance of encouraging faithful marriage, providing adequate support and opportunities for current and prospective fathers, and investing in support for children without a dad, cannot be understated. Encouraging and celebrating fathers is the bedrock for a healthy civilisation.
‘Father Hunger’ is a powerful yearning, and an invisible famine starving so many of us.