Tabitha Freeman PhD. Studies in Gender and Sexuality. Volume 9, Issue 2. April-June 2008.
At the core of this discussion is a critical analysis of key sites of silence and contradiction in Freud’s account of the Oedipus complex that are attributed to the negation of paternal intimacy in early infant relationships. Most notably, the oedipal resolution is seen to lie at the source of deep psychological tensions within male and female gender identities that conform to patriarchal definitions of “normal” adult heterosexuality. In recent years, paternal absence has been problematized in theoretical, empirical, and political terms, with a weight of therapeutic observation, feminist critique, and cultural commentary beckoning a fundamental reassessment of psychoanalytic concepts of fatherhood. I argue that the corresponding turn toward more positive representations of father-child relationships signifies a radical critique of the paradoxes of patriarchy that has yet to be incorporated into psychoanalytic theory. By confronting the conceptual limits of the authority of the absent father, this discussion illuminates a theoretical vacuum within mainstream psychoanalytic thought in which to usher in more realistic conceptions of the fathering experience.
Patriarchal Foundations: The Place of the Father within Psychoanalytic Theory
The paradox of patriarchy … is that, while a father may be “head” of the family, simultaneously he is constrained from being a central character within it [Lewis and O’Brien, 1987].
Patriarchal thought lays claim to the authority of the father as the symbolic origin of male privilege. This universalizing appeal to “rule of the father” stands alongside a deep-seated reticence for parenting to be conceptualized as a significant dimension of male experience. In comparison with the historical wealth of images celebrating the enduring strength and intimacy of the mother-child bond, the paternal relationship has remained relatively hidden from the cultural gaze. This gendered imbalance reflects a long-standing assumption that childcare is an essentially and exclusively female activity; a naturalized constant that has provided a vital underpinning of the cultural supremacy of the male. Thus although fatherhood has traditionally formed the bastion of patriarchal privilege, this ideological system has rested upon the tacit negation and devaluation of the potential depth and complexity of men’s parental relationships.
The curious tension between the symbolic presence and substantive absence of fathers evident in patriarchal thought is embedded at the heart of psychoanalytic theory. From this perspective, psychoanalysis can be characterized as a quintessentially patriarchal discourse. Indeed, psychoanalytic theory recreates the fundamental paradoxes of patriarchy by giving central place to the father as a symbolic figure of authority while eclipsing men’s relationships with their infants under the shadow of the omnipresent nurturing mother.
From its inception, psychoanalytic theory has been thoroughly imbued with allusions to the symbolic power of father. Most poignantly, the paternal role is attributed with fundamental significance in the formation of the individual psyche and of civilization itself. This characterization of the paternal role is enshrined in Freud’s foundational concept of the Oedipus complex, which retains central place as the cornerstone of psychoanalytic theory. In itself, the enduring presence of Freud’s pedagogic authority and intellectual creativity as the “founding father” of psychoanalysis illuminates something of the psychic significance of the paternal he seeks to describe; as Liebman and Abell (2000) remark, “The idealisation of Freud by many psychoanalysts was about the all-too-common longing for a soothing and powerful father figure” (p. 99). More broadly, the Oedipus complex places fatherhood at the center stage of psychoanalytic theory; being foundational in essence, to the emergence of individual identity, in structure, to the (re)production of patriarchal culture, and in significance, to the creation of psychoanalysis.
Despite the symbolic weight bestowed upon fatherhood, one cannot escape the underlying paradox that, at least until relatively recently, male parenting has marked an empirical blind spot within psychoanalysis; a systemic neglect that has led to the father being dubbed the “forgotten parent” of psychoanalytic thought. Rather, the exclusive presence of the mother has long been perceived as the lynchpin of early child development. This focus on the maternal relationship has been actively encouraged by certain factions of the psychoanalytic movement, most notably through the pioneering work of Melanie Klein. Indeed, from the 1930s onward, the mother-infant relationship became isolated as the principal focus of the psychoanalytic gaze, directing what is commonly referred to as the “maternal turn” within the discipline. This visible pull toward the maternal is slowly being met by the recent tide of change heralding the potentially positive impact of men’s involvement in early childcare. However, the mere fact that the mother-centeredness of psychoanalysis has emerged as a galvanizing source of criticism suggests the extent to which the paternal relationship has traditionally been occluded.
Although the conceptual framework of psychoanalysis has effectively marginalized the father as a remote figure lurking on the sidelines of child development, the patriarchal heritage of this tradition ensures that the male parent is ultimately not without influence. Rather, throughout psychoanalytic theory, the power of the father has been defined through his absence; an absence that demarcates the male’s ontological difference from the naturalized sphere of maternal embodiment and thus confirms the father’s cultural supremacy. This characterization of the father as an absent authority at once confounds the apparent centrality of fatherhood within psychoanalytic discourse while reinforcing the symbolic reach of paternal power. Indeed, in being exerted through his absence, the power of the father is effectively detached from the materiality of the individual, signifying the ubiquity of patriarchal dominance beyond its incarnation within any individual male.
The theoretical disembodiment of paternal authority has been most overtly expressed in the work of Jacques Lacan, as encapsulated by his central distinction between the “real father” (i.e., father as person) and the “symbolic father” (or “name-of-the-father”) and corresponding privileging of the latter. However, this theme also echoes more widely across the central schools of psychoanalytic thought, where the potency of the father can be seen to operate as a transcendent presence defined by his relative absence in material terms.
From a cultural perspective, the psychoanalytic conceptualization of the symbolic role of the father clearly carries strong religious overtones, with the omnipotence of God, the procreator, providing an archetypal metaphor of a materially absent yet symbolically present father. The primary importance bestowed upon the father in the Oedipus complex thus acquires additional potency by invoking long-established systems of belief that sustain a patriarchal culture; the masculinization of the origins of individual and collective development resonating with the power of creativity ascribed to the Judeo-Christian God as the omnipotent father.
As this brief overview suggests, psychoanalytic discourse is shot through with allusions to the symbolic authority of the father. Thus, although the assumption of the mother’s monopolization of childcare masks the potential presence of males within early infant relations, on closer inspection, it can be seen that the power of the father is never far behind. However, in deference to the symbolic authority of the absent father, the marginal place given to male parenting has remained largely uncontested, and so the patriarchal conundrum at the heart of psychoanalysis is left to lie.
In this essay, I argue that, while the paradoxical place of fathers within psychoanalytic theory can be understood in terms of its patriarchal heritage, the implicit tension between the symbolic presence and qualitative absence of men in family life ultimately undermines the logic of this ideological system. In order to develop this argument, I return to Freud’s account of the Oedipus complex to uncover the internal contradictions that flow from his dogged adherence to the gendered hierarchies of patriarchal thought. The Oedipus complex revolves around the twin assumptions of the engulfing presence of the mother and substantive absence of the father during the pre-oedipal stage. This gendered scheme has been reproduced throughout the evolution of the psychoanalytic tradition, as illustrated earlier by the compounding of maternal presence and paternal absence in the work of the “maternal turn” theorists and Lacanian school, respectively. Thus by exposing the conceptual fault lines laid down within Freud’s original account of the Oedipus complex, this analysis has wider implications for understanding the limitations of post-Freudian theory. In particular, the stubborn retention of the gendered dynamics of the oedipal triad within psychoanalytic theory has maintained the lack of an adequate theoretical account of the pre-oedipal father that is seen as untenable within the present discussion.
In recent years, the assumed absence of the father within early infant relationships has been brought into question, with a weight of therapeutic observation, feminist critique, and cultural commentary calling for a fundamental reassessment of orthodox psychoanalytic concepts of fatherhood. I end by highlighting emergent themes within this fragmented yet sustained critique of paternal absence; my intention being to locate the ensuing turn toward more positive representations of father-child relationships as a potentially radical challenge to the patriarchal preconceptions that have worked to limit men’s parental involvement in both theoretical and experiential terms.
Unraveling the Oedipus Complex: Father as Friend or Foe?
Freud’s landmark “discovery” of the Oedipus complex established the fundamental importance of the father within psychoanalytic theory by identifying a child’s confrontation with paternal authority as the most critical stage in psychosexual development. The internal crisis instigated by the Oedipus complex requires the repression of the unbounded phantasies of early childhood by yielding to the gendered moral order represented by the father; a rite of passage that lays the psychic foundations for the formation of the unconscious and “normal” heterosexual identity and conversely, constitutes “the nuclear complex of all neurosis.”
In emphasizing the father’s civilizing function, the Oedipus complex consolidates the psychic and symbolic significance of the paternal as representative of what Freud deemed to be the inherently patriarchal sphere of culture. More specifically, the Oedipus complex defines the father’s principal role as disrupting the naturalized mother-child dyad and turning the child toward culture. According to Freud, the newborn infant is merged in a blissful union with the mother, epitomized by the pure gratification of being breast-fed. This idyllic state is characterized as fundamentally asocial; a closed and inward-looking incestuous attachment that requires breaking up for the maintenance of society. It is through presenting himself as an irrefutably powerful and feared rival for the mother’s love that the father instigates the crucial severance of the exclusive mother-infant bond by instilling the cultural prohibition of incest. The appearance of the father thus compels the child to achieve a separate identity and moral consciousness, initiating an internalization of authority that is synonymous with the development of the superego. Thus although Freud equates mothering with the “natural” labors of reproduction and nurturing in a physical sense, the psychological birth of the infant is extolled as the culturally defined responsibility of the father.
The Oedipus complex demarcates a transition from the loving harmony of the exclusive mother-child dyad to the conflict-ridden oedipal triad of mother-father-child; an internal logic that both assumes and requires the qualitative absence of the father from the pre-oedipal sphere. Moreover, this progression from the comforts of unconditional maternal love to the pain of paternal rivalry means that the child’s initial confrontation with the father is marked by aggressive resentment and fear; at this stage, the father is no more than a “dreaded enemy to the sexual interests of the child.” This perception of the father as an unwelcome threat to the maternal dyad occludes the possibility of early paternal intimacy and love, an exclusion that ultimately unravels the logic of Freud’s account of the resolution of the Oedipus complex in its own terms. Indeed, although the primary function of the Oedipus complex in forming a child’s heterosexual identity means that males and females interpret the father’s appearance in decisively different ways, for boys and girls alike, this defining moment forms a source of deep contradiction.
These tensions within Freud’s theoretical scheme can be illuminated by focusing on the child’s recognition of the father as a symbol of masculinity; for boys, an identification of sameness that is critical to the establishment of a masculine gender identity, and for girls, an attraction of difference that forms the crux of female sexuality. For both sexes, this recognition is precipitated by the discovery of the anatomical basis of sex difference; a crude awakening that intensifies the emotional charge of the Oedipus complex by exposing the deficiencies of the hitherto adored mother as lacking the phallic object she desires. This diminution of the mother is matched by the subsequent elevation of the father in the child’s esteem, thereby redirecting desire for absolute possession of the mother onto the phallus. The subsequent enthrallment with the awe-inspiring potency of the father induces the notorious predicaments of “castration anxiety” and “penis envy” in the male and female, respectively. The male’s fear of the loss of his penis, the signifier of masculine authority, and the female’s reluctant acceptance of this deficient state means that, for both sexes, the resolution of the Oedipus complex implicitly confirms the incontestable supremacy of the paternal figure.
In the case of the male child, identifying with the father requires an affiliation with a revered yet deeply resented figure. Indeed, the boy’s initial hostility toward his rival is necessarily mixed with feelings of admiration and love in order that he positively identifies with the father and internalizes his authority. In particular, this ambivalent position generates the essential component of guilt that tempers the son’s murderous impulses to displace his father in his mother’s affections through forming a self-regulating system of moral constraint.
This constellation of conflicting emotions implies the existence of an earlier, pre-oedipal attachment to the father by which the son’s newfound enmity is combined with elements of familiar love. Indeed, Freud himself concedes to the logical existence of a close pre-oedipal relationship between father and son:
The hatred for his father that arises in a boy from rivalry for his mother is not able to achieve uninhibited sway over his mind; it has to contend against his old-established affection and admiration for the very same person.
However, at no point does Freud confirm the significance of paternal intimacy or inquire further into the nature of this attachment because of his antithetical assertion that pre-oedipal relations are exclusively oriented toward the mother. Freud’s account of the male oedipal complex effectively requires the father to be both present and absent within the pre-oedipal sphere; a paradox that is never adequately articulated or reconciled within his work.
The male oedipal resolution is thus riddled with intricate and ultimately insurmountable tensions, not least owing to the deep ambivalence that the boy’s denunciation of his once idealized mother places at the heart of his future heterosexual relations. Freud rather crudely smoothes over the dilemmas of masculine identity with reference to the privileged position this promises: the son being rewarded for giving up his infantile phantasies by being passed the scepter of patriarchal dominance to carry into his adult life. Perhaps the deepest irony is that this supposedly alluring vision of supremacy is essentially devoid of love. In striving for masculine autonomy, the boy learns that men must conspire in their authority yet ultimately stand alone.
For the female child, the rather less compelling challenge of the oedipal crisis is to compensate for her gendered fate of being equated with the natural inferiority of the mother by turning her affections toward her father; a transition that offers the consolation of the vicarious pleasures of “completing her love of the organ [i.e., penis] by extending it to the bearer of the organ.” The girl’s rocky path toward her heterosexual destination therefore requires re-channeling her love toward her father; the intimidating man whom she instinctively reviles as a troublesome competitor for her mother’s affections. The process by which “the enemy becomes the beloved” encapsulates what, for Freud, is the central enigma of the female oedipal crisis: accounting for the girl’s compulsion to abandon her active desire for her mother in favor of a passive subservience to her father and concomitantly, to all men.
Freud’s proposed resolution of the female dilemma is to attribute the girl’s rejection of her mother to a self-deprecating contempt of women, thereby instilling a masochistic sense of innate unworthiness at the heart of feminine identity. The female’s humiliating recognition of her deficient state concurs with the masculine denunciation of the castrated female as the universally inferior sex. Indeed, although the girl’s penis envy is instigated by her desire to take her father’s place as her mother’s lover, Freud describes how she comes to harbor strong resentment and hostility toward her primary love object; a bitterness that is intensified by her tendency to blame her mother for her own castration. With the girl’s love for her mother turning sour and invariably ending “in hate,” the mother is thus cast aside in anticipation of the validation of the venerated father.
Freud clearly identifies the depth of the girl’s attachment and identification with the mother during the pre-oedipal phase as a critical antecedent to the oedipal phase, providing the source of her strong impulse to love that is subsequently transposed onto her father. Whilst founded in love, this displacement also requires the existence of hostile feelings toward the mother to elicit her hateful rejection; a negative climax that Freud himself concedes could not be sufficiently accounted for by his assertion that the girl holds her mother responsible for her castration. Rather, Freud advisedly locates the source of this underlying conflict within the pre-oedipal phase. However, the admission of ambivalence within the early mother-daughter relationship poses a deeper problem within Freud’s conceptual scheme. Most critically, the allusion to intrinsic tensions within the pre-oedipal dyad implies that the father’s intervention is not necessary to break apart the mother-child bond. As Freud (1931) reflects,
Perhaps the real fact is that the attachment to the mother is bound to perish, precisely because it was the first and was so intense[p. 382].
However, Freud resists elaborating upon this possibility as it would significantly diminish, if not extinguish, the fundamental importance he attributes to the father’s civilizing role.
Freud’s unwillingness to engage with his own intimations that experiential tensions within pre-oedipal relationships may lead to the dissolution of the oedipal complex without the authoritarian influence of the father simultaneously marks the collapse of the Oedipus complex as a theoretical construct. This impasse is rooted in Freud’s unremitting allegiance to palriarchal conceptions of the symbolic authorily of the father, which renders him impervious to incorporating the potential presence of pre-oedipal paternal intimacy and maternal ambivalence into his theoretical scheme. Although conceptually flawed by the paradoxical foundations of patriarchy, the lasting challenge to this ideological system lies in Freud’s perception of enforced conformity to hegemonic ideals of both masculinity and femininity as containing and perpetuating acute psychological tensions for the individual. Indeed, Freud’s implicit acceptance of the inherently unstable nature of “normal” adult heterosexuality under the patriarchal regime paves the way for a more humanistic critique of the paternalistic account of individual development that the oedipal drama describes.
Reconceptualizing Fatherhood: The Radical Potential of Paternal Presence
In recent years, paternal absence has come under mounting scrutiny, with debates about the consequences of men’s relative distance from family life emanating from a range of sources both within and outside the academic sphere. These discussions span the theoretical and empirical, with paternal absence being highlighted both as a conceptual weakness of psychoanalytic theory and as a social problem with detrimental psychological and cultural effects.
One of the most vehement strands of critique of parental absence has been the exposure of what have been alluded to as the normal pathologies underlying the psychological development of individuals subject to the unyielding authority of the symbolically powerful yet emotionally distant patriarchal father. A host of feminist theorists have questioned the psychoanalytic premise that paternal authority is necessary for the formation of “healthy”’ feminine identities. Rather, the negative impact of the authoritarian father on female development is brought the fore. In this vein, the model of hegemonic heterosexuality implicitly promoted by classical psychoanalysis has itself been called into question as a patriarchal institution that works to suppress the full expression of female sexuality.
More recently, this gendered critique of the orthodox psychoanalytic framework has been applied to a critical evaluation of the psychological deficits of hegemonic masculinity. Indeed, the recognition that the male resolution of the oedipal crisis lays the foundations for acute psychological tensions presents a particularly damning critique of patriarchy as it highlights the hidden costs of dominance for the very men this ideological system purportedly privileges. In particular, my analysis reveals how, in achieving masculine autonomy through rejecting the feminine, patriarchal males are denied access to the psychological vocabulary of love and emotional connectedness that define the maternal sphere. This denial inherently constrains the expression of involved forms of fatherhood in adult life; a forbidden intimacy that would at once provide emotional relief from the inevitable “discontents” of civilization while presenting a painful threat to masculine identity within a patriarchal culture.
While pointing toward the potential benefits of facilitating the enhanced presence of fathers, not least for the psychological well-being of children, the gendered critique of psychoanalytic theory has been rather less actively concerned with reformulating a positive conception of male parenting than unpacking the negative consequences of patriarchal fatherhood. Indeed, for many feminist and masculinities theorists alike, patriarchy and fatherhood can appear so inextricably interlinked that any allusion to the paternal role invariably signifies masculine domination. Moreover, feminist theorists have exercised a deep-seated reticence to considering the inclusion of men within the hitherto feminized domain of parenting and childcare in order to defend women’s superiority and expertise in what has been identified as the one domain of female power in a male-dominated world.
The proliferation of contemporary cultural narratives concerned with the detrimental psychological and social impact of the allegedly alarming increase in “fatherless” families illustrates just how readily discussions of paternal absence can act to reinstate the traditional moral authority of the patriarchal father. Although much of this discourse lies outside the sphere of psychoanalytic theory, there is a distinctive strand of cultural polemic concerned with the pathological impact of “fatherlessness” that is rooted within this intellectual tradition. A unifying feature of this literature is the implicit reinforcement of the Freudian assumption that paternal authority plays a vital role in individual development and, by extension, in the maintenance of the moral order of society. However, as my analysis suggests, attempting to resolve the problem of “fatherlessness” by referring to the distinctive authority of the father is ultimately futile, given that this vision of the paternal role is premised upon the male’s ideological separation from the feminized sphere of childcare that promotes men’s alienation from their children.
Within the clinical literature, there has likewise been an ongoing concern with the damaging consequences of fatherlessness for psychological development. This body of work focuses on the psychological tensions, yearnings, and crises associated with paternal absence, as encapsulated by Herzog’s (1982, 2002) emotive concept of “father hunger.” By virtue of unpacking what are perceived as the wholly negative effects of paternal absence on a child’s emotional well-being, such work also engages with more positive notions of paternal presence that effectively challenge the limitations of the patriarchal model of the authoritarian father. Indeed, the active pursuit of positive concepts of paternal involvement within psychoanalytic practice has amounted to what could be described as a “paternal turn” emanating across the discipline since the mid-1970s.
The concerted effort to bring fathers into psychoanalytic accounts of child development has generated a wide-ranging empirical corrective to counter the traditional invisibility of fathers, based on therapeutic and experimental observation of the influence and qualities of paternal involvement. This close examination has revealed the father’s role to be more multifaceted and actively engaged than the limited authoritarian figure of traditional psychoanalytic theory. Such findings have led to the promotion of multidimensional models of involved fatherhood that are seen both to reflect the actuality of men’s diverse experiences as fathers and to represent a standard of “good enough” parenting to aspire to in face of the problems associated with paternal absence.
Although uncovering the presence of the father within early infant development has fundamental implications for psychoanalytic theory, this critique has yet to be incorporated in any substantial way. Most pertinently within the context of the present discussion, this observational and clinical work points to a complex and interactive picture of pre-oedipal relations, including the identification of the symbiotic qualities assumed to be the exclusive property of the mother-child dyad within early father-child relationships. The need to conceptualize the pre-oedipal father that created such a theoretical void in Freud’s work is thus given empirical weight while casting doubt on his notion of the absolute presence of the pre-oedipal mother.
In this vein, there has also been a slow but growing recognition within the psychoanalytic forum that the hitherto hidden complexity of the paternal role is matched by the empirical diversity of contexts in which men, and indeed women, parent. The ubiquity of the heterosexual matrix that defines the oedipal triad can be directly challenged by the existence of alternative “nontraditional” parenting arrangements, including lone fathers and lone mothers, same-sex couples, and parents who otherwise reverse or break with conventional gender roles, such as fathers who take on a primary nurturing role while their female partners go out to work. Although some of the literature has reinforced the primacy of heterosexuality by focusing on the apparently pathological consequences of divergent family forms, the overarching trend has been toward a growing consensus that it is the quality of parenting that is of primary importance and not the gender or sexuality of the caregiver. Once untied from gender and sexuality, involved parenting is no longer deemed the exclusive property of the biological mother, with the oedipal triad being potentially overturned by a multiplicity of parental relationships that transcend the naturalized roles defined by the traditional nuclear family.
By allowing for the positive presence of the “real father”-and increasingly, of a plurality of “real fathers”—within child development, contemporary psychoanalytic discussions of involved fatherhood present a significant challenge to Freudian notions of the father as an absent authority. However, despite being backed by a wealth of political, cultural, and theoretical challenges to patriarchy, the empirical argument for reformulating male parental involvement has done little to displace the abstract father of psychoanalytic thought. This confrontation with the potency of the symbolic father both demonstrates the resilience of this ideological system and represents the conceptual limits of notions of paternal authority that are ultimately defined through absence.
The diverse critiques of paternal absence filtering through psychoanalytic discourse find resonance with a wider cultural engagement with male parenting. Indeed, as changing patterns of partnership and procreation bring the ideological and empirical dominance of the traditional nuclear family into question, the roles, rights, and responsibilities of fathers have become the focus of intense public scrutiny. The moral panic surrounding the purportedly alarming increase in “fatherless families” stands alongside claims that men are becoming more intimately involved in childcare, as celebrated by the rhetoric of the “new father.” This image of the loving father clearly stands at odds with persistent fears concerning the inexorability of male violence and sexual aggression expressed within the cultural demonization of the abusive father. The apparently contradictory concerns with fostering a willingness to recognize the depth of paternal involvement at a time when the condemnation of fatherless families and “bad dads” is rife finds voice in a wider cultural rhetoric expounding that fatherhood is in a state of “crisis.”
By way of conclusion, I suggest that this cultural crisis can be framed as a visible manifestation of what I have identified as the underlying paradoxes of patriarchy. From this perspective, any attempt to reassert the symbolic authority of the father in face of empirical challenges to this patriarchal ideal will only work to exacerbate the inevitable sense of cultural confusion. In searching for a resolution, my analysis points toward the as yet unrealized radical potential of more enhanced conceptions of paternal intimacy to undermine the deeply gendered structures of patriarchy that continue to haunt the theoretical framework of psychoanalysis. In itself, the very inclusion of the father within the pre-oedipal sphere shatters the structure of the Oedipus complex, breaking down the idealized assumption that the mother-child dyad is an exclusive and asocial relationship. The complex and diverse realities of male parenting demand a visible place within psychoanalytic theory. It is only by giving voice to the complexities of paternal relationships that we can move beyond the paradoxes of patriarchy, in order to forge more realistic understandings of what it means to be a father that are not oppressive to women and children-and nor indeed, to men.
This essay is based on interdisciplinary research on fatherhood undertaken for my doctoral thesis in the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex, UK, funded by studentships from the Fuller Bequest Research Fund and the University of Essex. I thank the late Ian Craib, for provoking me to think about the paradoxes of psychoanalytic theory, and my doctoral supervisor, Leonore Davidoff, for her boundless encouragement in guiding my attempt to resolve some of these contradictions in writing. I also thank my partner, Thomas Nutt, who, as I write, is caring for our baby daughter.