Some Absent Father’s Day Films for Thought

I would like to bring two movies I saw recently to the attention of the readers of this blog. But first, as a way of introduction, I have been concerned about the status of boys for some time. For several years I wrote and published a newsletter on boys for the community where I live (Santa Fe, NM). Currently I am completing a doctoral dissertation on the subject of the decline of boys. My interest is in the field of depth psychology, and I am doing the doctoral work at the Pacifica Graduate Institute.

About those movies: both concern father hunger and father absence as seen from the point of view of pre-adolescent boys. They are both sad, but well-done films and raise questions about the issue of the fathers’ unavailability and what it means to the boys. In my opinion, the father loss issue is a crucial, perhaps the most important, ingredient in the decline of boys.

One film was The Kid With a Bike. It was made in Belgium and showed, among other things, the ease with which others can exploit father hunger in a young boy. The other film was simply titled Boy. It is from New Zealand and begins with a boy pining away for his imprisoned dad. Much of the experience of the film is about the boy’s coming to understand that his father, once he returns, is not the adult masculine presence that he projected on him when he was away in prison. The disillusionment is heartbreaking; the inner need for the father in both boys is palpable. The two eventually wind up in the care of women (a kind stranger, a grandmother), though the boys must go through a lot of turmoil in accepting this fate which seems to be a loss. However, the women are a relief compared to their clearly inadequate, abandoning fathers.

With Father’s Day at hand, perhaps others on this blog could weigh in with their thoughts about the causes and effects of father absence. For my part, I want to share something about another film which was popular two years ago and dealt with this subject, though the missing father was seldom addressed in relation to the abundant commentary about it. The movie is The Kids Are All Right. It is about a lesbian couple with two teenage children, a boy, 16, and a girl, 18. The children, whose parents are educated, stable, upper middle class women, came into the world with the help of an anonymous sperm donor, and now the boy wants to meet him. Once the meeting takes place, and the “sperm donor dad” and his energy work their way into the family, all kinds of new psychological effects are set lose. The girl begins to explore her sexuality, and the boy stands up for himself to a bullying friend. Both mature and are stronger. The claustrophobic relationship between the two mothers also shows the potential for change. But before that happens, the sperm donor dad is ostracized for having an affair with one of them. Nonetheless, his spell—a sort of randy, masculine energy—is cast on the family, for better or worse. From the point of view of individuation, or psychological growth for the children and the mothers, I would argue that their development was enhanced, in line with the film’s felicitous title.

What I found most interesting about this movie was that even in this father unfriendly (or at best neutral) environment of the movie’s lesbian family, there was a need for the male dad. While in real life the culture seems to be trying hard to either ignore him or turn him into a substitute mother, there is something that I see portrayed in these films about the male father that is called out in the children, and I suspect in the boys especially; in the psyche of a boy he is not so easily replaced by the mother. What are we as a society going to do about this absence which seems to work to the detriment of boys in so many ways?

In closing I want to thank the Boys Initiative for starting this blog. It is badly needed.

Paul Golding

Santa Fe, New Mexico

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8 Responses to Some Absent Father’s Day Films for Thought

  1. Paul, while I think you make some valid points I would argue that successful parenting may be more a function of role modeling and teaching of values than it is of gender. Same-sex parenting is a recent phenomenon, so this is still an open question. I know many same-sex male couples who are raising girls who seem to be flourishing. Similarly, I know of same-sex female couples that are raising boys who appear to be well-adjusted and well on their way to a happy and successful adulthood (exemplified by Zach Wahls, who has written My Two Moms). In all of these cases the parents are attentive and nurturing and are instilling positive values in their children through their own example. It may take generations before we have the answer to my question but it is worth pondering. At the end of the day it may be far more important that children are raised in a loving, committed relationship of two people, regardless of their gender.

    Dennis Barbour

    • Paul Golding says:

      Dear Dennis,

      My main points, which I do not want to see lost in the desire for gender neutrality, is that fathers bring something different to the parental mix than mothers, and that most boys intuit this, and that you can see this in the films I offer as examples. I am certain that many same sex couples raise healthy, happy, prospering children with good values (like the mothers in The Kids are All Right), but that is not the same as to say that father absence—which I maintain is a serious problem related to the main mission of your organization to call attention to the plight of boys–can be ignored. Paul Golding

  2. Mark Sherman says:

    Thinking about the whole issue of father absence, I realize it’s a complex one. On the one hand, there is great concern about it, especially in the minority community. On the other hand, these days many women are opting for single parenthood.

    I personally think the ideal situation is for a child to grow up with two loving parents — meaning they love each other as well as their child — and this has nothing to do with the gender of the parents or their sexual orientation. There are questions about whether a boy (or a girl) absolutely needs an important male in their lives, but I tend to think it could be helpful. As far as how boys are doing in school, for example, the issue of the scarcity of male teachers in elementary school is seen by many as a significant problem.

    • Paul Golding says:

      Dear Mark and Dennis,

      I have been pondering your responses about the importance of fathers. I am most troubled with your weak endorsements of their significance as specifically male parents. I fear that something of my point has been lost in your responses, and so I will make another attempt.

      To address your points: the differences between the father and the mother are separate and apart from whether a parent is loving or not. My point is that psychologically speaking, putting it in archetypal terms, there is a frustration of a different energy that is needed by most boys when the father is not there. This energy, a masculine, father energy, is different from what boys get from a mother. The movies I described show this.

      To provide an example from mythology: before he goes off to fight Achilles in the Trojan War, Hector stops to say what he imagines to be his final goodbye to his son. He takes off his helmet when he sees the boy does not recognize him and is frightened of him. He raises the boy and looks into his eyes and blesses him that he might be a better man than his father. This is a symbol of archetypal blessing that a man gives to his son. It elevates the latter when it takes place within a context of love and understanding.

      From talking to many young men in Santa Fe who are gang members, virtually all of whom were raised without fathers, the absence of that blessing is clearly a key element in what they search for in the gang, at least when they are starting. I believe its absence may also be a factor in why so many other boys, not in gangs, are stuck in their process of growing up.

      Have you not, Mark, felt this in your experience with the sons you wrote about in your introductory note, i.e. the importance of your being a man for them? An equal tragedy to the absence of fathers for sons is the inability of men to be fathers, to know and embrace this role. One sees this also in the movies I mentioned.

      Perhaps this discussion becomes confused because of the background of the negative patriarchy. But it is my contention that the negative patriarchy is not the totality of masculinity, nor is it even all there is to patriarchy. But that is another conversation.

      With best regards,

      Paul Golding
      Santa Fe, NM

  3. Mark Sherman says:

    I certainly believe fathers can be very important in a boy’s growing up, but often they are not around. And to me, the bottom line is how boys turn out. I wouldn’t give a free ride to any father who either physically or emotionally abandons his family, but the fact is that many do, and yet some mothers (and grandparents, aunts, uncles, and older siblings) can often step in and do a great job raising boys. Of course, I do think that, whenever possible, good male role models should be an important part of a boy’s life.

    In my introductory post, I was mainly talking about the problems boys face in America today and asking society to notice this, and to do everything possible to help them with respect to health, happiness, and achievement. I ended with this: “All over the country, there are parents and grandparents of boys who know something is wrong, but because it is not a widely publicized problem, they think it’s just their son or their grandson who is struggling. I hope this blog serves to let such loving family members know that they are not alone, and provides some ways that boys and young men can be helped and encouraged to reach their full potential as caring and achieving members of society.”

    In terms of my role as a father, what has been most important to me is that I have tried to do a better job than my own father did. I learned at lot from him, I’m sure, but my most vivid memories of my father are how scary he was.

  4. Paul Golding says:

    Dear Mark,

    Thank you for your interesting response. I think I am starting to see where we differ. I am saying that the father is necessary and you seem to be saying that a loving parent or substitute is sufficient. Perhaps this relates to our early experiences. For you the father’s presence was too much; for me not enough. I wish my father and his energy were around more instead of leaving me to my mother who was not well “attuned” to my needs. I wish I had a parent who understood me, and I think my father, who knew a thing or two about boys, would have helped. I do think the father is necessary, and father absence is a major cause of the issue we are both concerned about. But we have been there already.

    Have a nice Memorial Day.

    Best regards,

    Paul Golding

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