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August 7, 2022
"There exists in the American family an unmet hunger for the father who is emotionally available and can provide an important masculine role model to serve as an influential guide alongside the strength of an intelligent, nurturing, maternal model."
-- Charlyne Gelt, Ph.D., (PSY22909), M.F.T.

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Father Hunger

by Charlyne Gelt, Ph.D., (PSY22909), M.F.T.

Currently, a hunger for the masculine father figure exists in crisis proportion in the American family -- a hunger for someone who presents as a steadfast, focused, goal-directed and compassionate guide for young males. Parents have become increasingly removed -- both emotionally and physically -- from their families due to the pressures of work, home, heavy mortgages, and in many cases, the conflicting demands of divorce, remarriage and step-parenting.

Basic Needs vs. Material Needs

While more and more couples need to work to meet the basic needs of the family, the crisis I am speaking of has little to do with basic family needs. Rather, I am speaking of the felt pressure to satisfy the family's growing need for material gratification. This drive for monetary gain has resulted in more and more fathers staying away from the house in order to work for things. The strong male protector and guide who functions alongside the strength of an intelligent, nurturing, devoted maternal figure, is missing or often a phantom. Yet, it is the father who molds and influences his son through affection, direction, structure, and involvement. Sadly, a father can also mold and influence his son, negatively, through his absence and disregard.

Prison Warehouses

My deep concern about the need for an emotionally present father comes from my work with families who have someone in prison -- a son, a daughter, or a spouse -- and from trying to help these families work through the trials and tribulations of the court system and the prison system, not to mention the on-going grief of losing a child or spouse to a 6 X 9 cell. To put the problem in more poignant terms, I recently discovered that prison officials in a neighboring state rely on numbers of underachievers in the third grade to project prison construction needs in the future. What does it take to invest, emotionally, in the front end? (Needham, N. 1992. "The Prison Explosion." NEA Today 10 (April) 4-5)

My concern also comes from working with families in which young men are growing up without appropriate boundaries and guidance, without a sense of family values, without a sense of self, and frequently without a father figure to harness and channel that warrior energy and provide a loving, caring masculine identity. Acting out their anger and hostility, these young men have found it "normal" to turn to gangs for a sense of family and identity, to drugs and alcohol to fulfill an emotional hunger, and when all else fails, even to suicide for peace. Men commit suicide at four times the rate of women, and male teenagers are five times more likely to take their own lives than female teenagers.

Too many young men feel powerless, confused, discouraged, and without identity. The fact that prisons are filled with them is telling. These young men count themselves as lost, warehoused there among the many, waiting, their minds and their potential untapped.

In our fast-paced technological society, wants and needs often get confused. The family gets caught up in focusing on achievement and on the acquisition of material goods, leaving little time and energy to tend to the family's emotional needs -- the primary need being the sense that one belongs within the family system. Material objects offer little feedback to the child as to his/her value within that system and no sustenance in times of crises.

Immediate Gratification Junkie

Without a sense of belonging, the emotionally hungry child becomes an immediate gratification junkie who develops into a pseudo-mature adult without a sense of identity. The divine, true self within is drowned in a sea of things, led astray by the Pied Piper god of material goods.

In an agricultural economy, each member of the family was an essential contributor and therefore cooperated in order to meet the family's economic survival needs. Family roles were clearly, though rigidly, defined. One-room schools emphasized cooperative learning, and life and death often depended upon a healthy, respectful balance between man and his natural environment. These factors, emphasized by rituals and celebrations, increased a sense of belonging to a family unit and to a larger community -- a We.

Industrial Shifts

With the onset of the industrial revolution, men left the home and farm to work in factories, bringing with them a shift, a transformation in their traditional roles. The industrial economy focused on the marketplace, on achievement and production goals, which were measured fiscally by comparison to the competition. Educational achievement, too, began to be determined by state guidelines rather than family, tribal or cultural needs. At this point, the personal self -- the I -- started becoming more highly valued than the family unit -- the We. With this shift, men were judged by what they could do and provide rather than by who they were. Thus, work served as a man's major source of identity and self-worth. Men and women both, perhaps influenced further by the media, have been led to believe that the successful man should be fiercely competitive, self-absorbed, and power-oriented. Women who bought into the Myth of Dependency learned to value, and use, a man for what he could provide rather that who he is. Even today, despite women's increasing independence, many women still look to men in terms of their work-drive, measuring their knight's strengths by what they can offer in terms of money and social status rather than who they really are inside.

As psychotherapists, we offer a unique service by helping individuals and families achieve a healthier balance between personal autonomy and family belonging, and between internal and external goals, thereby leading them towards wholeness. We can help them express feelings, gain insights, and give them the tools to make some changes. We can help fathers learn to balance their need to compete in the workplace with their equally important need to be there for their child in order to meet the child's hunger to experience them as a strong presence, and loving guide.

The competing needs of the I and the We, if balanced well, can walk hand in hand.