The Myth of the Father Figure
If I was your father, I wouldn’t be there for you, either.
Over the past 60 years, fathers have been acting less like fathers and more like sperm donors. Since 1950, the percentage of children living without their father has increased from 10 percent to 30 percent, a trend that’s been blamed for more societal ills than capitalism.
The men’s movement of the 80s, which created the insufferable 90s male, first capitalized on this rise in father absenteeism. Whenever we felt ineffectual, Robert Bly gave us permission to blame it on our fathers who were too busy rambling to be there for us. Though all we can say for sure is growing up without a father triples your chance of getting a neck tattoo.
Then, as culture has permitted, the 90s male took the complaints a step further. We were told that even if our fathers were physically present, they were psychologically absent. They never communicated with us, or supported us, or encouraged us, or told us they were proud of us. This wanting has left a hole in the modern man, which is why we act like 90s guys.
While father absenteeism, both physical or psychological, seems like a recent anomaly, it’s natural given what the human male is. I’m not saying father absenteeism is acceptable, but I can at least empathize. Kids are a pain in the butt, and half the time you’re unsure if it’s your kid anyway. Then you imagine only having sex with the kid’s mom for the rest of my life, and already your mind is on a beach in Borneo.
I was at a restaurant last week and the kid at the table next to me made a terrible joke about how salt looks like sugar. Children have the worst sense of humor. It’s a mix of Jar Jar Binks and Ellen DeGeneres. Anyway, the kid’s father had to pretend like the joke was funny. But you could see in his eyes he was thinking about strangling the kid right then and there. And who wouldn’t? It’s embarrassing when someone close to you says something stupid.^1 And nobody is closer to you than the people who come out of your testicles.
Popular myths also indicate this ubiquity of the distant father. Being an orphan is a key element in the hero’s journey. The Christian God sent his son away, which is the same thing as leaving, but more aristocratic. It’s the modern equivalent of sending your son to boarding school. Zeus was a narcissist who’s notorious for keeping his sons at arm’s length.
And would the Harry Potter books have had the same impact if Harry played Quidditch with his father every day after school? I doubt it. Even if a boy’s father is present, he still feels the same sense of distance from his father that Harry felt.
Part of the reason why fathers became more absent since World War 2, not because of cultural forces, but because of technological forces. Never had it been easier or cheaper to leave your family. In 1910, if you drove to the gas station to get a pack of cigarettes, you had to come back because the carburetor needed to be rebuilt every 25 miles. A Chevelle could at least make it to the next county. And with the jet airplane, it takes little more than a construction worker’s salary to be in Southeast Asia at a moment’s notice.
The evidence indicates a harsh truth: Fathers never have been our guardians, and they never gave us the answers. Fathers who do guide their sons do it more for themselves—to keep their sons as presentable as possible. Resentment builds as a result. It would be tough to be one of Mitt Romney’s sons. Everything you have is because of your father. Maybe you could have done it on your own, but you’d never know. This creates feelings of dependence that are just as difficult to deal with as an absent father.
Even if your father was a total butthole, at least he was able to donate sperm. If he was a wuss who felt bad about having sex with a drunk chick (your mom) then you wouldn’t even be here. Would you rather not be here? No, of course not. You’re now alive and smart enough to read and understand these words, so you’re smart enough to be your own father.
Besides, the only reason it’s okay to whine about an absent or unsupportive father now is because a group of perpetual adolescents in the 80s saw that women were blaming their problems on everyone else, and they wanted to cash in on the socially acceptable whining, too.
Religion can be dangerous because it teaches people their feelings of benevolence, love, and understanding is something outside of us called God. All goodness we feel must not be part of who we are, but a projection. Men have done the same thing to themselves. We have taught each other that our feelings of an ideal father are not a part of us, but something that died when our fathers skipped town or never hugged us. What was originally a vision of the archetypal father has become a hopeless projection. As long as you compare your father to this hopeless projection, you’ll nitpick him to smithereens, and you’ll always be wanting for something that never did exist.
The result is neither awareness nor empowerment, merely this: The self-fulfilling prophecy that says you need a father figure to be a man will come true.
1. When I’m out with a girl and she tells me she likes Twilight, I look around to make sure nobody else heard her say that.