Father Hunger
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
By: Charlyne Gelt, Ph.D.

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 meeting the 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 now 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. 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?

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 that 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 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 today 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, no sustenance in times of crisis.

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 and survival needs. Family roles were clearly 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, creating 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. 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 came to believe that the successful man should be fiercely competitive, self-absorbed, and power-oriented. Even today, despite women’s increasing independence, many still look to men in terms of their work-drive, measuring their knight’s strength by what he can offer in terms of money and social status rather than who they really are.

As psychotherapists, we are given an opportunity to emphasize the importance of both personal automony and family belonging. We can help individuals and families express their feelings, gain insight as to the source of their pain and anxieties, and make some changes, thereby achieving a healthier balance between internal and external goals. We can help them move towards wholeness. We can help father’s balance their important role of being there to fulfill their child’s hunger to experience them as a strong presence with their needs to compete in the workplace. The competing need of the I and a We, if balanced well, can walk hand in hand.

Author : Charlyne Gelt Ph.D.
Charlyne Gelt, Ph.D. practices in Encino and Beverly Hills and works with individuals, couples, families (including families who have a loved one in prison), and groups. You can learn more about Dr. Gelt here on the Find-a-Therapist.com Directory. For more on C. Gelt go to http://www.drgelt.com/.