‘Absent’ Fathers? (book extract by Dr Sebastian Kraemer)

4 June 2005

Excerpt from

Sebastian Kraemer (2005) Narratives of Fathers and Sons: ‘there is no such thing as a father’ in
(Eds) Arlene Vetere and Emilia Dowling, Narrative Therapies with children and their Families: A Practitioners Guide to Concepts and Approaches. London, Brunner/Routledge. ISBN 1-58391-826-4 hb; 1-58391-827-2 pb

Dr Sebastian Kraemer
Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist
Whittington Hospital
London N19 5NF

__________________________________________

In his own mind no child is ‘without a father’. In the absence of a given story he will make up his own. Nowadays fatherlessness is no longer regarded as an automatic disadvantage, nor is it rare. Some women choose to have children without involving the father after conception. Others find single parenthood preferable after trying to collaborate with the father or with another adult male. The findings of social science and developmental psychology show associations between variables, such as single parenthood and social difficulties, but these can be misused to make prescriptive statements about how families should be, or to criticise parents who do things differently, for example raising a child with no word or sight of father. During the last decades of the twentieth century single mothers in Britain and USA became political targets, as if all social problems were their fault. Yet there is statistical evidence to show the benefit of having two involved parents(Cabrera et al 2000), even if they are not together.

Cooperation between parents is more difficult, but probably more important, if they are separated. Although parental separation is usually painful for children most harm occurs when there is unresolved and relentless conflict between them, together or apart (Kelly, 2000; Booth & Amato, 2001). Although they may think that he does not notice it the quality of the parents’ relationship is always a matter of fundamental significance for the child. Careful agreement over contact, education and money is enormously hard work, especially when there are new partnerships, but it is a priceless gift to children when they do not have to feel responsible – like in-house marital therapists – for the way their parents get on with each other.

When the father is rarely or never seen, the child depends on his mother or other relatives to inform him. If a boy with no contact with his father hears from his mother only that he is a bad man (perhaps along with all other men) he will feel that he is descended from someone who not only could not stay at home to care for him but also would not, and therefore does not love him. This, though not necessarily wholly true, is painful and disturbing to the child’s self esteem (as much for a girl as for a boy). If the mother says good things about the absent father, that when they were together there were some good times, and that father loved his baby or his partner, or both, then the child has the chance of a good father in his mind. This requires brave and active mental work on the mother’s part. She may despise him, or feel nothing for him, but it is possible for a mother to make sense of her broken relationship with the father, much as parents can make sense of their own parents’ deficits. A bad father can still be understood, and not just rejected out of hand. The same applies to missing mothers. These are therapeutic tasks (Dowling and Gorell Barnes, 2000).

Excerpt, with permission, from

Sebastian Kraemer (2005) ‘Narratives of Fathers and Sons: ‘there is no such thing as a father’ in (Eds) Arlene Vetere and Emilia Dowling, Narrative Therapies with children and their Families: A Practitioners Guide to Concepts and Approaches London, Brunner/Routledge. ISBN 1-58391-826-4 hb; 1-58391-827-2 pb

REFERENCES
Booth A, Amato P.R. (2001) Parental predivorce relations and offspring postdivorce well-being Journal of Marriage and the Family 63(1): 197-212

Cabrera, N.J., Tamisk-LeMonda, C.S., Bradley, RH,, Hofferth, S., Lamb, M.E. (2000) Fatherhood in the twenty-first century, Child Development 71: 127-136

Dowling, E., Gorrell Barnes, G. (2000) Working with Children and Parents through Separation and Divorce, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Kelly, J.B. (2000) Children’s adjustment in conflicted marriage and divorce: a decade review of research. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 39, 963-973.

Dr Sebastian Kraemer
Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist
Whittington Hospital
London N19 5NF

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