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Daughters and absent fathers: Triumph, loss and pain.


A recently released report on fatherhood in South Africa indicates that as few as thirty-six percent of children live in the same house as their biological father (HSRC, 2018). In 2014, more than one-point-one million births were registered, of which sixty-four percent had no information on fathers (Fokazi, 2015). This same report suggests that it is black African children who are most implicated in the 'absent father' situation. At face value these statistics and facts are alarming for there is a significant (mostly non-analytic) body of literature highlighting correlations between absent fathers and various developmental shortcomings in the children of such fathers (MacLanahan, Tach & Schneider, 2013). Regarding girls, links between an absent father and psychological development include low self-esteem, poor academic results and teenage pregnancy (Allen & Daly, 2007) as well as problematic partner choice and impaired relationship satisfaction (Nielsen, 2012). In contrast, there is a small but growing body of literature which suggests that the subjective experiences of girls growing up with an absent father may not corroborate the above findings (for example Zulu, 2014).

On the psychoanalytic front, an analysis of database searches using terms such as 'father absence' yields relatively few. In addition, relative to absent father-son theorising, absent father-daughter theorising is under represented (Kieffer, 2008). Moreover, few research studies seem to have simultaneously addressed the subjective experiences of women with absent fathers, as well as the potential impact of this experience from a psychoanalytic perspective. It would seem that the conversation around absent fathers and their daughters, from a psychoanalytic perspective, is far from exhausted.

Because the suggestion is that in South Africa it is predominantly black African children who are impacted by an absent father (HSRC, 2018), this article will thus focus on a small, purposively selected population of black women who grew up without a father, in a predominantly single-mother headed household, recording and interpreting some of their subjective experiences, as well as drawing out clinical implications where appropriate.

Literature review

Absent fathers

Much of the historical literature, both analytic (see, Green, 2009; Ott, 1997; Perelberg, 2009) and non-analytic (see Guardia, Nelson & Lertora, 2014) implicates the absent father in significant developmental problems in the fatherless child. More recently it has been argued that father absence impacts families through the financial, economic and social consequences of his absence. Indeed, in addition to often having fewer economic resources, single mothers frequently have fewer emotional resources upon which to rely, due not only to the absence of a co-parent, but also the social isolation which often accompanies single mother parenting (Richter & Morrell, 2006; Taylor & Conger, 2017). The stress inherent in such a situation often leaves the mother susceptible to emotional distress with the concomitant disruptions to parenting and negative consequences for children (Taylor & Conger, 2017). These same authors also suggest that both perceived social support and the internal resilience (optimism, self efficacy and self-esteem) of the single mother are important factors contributing to the psychological well-being of the single mother and hence her children's.

Contemporary research suggests that the presence of a 'social father' (HSRC, 2018, p. 4) may mitigate the potential negative burdens of the absent father. In South Africa, with its high levels of father absenteeism, the social father is a common phenomenon (Holborne & Eddy, 2011). The idea is that the social father, an ascribed as opposed to an attained status, for maternal and paternal uncles, grandfathers, older brothers and mothers' (male) partners, 'singly or collectively provide for children's livelihood and education and give them paternal love and guidance' (Makusha in HSRC, 2018, p. 19), thereby potentially ameliorating negative effects arising from the absence of the biological father. There is thus a contemporary recognition that the person fulfilling the paternal function (1) may not always be the child's biological father, and that the absence of the biological father does not necessarily imply the absence of paternal functioning.

The above ideas suggest that being raised in a single mother headed household does not necessarily equate to a negative outcome. Wilson, Henrikson, Bustamante and Irby's (2016) phenomenological study support this through examining the positive influence of resilient single mothers on successful child rearing.

The paternal function

From a more psychoanalytic perspective, several paternal functions have been identified as crucial for healthy psychic development. These include, amongst others, the separating function, facilitation of psychic triangular structure, and the provision of a port of psychic safety (Davies & Eagle, 2013). In traditional psychoanalytic literature, the father's role as 'separator' of the mother-infant dyad has been at the forefront of discussion implicating the paternal function (Diamond, 2017). This separating function serves to re-establish the former mother-father relationship as well as instantiate the father-daughter relationship.

Britton (1989; 2004) has written in some detail about the importance of the paternal functionary in providing the necessary third vertex to allow internalisation of triangular space/relationships and the impact on consequent relating. The importance of this internal triangular structure has also been identified as necessary for the optimal development of the capacity to mentalise (Target & Fonagy, 2002), a capacity which, in turn, also impacts successful relating.

The idea of a port of psychic safety relates to providing the child with a 'port' to which to flee, either physically or psychically, when the 'turbulent waters' of the mother-child relationship feel unmanageable. This 'fleeing' can be both practical, as in seeking out the physical comfort of the paternal functionary, as well as symbolic in the sense of drawing internal comfort from the knowledge of the safety and support of this alternate attachment figure. The paternal functionary can also be used as a receptacle into which all the badness of the mother-daughter relationship can be projected, thus keeping the mother-daughter relationship psychically safe (Davies & Eagle, 2013).

Paternal functioning and gender

As alluded to earlier, the debate around the importance of the father has extended into examining the gendered aspects of the paternal function. With the father traditionally carrying out the paternal function, there has been an historical conflation of the role of the father and the paternal function. More recently, however, this conflation has been questioned through an interrogation of the important characteristic that the second parent brings to the developing psyche--maleness, masculinity and/or thirdness. Harris (2008), looking through the lens of gender as softly assembled, and parental functions as potentially gender agnostic, suggests that many of the psychic and intersubjective functions required for healthy psychic development may be a function of other (non-gender related) features of character, such as thirdness. In similar vein, Samuels (1995, p. 101) coins the concept of 'the good enough father of whatever sex' and argues that the gender of the second parent is largely irrelevant, thirdness being the essential characteristic. There are those who suggest that even thirdness may be unnecessary, as in the case of the separating function where both the healthy mother and baby are both biologically wired to separate out and seek relationships additional to the mother-infant dyad (Rottman, 1980). Harris (2008) suggests that as parental functions such as containment and separation become dislocated from gender, the importance of the generational difference in child rearing, rather than gender difference, will be highlighted.

The importance of this argument is that, akin to the idea of the social father discussed earlier, an absent father does not then necessarily equate to the absence of the paternal function.

The present but odious father

The general literature regarding the father has, at times, tended to idealise the father and his presence (see Johannes, 2018 and Nwachukwa, 2016, for a discussion of this in the non-psychoanalytic literature, and Harris, 2008, for a discussion pertinent to the psychoanalytic literature). In the South African context where intimate and domestic violence is prevalent, and often unidirectional, man against woman (Jewkes, 2002), there are also shockingly high rates of abuse of children by men (Richter & Dawes, 2008), thus it is important to bear in mind that the presence of a father is not invariably conducive to healthy development (Eddy, Thomson-de Boor & Mphaka, 2013; Jaffee, Moffitt, Caspi, & Taylor, 2003).

Father hunger

Herzog (1980) initially coined the term 'father hunger' in the context of his work with little boys experiencing night terrors which were ascribed to the absent father and the concomitant absence of someone to help the little boys modulate their aggression. Several authors have taken up this idea in the context of little girls. Elise (1998), for example, refers to the experience of the girl with an absent father, suggesting that 'she may register this absence of the object as an internal, bodily sense of being empty' (p. 413). Garfield (2004) suggests that the girl's father hunger is 'a longing' (p. 38) for a close, caretaking and collaborative relationship with her biological father. In the absence of such a relationship, a girl may express her father hunger in an idealisation of her father and other men, and/or in contempt and denigration of men in general (Garfield, 2004).

The psychoanalytic literature tends to view fathers of daughters primarily as libidinal objects, as protectors and rescuers from the mother (Bernstein, as cited in Zanardi, 1990). Moreover, and contrary to their relationships with their sons, fathers do not seem able to offer themselves up as objects of identification for their daughters (Bernstein, as cited in Zanardi, 1990). What is the consequence of a weak or absent identification with the father?

Benjamin (1991) addresses this in her alternate interpretation of the metaphor of penis envy as a father hunger, in which she suggests that the little girl both hungers for, and psychologically needs, 'a close identificatory bond with her father' (p. 291). The suggestion is that the girl needs 'to identify with the father as the figure of separation from the pre-oedipal mother' (Benjamin, 1991, p. 280). In the case of his absence and the consequent lack of a paternal validation of her competence and potency, the little girl develops a desire for the phallus which represents power independent of the mother, as well as a kick start to her sense of self as powerful and agentic. Benjamin also suggests that at this stage of the child's development, the child develops wants (as opposed to needs), and in each expression of a want, there is a longing to be recognised as someone with her own desires. The father, because of his association with the exciting outside world beyond maternal power, becomes symbolically associated with the recognition of independence, and the recognition of the child as a subject of desire (Benjamin, 1991). When the father is unavailable, 'penis envy' is the symbolic expression of the girl's 'father hunger', her longing for him as an identificatory figure in which she can locate her recognition of her own independence and autonomy (Benjamin, 1991).

More contemporary theorists have elaborated on this idea. Kristeva (2009, p. 11) describes the father's 'cathexis/recognition function,' a function through which, ideally, the child comes to be loved into existence. As Diamond (2017, p. 319) puts it, 'by recognising me, the loving authority of the father allows me to exist'. Diamond (2017) further draws our attention to the idea that, at birth, the new born has an implicit knowledge of the potential love of the father--'Every new born can receive the implicit paternal communication that s/he is recognised and loved not as part of the mother, but as a unique being' (p. 319).

Both of these theorists' phrasing might be thought of as suggesting something akin to a biological or evolutionary need for, knowledge of, a space to be filled by, 'a father's love', and that in the absence of a father's love, or certainly the subjective experience of such a love, something fails to materialise in the child's psyche and this experience is the foundation of father huger.

Garfield (2004), drawing on the earlier work of Tessman (1982), describes two types of excitement the little girl feels in her relationship with her father, namely endeavour excitement (eventuating in autonomy and individuation) and erotic excitement. The former, Garfield (2004) suggests, is not gendered, but is rather a result of the daughter watching an interested and affectionate paternal functionary (not necessarily her father) engaging the world outside of the mother in different ways. This endeavour excitement continues through the life stages of the daughter and is strengthened by the continuous acceptance and valuing of the girl's interest and competence in her work and hobbies, by this paternal functionary.

Erotic excitement on the other hand, when the father is present, manifests in a wish to both give and receive love. Ideally, the father responds to this genital, erotic and oedipal stirring, through accepting and appreciating his daughter's erotic excitement, and consequently desexualising it, converting it from a potentially scary internal state to a shared 'being with' or 'doing with' her father (Garfield, 2004, p. 41). The unique contribution of the father's is in accepting and validating his daughter in her entirety--accepting her femininity, sexuality, potency and competence.

Returning briefly to the relationship between father presence and his daughter's capacity for intimate, romantic relating, both Benjamin (1991) and Garfield (2004) suggest that this fatherly absence may have unhelpful implications for later romantic relationships. Benjamin (1991) suggests that the girl often chooses a narcissistic partner, as she fails to locate a powerfulness in herself and has to associate with what she believes is power in another. Garfield (2004) suggests that the object of choice becomes an idealised father figure in the form of a 'sugar daddy' (p. 41) who will elevate her life in some way.

This brief review has highlighted those functions understood or presumed to be performed by the father, and some of the possible outcomes if they are not fulfilled, with the focus on the girl child. Such outcomes included academic performance, self-confidence, relational struggles as well as father hunger. The review also briefly explored the possibility that aspects of the paternal function might be met by the mother herself, or by another person. In the South African context, the social father is often such a person. The tension that this possibility then creates is reflected in the review which points to a body of literature suggesting correlations between absent fathers and significant psychological difficulties, as well as another body of literature which suggests children report stable and 'normal' upbringings despite the absence. Both these bodies of literature appear to be largely quantitatively based. The current article aims to contribute to the debate through qualitative research, giving voice to the subjective experiences of those most impacted, the daughters of absent fathers themselves.



Purposive and snowballing sampling was undertaken as participant selection tools since the topic of this study related specifically to adult women who self-selected as growing up with an absent father. As noted by Padi, Nduna, Khunou and Kholopane (2014), the term 'absent father' is one which is used widely with an assumed concurrence of what is to be understood by it, when this is indeed not the case. In the South African context, non-present fathers may be more nuancedly described as any of absent, unknown, imprisoned or undisclosed (Padi et al., 2014). These authors argue for the importance of distinguishing these various categories, suggesting that a failure to do so may result in problematic research in that outcomes may differ based on the cause of the absent father. While bearing this in mind, it was felt that for this particular study what was important was the participants' experience of being raised in a single-mother headed household rather than an emphasis on how that status had come about.

Seven black South African resident women living in the larger Johannesburg area, aged between nineteen and twenty-five years, who satisfied the selection criteria were interviewed. The participant group included women who had lost their fathers through death, divorce or abandonment. The selection criteria did not specify an age before which the father became absent in the participant's experience and the participant group included women who had never known their father, had lost him within the first few years of life, or had lost him during their latency period. A few participants had intermittent contact with their father after he became 'absent'. The table below indicates some pertinent data for the participants.
Table 1: Participant demographics

#  Participant  Age  Father status
   name (2)

1  Amare        23   Divorced around 3-4 years old
2  Kwame        22   Death when 10 years old
3  Jafari       21   Divorced while infant
   Sabra        22   Divorced at around age 10, in and
4                    out between the ages of 10-14 years
5  Kalifa       24   Abandonment, some contact during
                     adolescence (15-18 years)
                     Biological father abandonment
6  Lulu         19   (approximately 9 months old), step
                     father divorced (11 years)
                     Abandonment by biological father
                     (1-2 years old)

A final important characteristic of the participant group was that all participants self-identified as heterosexual. This was not a selection criterion for the research.

Data collection

Data was collected through the use of semi structured interviews. The schedule of open ended questions was drawn up based upon ideas elucidated in the literature as well as other questions devised by the authors hoping to shed light on the personal experience of growing up in a single mother headed household. Examples of the kinds of questions asked included: 1) How do you think the absence of your father has potentially impacted you growing up over the years? and 2) What are some of the challenges you faced in having a single mother?

As is standard practice in this type of research, questions were not asked in a rigid, predefined order, rather the order being a function of the direction the conversation with the participant took. Additionally, non-scheduled questions aimed at encouraging a deeper elucidation of answers or which diverged in order to pursue an idea or response in more detail were also asked (Britten, 1999).

Verbatim transcription of the interviews, including the noting of any shifting body language and voice tone, was done by the first author. Participants gave informed consent for the second author to have access to the anonymised, transcribed interview material, thus allowing for an independent evaluator. Ethical clearance was provided by the University of the Witwatersrand's Research Ethics Committee.

Data analysis

The participants' interviews were analysed using interpretive thematic analysis, from an object relations perspective. The conceptual framework of the interpretive thematic analysis for the interviews was mainly built upon the theoretical positions of Braun and Clarke (2006). This method encourages a number of steps. The first was familiarisation with the raw data (transcribed interviews) and the noting of any initial, relevant associations. This was followed by the identification of any features of the data that appeared interesting and meaningful in the context of the research question and the subsequent gathering or separating of these features into themes (Braun & Clarke, 2006). In particular, attention was paid to both latent and semantic level content that related to affect and feelings towards a father figure. While Braun and Clarke (2006) suggest that generally one or other of these is the focus, it was felt that there were important interlinking themes at both levels. Regarding latent content, attention was paid to tracking paternal related object relations with the intention of identifying unconscious processes, self and object representations as well as relationship representations (Cartwright, 2004).

Themes were identified using both a top down (deductive) and bottom up (inductive) approach (Braun & Clarke, 2006). This identification of themes was carried out independently by both authors and common themes were identified and jointly named, based on the essence of the material comprising the themes, with the aim of the theme name encapsulating an experience of being raised with an absent father. This was followed by a reviewing of the themes by the authors, jointly agreeing that there was sufficient data to support any interpretations made (Braun & Clarke, 2006).

Findings and discussion

In interpreting the data, it appeared that the reflections and thoughts shared by the participants regarding their experience of an absent father seemed to naturally coalesce around three themes, namely: loss--developmental implications; triumphing--in spite of; and father hunger--the pain and longing.

We consider each theme in turn, reflecting on how the material and interpretations from the interview data compares and contrasts with the extant literature. In particular, attention will focus on the degree to which the interview data supports the contention in some of the general literature linking paternal absence with negative outcomes.

Theme 1: Loss--developmental implications

While the participants had notably characterised their childhoods and upbringing as 'normal' as will be seen in the second theme, most of them were able to articulate areas where they felt aware of a negative consequence of paternal absence. In particular they reflected on the loss of a port of psychic safety, a separating functionary, an internal template for romantic, sexual intimacy, as well as the loss of a source of relational guidance.

Port of psychic safety or alternate attachment figure

More than half of the participants identified the absence of a port of psychic safety, that alternate attachment figure to whom one can flee when the mother-child relationship feels unsafe, as a cost of having an absent father.

In the extracts below participants reflect on a longing for a paternal figure to have filled this function:
... like just be there for us cause you know sometimes with both
parents if you don't get along with your mum, say you have a fight with
your mum obviously your dad maybe, your dad is going to step
in...because you're not mad at your dad, he's gonna show you the
reasons...[...]... so maybe if he was there he would do the
same... when I didn't get along with my mum or something. (Jafari)

... my mum when he left, because now I did not have my cool dad and
when my mother was stressing me I would run to my father. (Sabra)

I think just not having another person there was difficult cause you
know human people are emotional beings so their partners usually level
them out, they speak about certain things, they grow in a certain way,
they change decisions and what not, so if my mother is being
unreasonable and she's being emotional, that's it, there's nobody there
that's going to calm her down. (Lulu)

While this particular paternal function is often highlighted as important in early development, the above quotations indicate that its absence in adolescence was sorely felt by these women. Clinical importance might thus relate to an awareness on the part of the therapist of an increased potential for strain on the mother-daughter relationship in the absence of a paternal functionary who might provide containment and/or safe refuge for the daughter (and possibly the mother).

Separating function

Participants also highlighted the separating function as being incompletely fulfilled in the absence of their fathers with allusions to complex matters of distance and proximity in their relationships with their mothers. In several participant reflections mothers were perceived as being over-protective, somewhat intrusive, or overly involved in the participant's life.
I think there is a bit too much involvement at times, she's very
interested in what I am doing in my life and I also, there was a point
where I felt like I had a right to know what was going on in her life
and I... you have own separate lives and relationships with people and
there was a point where... and she mentioned that she has created this
relationship between us that I am forgetting that mother-daughter
boundary and I expected to know who she was out with and all of that,
that's something I had to wrap my head around. (Sabra)

... it's a thing of she will know where I am, she knows what I am
doing, I always have to be in communication with her, tell here where I
am, how long I will be... if I will be home late. She wants to be like
my phone, she's like my phone! (Lulu)

... she wants to be my best friend and I'm always like 'leave me alone,
we are not friends you are my mother'. (Imani)

The complexity of separateness is evident in these quotations where the first reflects on how, in the absence of the separating function, the daughter may persist with a closeness to her mother, a proximity that leaves the latter uncomfortable, and in the case of Sabra sees her mother exhorting her (Sabra) to be more aware of the generational boundary. In contrast, in the cases of Lulu and Imani, it is they who feel that their mothers have remained too close to them, and in the absence of their fathers, their mothers have persisted in their closeness to their daughters, potentially handicapping the latter's bid for independence. Indeed it is Imani who pleads with her mother to respect the generational boundary. It is interesting, however, that immediately after this appeal, Imani laughingly states:
... but at the same time in some ways I would say that she is my
closest friend of course. (Imani)

This caveat of Imani's perhaps highlights the nuances of her struggle to negotiate both distance and closeness with her mother. She might be saying that she wishes for a friendship of sorts with her mother, but a friendship that is subtly different from one with her peers and involves both a maternal closeness but not a maternal dependence as might be evident in a spousal relationship.

In the discussion of the theme to come, the possible protective factors associated with the presence of other males and 'social fathers' (Bzostek, 2008; HSRC, 2018) in the family is highlighted. In the context of Imani's reflections it is germane to note here that this participant shared thus regarding paternal influence in her upbringing:
And my mum's brothers, her brothers... like I've had a lot of male
figures in my life that I didn't really.. I don't feel like I missed
out on anything. (Imani)

The relevance of this contextualisation by this participant seems to speak to something about the separating capacity inherent in the father as compared with other present (male) figures. For Imani, the presence of social fathers in her environment did not preclude her from having to struggle with issues of separateness with her mother. The question might then be asked whether the biological father, when emotionally present, is more likely to have a particular inherent investment in his daughter's (child's) separation from the maternal figure, that other men, including social fathers, might not have, an investment which propels him to encourage separation in a way that might not be that potent in a third who is not the father? Again, posing this clinically relevant question is not to say that every biological father acts on this inherent investment if it is indeed there. It is also not to say that a step-parent might not also be able to enable separation through a dedicated commitment to that task, a dedication that is more than simply being a present third.

Parallel to the separating function, the father or paternal functionary has also been implicated in the development of the capacity to engage in intimate relationships. This is the focus of the next subtheme.

Fathers and intimate relationships

There was significant discussion in the interviews highlighting participants' experiences of struggling to relate romantically and intimately, with two variants on this theme being observed.

For those participants who lost a father early on in life, say before age four, (Imani, Lulu, Jafari, Amare), reflections tended to focus on the absence of an internalised model, or 'prototype' as Freud called it (Freud, 1905, p. 228):
... and ultimately how your father treats your mother, that's the first
relationship you see so that's kinda what you think of men. (Amare)

... I would just stand there I crawl into myself cause I don't know
what to do, somebody would do something and I would just act a certain
way, I didn't know how to respond [to this] type of thing in terms of
presence, it [physical intimacy] wasn't something that I was used to.

I'm lacking in that I'm still... still to this day learning how to
create positive relationships with men. (Imani)

In contrast, those participants who lost contact with their father later in life, (ten years and older) (Kwame, Sabra, Kalifa) reflected more on the loss of an (external) father they could seek guidance from about their relationships, rather than the loss of an (internal) model.
I think the father is always the first one I would go to to ask for
advice like what sort of guys should I look out for and what sort of
guys should I keep as friends for future reference and all, yeah I
think father figures are there for... mainly for that reason because
you know as a woman, you think as a woman, as a man you think as a man,
so yeah. (Kwame)
... yes how to relate to them maybe going getting advice about men, I
didn't have that. (Sabra)

In the literature it is suggested that one of the functions performed by a social father is the provision of paternal guidance (Makusha, 2013). The reflections of the two participants above highlight how, for them, social fathers were unable to fulfill this ostensibly paternal function. Certainly during her interview Sabra failed to allude to the presence of a social father in her life. The juxtaposition of these two contexts indicates that a social father might not always be present, and even if one is, as was the case with Imani, there may remain a deficit in the provision of a function, a biological father may have traditionally performed.

Looking at the bigger picture of all of the above five reflections (those who lost their father early, and those who lost him later in life) the differential reflection on intimate relationships is of clinical interest. Indeed it highlights the possible presentation in the clinical setting of nuanced differences in psychic development arising as a function of the age at which the girl 'lost' her father, and informs the consequent level of therapeutic intervention. Based on the reflections of these participants, losing a father pre-oedipally might mean the clinical work focusing more on building internal psychic structure. For example, the pre-oedipal paternal function is implicated in, amongst other matters, the capacity to tolerate thirdness (Davies & Eagle, 2013). On the contrary, for women who lost their father post-Oedipus, the reflections of the participants in this research suggest the work may be weighted towards mourning the absence of the actual father person, rather than building psychic structure.

Theme 2: Triumphing--In spite of

Absent fathers do not necessarily lead to negative outcomes

While much of the literature highlights potential struggles and adverse effects of an absent father (see the brief discussion in the literature review) six of the seven research participants portrayed their childhood experience as not out of the ordinary:
It [childhood] was fine... I mean we had everything we needed and
wanted so... I don't know, [his absence] did not make much of
difference. (Amare)

It was ok. I lived a good childhood. I don't think there was anything I
was restricted from. (Kwame)

... it's fun. [...] but growing up with a single mum, I wouldn't say
it's bad cause I learnt a lot from that. (Jafari)

It was normal. (Kalifa, Lulu)

It was great! People always find that funny, but I always say I had the
absolute best childhood. Absolute. (Imani)

Taken at face value (keeping in mind that defences may be at play) this may be significant in that it potentially highlights an alternative outcome to the traditional, more negative one attributed to paternal absence. These reflections appear to correspond with other research on successful child rearing by single mothers (see Wilson et al., 2016).

Additionally, while research indicates that society perceives single mother headed households as 'damaged' or lacking' (Nash, 1999), the reflections of Amare and Kwame's above directly dispute this characterisation of lack and damage. Extracts from other participants might be interpreted as also indirectly doing so.

Contrary to the literature which links absent fathers with poorer academic qualifications (see Qureshi & Ahmad, 2014; Vandamme & Schwartz, 1985), it is notable that all participants had achieved university entrance and that five of the seven had gone on to achieve graduate status, with two pursuing post graduate studies. Again, while this participant group is too small to be generalisable in any way, this information does emphasise that the link between an absent father and poor academic qualifications is not an inevitable.

Therefore, the question that could be posed regarding these particular participants, would be 'what might these apparent contradictions (stable childhood, academic success) be ascribed to?' As noted, the participants have felt sense of having a good/normal/stable childhood despite their absent fathers. Based on their interview data, they seem to attribute this to the psychological health and resilience of their mothers. These reflections are now discussed.

Mothers' resilience as protective

All of the participants portrayed their mothers as robust, tenacious, reliable and strong.
I thought she was amazing and I still do actually, I mean she went over
and above, you know what I mean... for having four kids and doing it
all on your own, my mum was the mum that would go to all our netball
matches, our debating things at school. She helped at the tuck shop,
she had a job, she was a mum, you know what I mean? (Amare)

I appreciated her more...umm just as an individual, I think she is a
very strong woman, she went through all of that, she took care of all
of us... umm and she stayed [laughs] that was that and she's always
been around. (Sabra)

She was everything... (Lulu)

The emotive language ('amazing', 'she was everything') used by participants in describing their mothers is noteworthy for it may alert us to their mothers being more than just a physical strength in the daughter's life, but also a potentially positive person with whom to identify and internalise. Kalifa might be referring to such an identification and internalisation of resilience, for example, when she reflects:
... like if you see your mum one day crying and like feeling so
helpless and the next day she's making money any way and how she can
... you may not appreciate it when you are a ten-year old kid, but when
you are twenty-one and you think about how she was paying school fees
to get you out of that school, it will motivate you to get her out of
that situation. (Kalifa)

Many studies (see Green, 2009; Guardia, Nelson & Lertora, 2014; Ott, 1997; Perelberg, 2009) suggest that a correlation between absent fathers and various (psychological, emotional) deficits in the children, can potentially lead to a negative narrative around the single mother headed household, portraying such a family as without strength, agency and potential. Kalifa alludes to the danger of identifying with such a narrative:
You're falling into that thing [social narrative]...[...]... That's
why I said...[...]... there are people that just want to stay in that
narrative and want to be that person...[...]... Yeah people get away
with pity, being pitied and they get help from society, they get help
from family. But I don't think falling into that narrative raises
stronger children. (Kalifa)

Participants also referred to their mother's ability and willingness to eschew the social narrative of impairment, seize the phallus, if you will, and take on multiple roles and functions for them. The extract from Jafari below literally puts into words that potency and agency is not necessarily the privilege of the father:
... because with my mum I saw that as a woman you don't really need a
man, cause she has three kids so she managed to raise her all on her
own without depending on anyone so that taught me you don't really need
a man in your life, you can do everything on your own so I basically
learnt like independence from her and that if life knocks you down you
can get back up and everything. I feel like am strong today because of
her, I learnt from her. (Jafari)

Lulu comments on her experience of her mother plaiting together the maternal (affectionate) and the paternal (strong, a breadwinner, and the one encouraging the love affair with the world--'taking us out'):
She is everything... a mother and father... very affectionate but
strong also... umm after he left, she started working again, she was
the breadwinner, the one who would take us out... yeah she became it
[everything]. (Lulu)

This might be viewed in line with the literature (see Davies & Eagle, 2013) discussed earlier which suggests that aspects of the paternal function (and the maternal function) might well be gender invariant. In particular, these participants' reflections intimate that if a single mother has the capacity in terms of psychology, energy and time, she may well be able to fulfil certain psychological functions traditionally attributed to the father.

For Lulu this recognition of a masculine and feminine in her mother appears to have encouraged an introjection or development of, what might be termed a 'masculine' aspect:
I mean after a while, I have a common thing that I say, when I
accomplish things and its probably things that are... lets say its
physically asserting, a male... it would be easier for him to do this
job, we in school... I knocked down shelves and what not... I climb
walls and use hammers, that I finish and am tired and am sweaty and am
like who needs a man right? (Lulu)

Several of the participants said that they felt they were 'stronger' women because of their experience of having an absent father. Kalifa overtly links this sense of being stronger, more capable, to her mother's example:
I think it's made me less naive. I think it's made me stronger. I face
things a lot more now. And I'm more able to handle difficult times.
Like to problem solve and find solutions rather than... go and cry
away, because she [Kalifa's mother] didn't do that you know... I've
learnt to figure things out alone. (Kalifa)

The participants' reflections on their mothers' strength and resilience as a protective factor in growing up in a single mother headed household dovetail with ideas of Taylor and Conger (2017), discussed in the literature review, which link this maternal resilience with positive parenting behaviours. However, while the interviews suggest that these participants experienced their strong and resilient maternal figures as playing an important role in ameliorating the negative outcome of an absent father. Six out the seven stated that other, male, family members such as older brothers, uncles or grandparents were experienced as filling, in some way, the paternal position left by the absent father. This seems to confirm the logic which suggests that the more ameliorating factors are present (social fathers as well as strong and resilient mothers), the higher chance of a more positive outcome.

Alternate paternal functionaries (social fathers)

As discussed in the literature review, the concept of the social father, a male who takes on some of the responsibility and role of being a father to a child, but who is not the biological male parent of the child (HSRC, 2018), has recently come to the fore and it was certainly present in the conversations with the participants in this study.

In the quote below, Amare goes so far as to suggest that the biological father is not the only potential father figure, and goes on to highlight one area in which her brother performed what she believed was a paternal function, namely the provision of financial assistance:
... so with our uncles and things like that so as much as we have not
our father in our lives, we have always had father figures around.
Whether it is my uncle, like my brother, my brother way older than me
...[...]... and he started working when I was in High school so he
would help financially and things like that. (Amare)

With reference to a father's role in promoting healthy intimate relationships and providing relationship advice, Kwame felt that, in the absence of her father, all was not lost as one of her maternal uncles was able to add value in this area:
... mainly my uncle, my mum's elder brother cause he's the one whenever
we'd meet, it would just be randomly sit down and tell us hey if you
were to meet a guy this is... You do one, two, three, four. (Kwame)

Imani's contributes her experience of her grandfather filling the paternal functionary role, and in particular, having a sense of what might be thought of as a necessary male presence in her life:
But it wasn't ever that I wanted a dad... yeah. Cause I had that, my
grandfather before he passed away he was practically... he was my...
he was my father figure. And my mum's brothers, his brothers... like
I've had a lot of male figures in my life that I didn't really... I
don't feel like I missed out on anything (Imani)

Interestingly, when encouraged to elucidate, Imani adjoined a notable caveat:
When I say father figure, I mean that... I would say... I don't feel
like any of them taught me anything that my mum hadn't already. I don't
feel like they've contributed to... they haven't contributed in way
that my mum hadn't already. (Imani)

The juxtaposition of these two seemingly contradictory reflections is notable in that they potentially highlight an ambivalence in Imani's feelings around the value that a father figure, or male figures, might bring to her life. It is useful to recall what Imani reflected around intimate relationships. She remarked:
I'm lacking in that I'm still... still to this day learning how to
create positive relationships with men. (Imani)

It is possible that Imani feels that the lack of an internalised relational prototype, alongside her stated ambivalence around the value of men, impacts negatively on her felt ability to form positive relationships with men. This complexity evident in Imani's reflections might point to another dimension to her father's absence, alongside the triumphing, namely the hurt which brings us to the third and final theme.

Theme 3: Father hunger--The pain and longing

As was highlighted in the literature review, several authors including Garfield (2004), Elise (1998) and Benjamin (1991), have posited ideas around the importance of the emotional presence and involvement of the father and the various possible consequences of this absence for the daughter. In the material emanating from the interviews, there were strong allusions to a father hunger, some direct, and some more defended. In the four extracts below there is a direct allusion to either a longing for, or the ache of having missed out on, an experience of having a father:
... when you see people with their fathers or when they speak about
them, then you will be like 'hmmm no okay I wish I had this. (Amare)

... obviously you feel those times when its Father's Day or something
[...] just like you know in school when they have those events of your
father-daughter this and the races and all this, of course you know I
missed out on that. (Kwame)

I tried to build a relationship, I was the one who would always call
him, check up on him and whatever whatever--he wasn't really
interested. (Jafari)

I go there [to her father's residence] with this idea of now starting
to forge a relationship with him and I can finally be Daddy's Little
Girl. (Lulu)

The 'longing' that Garfield (2004) refers to in her discussion of father hunger seems to be manifest in Lulu's narrative as she talks of her hope that she might finally be 'Daddy's little girl'. This hope was again apparent later in the interview when Lulu further reflected
... there will always be like, there will forever be this slight hope
just like at the back of the corner of my mind, you're not going to
wish for but it, it'll just be there if it happened you don't mind,
that a father will just be there... but you don't dwell about it, you
don't think on it... (Lulu)

Imani reflected on a similar longing for a bountiful father:
... I was like maybe he'll come and he'll buy me a car... Or you know,
he'll give me extra pocket money because he feels so bad about leaving
me all these years (Imani).

While this reflection of Imani refers to on a surface level, concrete in cars and money, it surely more symbolically refers to her longing for her father to love her and perhaps repent for having not loved her.

The extracts from Amari, Kwame and Imani above are important for while all three expressed their longing for their biological fathers, at other points in their interviews, and detailed elsewhere in this article, they all alluded to their social fathers having practically stepped into the breach left by their absent father. However, while other male figures may provide financially (as per Amari), give relational advice (Kwame), and provide a male presence (Imani), Imani still reflected 'they haven't contributed in a way that my mum hadn't already'. This does not imply that the men, referenced by these three participants may not have done very important and useful practical things for these women in the mother's unavailability or practical inability, but rather that a unique emotional 'father-daughter' experience appears to potentially remain absent. What might be manifesting in these women's reflections is that, contrary to Makusha's (2013) findings, the social fathers they refer to failed to provide an experience for these participants of being emotionally fathered, and there is perhaps, again for these particular participants, something uniquely singular about the experience of being loved by one's biological father.

Wrapping up this theme, the dependency evident in Imani's reflection, and the desire of Lulu to be 'Daddy's little girl', arguably evokes the image of little girls with their idealised fathers. As so often happens, devaluation follows defensively in the wake of idealisation, protecting against the pain of the loss of the loved, idealised object.

Indeed while Jafari, Lulu and Imani all revealed a deep father hunger at points in their interviews, as the extracts above indicate, a seeming rejection of their fathers and of men in general was also voiced:
I saw that as a woman you don't really need a man. (Jafari)
Who needs a man, right? I had dubbed him as the sperm donor that's what
I call him, there was no use of the father word. None. (Lulu)
... But it wasn't ever that I wanted a dad. (Imani)

Clinical implications

In discussing implications for clinical practice, the size of the participant group renders such implications, tentative at best, and again additional clinical research would be helpful. That said, what did appear to be of clinical interest was the differences in this particular group regarding how participants viewed their romantic relational difficulties. Indeed, those who lost their fathers before the age of two referenced problems related to early triangulation and the internalisation of triangular space. Those women who lost their fathers after the age of two seemed to comment more on the loss of an external figure to whom one might seek relational guidance. This might suggest that clinicians need pay attention to the age at which the father is lost and possibly intervening differently for these different stages.

Perhaps more obvious but still of relevance to the clinical context is the struggle raised by several of the participants around separating out from their mothers in the absence of a paternal figure. In line with the two scenarios raised by participants, clinical interventions in this regard might be aimed at encouraging the daughter's independence, or helping the daughter manage a mother who is felt to have 'held on' to her daughter too long.


This study points to the potential complexity inherent in the situation of a daughter growing up with an absent father. The participants in this particular study articulated ideas addressing different aspects of growing up in a single mother-headed household. In terms of developmental implications, participants felt that the absence of their fathers had resulted in them struggling with issues around separation from their mothers and having, at times, to manage a turbulent mother-daughter relationship with no one to turn for adult assistance; a person to turn to when their relationships with their mothers felt unsafe. They also identified struggles in their intimate relationships and attributed these to the absence of a male father figure. Along with this, many lamented about the absence of a father with regards to having someone to turn to for practical advice around dating men.

Alongside the above reflections, there was also an articulation of a sense of having managed to largely overcome or manage any deficits inherent in a single mother headed household. The data from the interviews with these particular participants suggested that they felt that their mother's strength and resilience was a strong factor mitigating against negative outcomes of an absent father. The input of social fathers, uncles, older brothers and grandfathers, was also identified as filling some of the gap in the wake of an absent father.

A third important theme that emerged in the interviews with this group of women was, despite having overcome any adversity due to not having a present father, there was still a longing for a father, and a sense that the unique emotional component of the father-daughter relationship could not be replicated, even in the presence of what have been termed social fathers. Defensive devaluation of this relationship, in the absence of the father, seemed to be employed at times, protecting against the pain of the loss.

In terms of limitations of this study, it is important to guard against taking these findings in any general way. The participants in this study may, by virtue of the sampling strategy, have had a particular profile in terms of education and social class. The qualitative nature of the research also leaves it vulnerable to interpretations and findings that may be skewed by the biases of the researchers, regardless of steps taken to mitigate against this. Further research on daughters with absent fathers would helpfully complement this study.


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Gloria Njeri Kamau has a Masters in Community-Based Counselling Psychology from the University of the Witwatersrand. She recently completed her internship at the Centre for Psychological Services and Career Development (PsyCaD). Her research interests include fatherhood, masculinities and social development.

Nick Davies (PhD) is a clinical psychologist and lecturer in the Psychology Department, University of the Witwatersrand. His research interests include fatherhood, paternal functioning and masculinities. Nick has a small private practice and is a member of the Relational Psychotherapy Reading Group.

Gloria Njeri Kamau

University of the Witwatersrand

Nick Davies

University of the Witwatersrand

(1) The paternal function is understood as that set of functions deemed necessary for healthy psychic development, and traditionally carried out by the biological father.

(2) Pseudonyms are used.
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Date:Dec 22, 2018
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