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The elusive paternal function: Clinicians' perspectives.


This paper seeks to elucidate the concept of the pre-oedipal (1) paternal function through an examination of how this construct is understood from a clinical perspective. To this end it reports on interviews with a sample of Johannesburg based psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapists, exploring how they grappled with defining this elusive construct. A pre-cursory discussion of the paternal function and its relation to the concept of the father sets the scene.

The mother-infant dyad and the salience of this relationship for intrapsychic development has been theorised at length within the broad psychoanalytic literature. So too has the child's relationship to the oedipal father, a cornerstone figure of Freudian theory. What has been missing until fairly recently is an account of the influence of the father in the early years of psychic development, an account that complements our understanding of the place of the primary maternal caretaker and recognizes that fathers (or their equivalents) may enter the developmental arena in important respects prior to the Oedipus complex (see for example, Mahler & Gosliner, 1955; Stone, 2008).

Why the use of the phrase 'or their equivalents' in the previous sentence? What has not been adequately addressed, and a lacuna this paper wishes to highlight, is the enduring blindness to the metaphorical nature of the father, both developmentally and socially. By this is meant that 'the father', because of his traditional historical role, has been used as an easily understood place-holder for something more abstract, namely the paternal function. The paternal function may be understood as a set of developmental functions rather than a person. This function may traditionally be performed by the father, but can also potentially be performed by a second parent (2) (of whatever sex) or possibly even the primary/maternal caregiver.

Regarding the latter, if the maternal and paternal functions are conceptualised as the relationship or dynamic between caregiver and infant--the former possibly about closeness and the latter distance, or the former about holding vulnerability and the latter about appealing to the child/infant's strengths--then it is conceivable that these dynamics might be created by the same caregiver through a shift in the caregiver's state of mind. A single caregiver can have both states of mind accessible at different times; two different persons might not always be necessary for both maternal and paternal functions to be available to the infant. An earlier paper (Davies & Eagle, 2013) sought to explicate the paternal function, and to differentiate it from the figure of the actual father.

Turning to the metaphorical nature of 'the father', Winnicott put a lot of emphasis on the person of the actual mother but over time his theory of the 'good enough mother' has come to be understood as metaphorical, referring not so much to a real mother but rather to an environment which is sufficiently consistent but also provides opportunity for development through manageable failures. In the same way 'the father' is also a metaphor for other aspects of the environment, in particular those aspects historically carried out by the father, different from the aspects encapsulated in the maternal metaphor, and which are necessary for psychic development. The paternal function might be thought of as the operationalization of the substance, the non-metaphorical, underlying the metaphor of 'the father'.

The concept of the 'paternal function' is relatively new (the term appearing regularly in the object relations literature only since the 1970's) and the literature relating to the construct is rather fragmented in the sense that no coherent holistic understanding appears to have emerged to date. A review of the literature on the paternal function highlights how different writers think about the concept in diverse ways. For example, some writers are unconcerned about the metaphorical nature of 'the father', ignoring any distinction between the paternal function and the role of the father (for example Abelin, 1975), while others emphasize this distinction suggesting the paternal function may be independent of the provider's sex (Samuels, 1996). In emphasizing this distinction, such authors are acknowledging the metaphorical nature of the concept of 'the father' and unhooking the paternal function from men and maleness, allowing it to be thought about as a set of functions that are independent of the sex of the provider. This development seems to slowly be gaining traction in the expanding body of theory, particularly in the object relations tradition in which this paper is located.

The importance of this latter separation of the father and the paternal function is underscored in light of the many varied family constellations that characterise contemporary society. Freeman (2008, p. 114) suggests it is partly 'the weight of therapeutic observation, feminist critique and cultural commentary' that has pushed for change in orthodox psychoanalytic thinking regarding the concept of fatherhood and the paternal function. Indeed, there is sufficient literature on the 'normality' of children raised by lesbian couples to support the separation of sex and parental functions (Allen & Burrell, 1996; Drexler, 2006; Tasker, 2005). The same might be said of infants and children raised in single parent families (DePaulo, 2006).

Such data offer a challenge to the historical heteronormativity found in the psychoanalytic literature, which has privileged heterosexuality, focussing on the apparently pathological consequences of divergent family forms. This heteronormativity has encouraged the concretisation of the metaphor of the father and colluded with the idea that the sex of the parent determines what functions that parent performs. Fortunately more recent contributions to this body of literature offer a growing consensus that it is the quality of the parenting that is of primary importance and not the sex of the caregiver (Freeman, 2008). This ties in with recent theorization around gender suggesting that human beings should be understood as psychologically bisexual (Fogel, 2006) with diminishing support for the contention that we are biologically 'hard wired'. Being hard wired implies that anatomy is destiny: males are masculine (where masculinity refers to qualities and behaviours judged by western culture to be ideally associated with or especially appropriate to men and boys), and similarly females are feminine. Harris (2000) submits that gender should be thought of as 'softly assembled' (p. 231) in the context of the individual's conscious, unconscious, and social interactional properties and experiences. Such soft assembly conceptually allows for a spectrum of gendering and sexuality independent of biological sex. Within this framework, the paternal function is better understood as a metaphor than as a sex-dependent role.

A comprehensive review and analysis of the psychoanalytic literature on the 'paternal function' conducted in 2011 using the search terms 'paternal' and 'paternal function' on the Pepweb database of journals and books highlighted four distinct sub-functions which might be considered to fall within the purview of the paternal function (Davies & Eagle, 2013). The four functions that were distilled from the examination of the existing literature are:

1) Separating third

Traditionally, literature has tended to portray this function as a 'phallic piercing'. Contemporary writing in this area conceptualises this function more as the enticing of the baby away from the symbiotic relationship through introducing the infant to a wider, 'outside-the-dyad' world. The lack of a separating paternal function ultimately keeps individuals inextricably, and unhealthily, tied to their primary caregivers (e.g. Burgner, 1985; Seligman, 1982).

2) Facilitator of mental structure and the capacity to think

It is argued that exposure to an external triadic structure encourages the development of an internal three dimensional space, one of the foundations of the capacity for symbolisation and reflection (Britton, 2004; Fonagy, Gergely, Jurist & Target, 2004). The paternal functionary provides the third vertex of a triangle which opens up internal space and stimulates complexity in thinking beyond that allowed for in the 'flat' mother-infant dyad.

3) Facilitator of affect management

The reported distinction in types of play adopted by maternal and paternal figures in the infant's life has been implicated in affect regulation. Non-maternal figures are thought to interact with infants in a manner which creates a level of arousal beyond that experienced in interactions with the maternal caretaker, who rather tends to prioritize decreasing anxiety and soothing (Herzog, 2002). It is suggested that the benign elevation of both positive and negative affect is more easily stirred and tolerated by the paternal functionary, and this encourages the development of increased affect regulation in the infant as s/he experiences and survives the more highly aroused encounter with the help of the paternal functionary.

4) Provider of psychic safety

This function refers to the provision of a safe refuge for the infant during times of persecutory anxiety in the mother-infant relationship. This may occur either by serving as an alternative receptacle for the infant's hostile projections so that these projections are not directed towards the mother, or by acting as a benign and safe object for the infant when the maternal caregiver is the target of the infant's hostility.

Despite the unconscious tendency to conflate paternal functioning and the father (and thus paternal functioning and maleness), there is little to suggest that these sub-functions implicitly require the functionary to be particularly sexed for successful execution. What seems most important is that the functionary occupies the position of the third, or is 'not-mother' (which is not the same as 'is father'). Indeed 'not mother' could refer to a second caregiver (of whatever sex) or to a second state of mind in the primary caregiver.

In addition to the tendency in the literature to associate the paternal function with maleness, several other patterns relating to engagement with the paternal function are worth comment. In particular it can be observed that discussion is generally limited to a focus on the traditional oedipal period (Liebman, Steven, & Abell, 2000); an emphasis on the development of sexual identity and masculinity; and the development of male babies (e.g. Diamond, 1998; Herzog, 1982).

In the past what has failed to garner adequate attention is that paternal functionaries (be they male or female) are necessary pre-oedipally for optimal emotional and psychic development to occur in domains extending beyond sexual identity (Blos, 1984; Henderson, 1980a, 1980b), and that pre-oedipal girl children also need paternal functioning (Spieler, 1984).

Recently attention has turned to the influence of the pre-oedipal paternal function on psychic development (e.g. Stone, 2008; Trowell & Etchegoyen, 2007). Stone (2008) not only addresses the importance of the pre-oedipal father in cognitive and emotional development but also tackles the clinical implications of the pre-oedipal paternal functionary, noting the importance of holding the pre-oedipal paternal function in mind when thinking about patients. Several other authors have also underlined the necessity of this (e.g. Wright, 1991). Bollas (1996) argues that in order for the full extent of the patient's internal world to emerge, both maternal and paternal functioning needs to be present in the therapeutic process. Indeed, should either one predominate, 'then full knowing is not possible' (p. 5). As a consequence of this recognition, practitioners should feel obliged to seriously engage with the construct of the pre-oedipal paternal function in the areas of clinical formulation and intervention.

However this author's experience in the South African psychoanalytic environment is that in both written material and case presentations the maternal function and the mother-infant dyad are invariably privileged. The idea of the paternal function is seldom broached. This is quite astounding when fifty per cent of South African children have living but absent fathers (SAIRR, 2012). Certainly while other paternal functionaries may theoretically be available to such children (extended family for example), there is no guarantee that the paternal function will be adequately performed. The social implications of this are concerning and the implications for clinical work are significant. More broadly, the under-theorization and clinical absence of the pre-oedipal paternal function appears to not be limited to South Africa but to be a global phenomenon, as the relative scarcity of associated literature confirms.

What and where, then, is the paternal function in the minds of clinicians? Do they consciously employ it clinically? Do they think about it and how do they think about it? Do they see past the metaphor of 'the father' or is there an investment in the maleness of the provider? In an endeavor to shed some light on these questions interviews were conducted with a small group of Johannesburg based psychoanalytically oriented therapists.


Semi-structured individual interviews were conducted with eight psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapists. This format provided an opportunity for respondents to share their thoughts in their own words and from their own perspective. Participants were asked the initial question 'How do you understand the concept 'the paternal function'? Several other open ended questions, based on concepts in the literature, were formulated in advance of interviews and posed to participants as the conversation developed. Other than the first question which was standard to all interviews, there was no specific order in which the remaining questions were introduced, and questions were not asked if an interviewee first spontaneously addressed the question.

The group of participants who consented to be interviewed consisted of four women and four men with experience ranging from 9 to 25 years, with an average of 15 years experience. The single individual interview took place at the practice of each interviewee. Interview length varied, averaging an hour.

The audio recorded interviews were transcribed verbatim by the interviewer for structured analysis. Since it is held by many that 'a thematic analysis is still the most useful in capturing the complexities of meaning within a textual data set' (Guest, MacQueen & Namey, 2012, p. 11), transcripts were analysed using an interpretative/critical thematic content analysis. At the outset key themes were identified by consecutive readings of the material. Coding of themes was deductive and inductive with both pre-identified theory-led themes and participant-generated themes identified within the data set. Themes were tracked both within individual transcripts and across the full set of transcripts. Analysis and coding of the data was carried out independently by the researcher and a co-interpreter. Themes that were identified by both were noted and elaborated further in collaborative discussion. Attention was also paid to themes present in the content of the (unrecorded) initial contact conversations.

In the analysis presented below participants are referred to as P1 through P8 in order to protect the identity of participants. Ethical permission to conduct the study was obtained from the relevant committee of the University of the Witwatersrand.

The next four sections consider the interview data from several perspectives. First, the way in which clinicians grappled with the elusiveness and uncertainty of the concept is explored. Second, an examination of the extent to which participants' ideas resonate with the four aspects of the paternal function identified by Davies and Eagle (2013) is then elaborated. Third, the paternal function is situated within the South African context. Clinicians' struggle with both the conceptualisation and the gendered nature of the function is commented on throughout the paper, and the fourth section focuses specifically on the beleaguered distinction between the father and the paternal function.

What is the paternal function? Grappling with elusiveness

Participants' uncertainty and lack of confidence in broaching the topic of the paternal function was evident in many of the initial responses to the invitation to be interviewed. Their trepidation at the prospect of talking about something they did not feel confident about found expression in excerpts similar to the following:

I don't have any in-depth theoretical knowledge of the paternal function (P2).

I haven't thought about this much (P3).

I must say that it wasn't something I was thinking about or paying attention to in my work (P5).

It seems extraordinary that the contribution of the father (to concretise the metaphor for the sake of discussion), is overlooked and is not a regular component of the practitioner's thinking. I have no doubt that were interviewees to be asked 'so are you saying that the actions, the input, the contribution to the baby's very early environment by the father is negligible?', the answer would be firmly negative. Yet it seems that this is the stance practitioners are unconsciously taking up in their therapeutic work.

The concluding words to the interview of P8 reveal what should be an uncomfortable truth: The paternal function may be hidden, lost, for many psychotherapists:

Well [pause] they are only ideas, I mean spontaneous things. I don't know how much it is going to help you find the paternal function (P8).

On a reflexive note, this sense of inadequate knowledge and lack of certainty around the paternal function resonated strongly with the feelings experienced by the interviewer when initially confronted with thoughts about what the father might bring to the pre-oedipal environment, and more abstractly, what exactly the paternal function entailed.

Participants acknowledged their struggle to both articulate their thoughts and to arrive at a clear definition or conceptualisation of the paternal function. Comments such as the following were common:

We're trying to define something which is so slippery, so undefined (PI).

The need to remedy this was also expressed:

The whole area seems so confusing and textured. And there hasn't been enough research (P2).

It's interesting that you 're studying it because there is a real gap where I think the paternal function can be [pause] where it needs to be explicated (P6).

The latter two quotes might be understood as criticism of South African training of psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapists. Indeed P6 suggested that in the training provided to Johannesburg psychotherapists:

Everything's about the mother[pause]and I agree everything is about [pause] well a lot is about the mother, but I think not enough about the father and the first time you meet the father in the analytic theory that I have done is through the Oedipus Complex (P6).

Another quote is germane at this point:

The theory that I have read doesn't mention what the father's supposed to do, except Winnicott (P4).

The above two quotes are important in two respects. Firstly they underline the tendency to conflate the paternal function with the father (and the maternal function with the mother). It is clear here and elsewhere that participants were not talking metaphorically when they referred to the father; most often there was no differentiation between the real and the metaphorical fathers. Only when pushed by the interviewer was the possibility of a difference engaged with. Secondly, participants highlight the inordinate focus on maternal functioning and oedipal material at the expense of early paternal functioning in current theory and practice.

As P4 noted there is a Winnicottian father--the protector and supporter of the mother-infant dyad (Winnicott, 1964)--and his version of paternal functioning was a cornerstone in participants' conceptualisations:

Very much the paternal function was the function of Winnicott's, being the holding space for the mother--that and providing the income (P1).

... the other that makes space for the primary caregiver so that they have energy and focus (P3).

P5 commented on an important nuance in the Winnicottian father's influence on the infant:

... which is to be supportive towards the mother and making sure he provides for whatever needs the mother is having. Then in turn the mother can be available for the baby because her own needs are taken care of by the father (P5).

The above extract highlights the Winnicottian father's function as ensuring maternal functioning is not interrupted rather than the provision of a paternal function in and of its own right. Of course protecting the mother-infant is an important function, but conceptualising it as the paternal function limits the paternal function to having a direct influence on only the external world of the infant, the internal world being impacted only by maternal functioning. There is ample evidence in the literature emphasizing the influence of paternal functioning on the development of the internal world of the infant.

Aspects of the paternal function

Separating function

Historically the separating function is the function most regularly associated with the paternal function in the literature, albeit often with reference to oedipus. Of the four functions identified by Davies and Eagle (2013) it was this aspect of the paternal function most easily engaged with by participants. In contrast to past reliance on the metaphors of the phallic penetration of the mother-infant dyad, and the separating father as castrating lawmaker, interviewees tended to conceptualise the separating paternal function in terms of a gentler, more subtle and life enriching paternal functionary. There was no mention of phallic aggression and power:

... the father comes between the mother and the baby (P1).

There was only a single mention of the paternal functionary as 'lawmaker' and the lack of this aspect of paternal functioning in the interviews perhaps indicates that it is not strongly resonant, at least when talking about pre-oedipal matters.

Rather, what participants commented on was the importance of the separating function for psychic development. P3, for example, commented on how the separating function allows for the expansion of the infant's world:

... and it [separating function] also allows children to explore, to be curious about the world, I suppose it's a kind of interesting learning experience (P3).

In the same vein, P6, drawing on his experience of an infant observation he conducted, suggested that the father aids an important 'turning outwards' from the mother to a new world, introducing the infant to an array of as yet unexplored activities and experiences:

The attention the infant was getting from dad was very different to the attention he gets from mom. Mom, it's the breast feeding, the nappy changing, the bathing, um ... and dad would seem much more outwardly focussed, you know in the garden and they would sit together by the pool, or [pause] he would dip baby's feet in the water, he would sort of swing in the garden with baby in his arms (P6).

As in the above extract, several interviewees mentioned the importance that the baby's 'experience of difference' (P3) plays in the paternal function.

... different experience and reactions from a different kind of caregiver, smells different, who feels different, who has different muscle tone and a different voice sound and a different heart beat and there's a sense that the child learns that they can survive, that they can survive without their primary caregiver (P3).

Further illuminating the experience of difference and its impact, P6 noted seeing the father of the infant he observed create a different experience for the baby by virtue of the way he carried the baby:

... he carried the baby differently to mom. He would have the infant splayed across his forearm, lying [pause] so the baby would be lying on his stomach with both legs on either side of his arm and he's cradling the baby with one arm [pause] Mom would cradle it in her arms differently (P6).

The consequence of this less gentle, more robust, even risky experience, according to P6 was that there was something else that the baby introjected, namely 'a strong, solid, secure presence '.

All of the above demonstrates a move away from the arguably stern and intimidating fathers of Freud and Lacan. This departure may represent a denial of paternal aggression but may also reflect a welcome acknowledgement of a different kind of separator. What no-one spontaneously reflected on, however, was the implicit assumption that the baby's different experiences required the provider to be a male. In other words the metaphorical father was unquestioningly taken to be synonymous with the real father, an oversight encouraged by the historically heteronormative stance of psychoanalytic literature which has perpetuated binary sex role assignment.

When prompted to interrogate the necessity of maleness, interviewees were willing to consider the possibility that what was important in this (and some of the other paternal functions) was the characteristic of thirdness, rather than the sex of the second caregiver.

For example, P7 suggested of the separating paternal functionary:

... it doesn 't necessarily have to be a father but anything which interrupts that very intimate relationship between the mother and the child, or the primary caregiver and the child (P7).

P2 similarly noted that extended family members or even close friends could provide this facet of the paternal function, but also took it a step further:

I think it's partly about the third [pause], the third point and I've often wondered in fact whether that can even be symbolically a third point in the mother's life, so that if the mother works, the child cannot have all of her and the mother does go off to something that's important to her.

I'm not even sure it has to be a person (P2).

This important insight emphasizes that it is the personal experience that the baby lives through ('something/someone is taking mother away from me') that is developmentally enhancing, and the issue is not who or what performs the function creating the experience.

However, while participants might have been able to theoretically entertain the metaphorical nature of 'the father', there was often a strong residual pull, when all was said and done, to revert back to the position asserting that the maleness of the father was important, even if this importance could not be explained. In the extract above, for example, P2 embraced the symbolism of the paternal metaphor seriously with the suggestion that the mother's work might act as the paternal third. Yet this same participant, towards the end of the interview, stated:

But then I also can't believe that, for example, work or a family can replicate what an actual father might do as a person (P2).

This mirrors the same grappling evident in the literature in attempts to discern whether (and if so under what circumstances) there is something important that the male father brings, or whether the father-of-whatever-sex can also provide the same function with the same effect, albeit possibly in a different manner.

Facilitator of affect regulation

This function received significantly less coverage in the interviews than the separating function. This might be accounted for by noting the dominance of the maternal figure in theories of affect regulation. The association between affect regulation and the mother perhaps makes it more difficult to associate affect regulation with paternal functioning. What this overlooks, however, is that soothing is only one aspect of affect regulation, as noted by P3:

... the [caregiver's] attunement is not just to soothe the infant, because soothing is just one part of affect regulation. The other part of affect regulation is excitement and curiosity and learning [pause] and I'm not saying the primary caregiver can't excite and alert, but there's something about when there's a difference, when there's a change in temperament, a change of stimulation (P3).

P3 may be paraphrased as saying that the maternal function is that of soothing while the paternal is that of elevating and managing positive affect. While these functions may be sex-independent, they are dependent on difference. P5 takes up the importance of this 'difference' in aiding psychic development, in particular introducing the infant to the reality of the world and the unreality of 'smoothness and niceness':

And [father's] play is more alive, is more like ... is more realist, is more real. Like for example a father can come and pick up a six month old baby and pick up and you know, like [pause](imitates throwing a baby up in the air) but maternal [pause] where do you find them really [pause] they kind of like will hold it and go like that (mimics cradling it) when life is not really like smooth and nice (P5).

This function, which conceptually might also include the instilling of tolerance for negative affect, such as fear or frustration, was assigned to the father by P6, who drew on infant observation material:

He wasn't necessarily as attuned or as, um, gratifying of some needs maybe (P6).

P6 also notes it was the father who dipped the baby's feet in the cold pool water, and who swung the baby round, both activities undoubtedly elevating affect in the baby.

While P6 chose not to interrogate the role of the paternal functionary's sex, P3 (in the extract above) took up a more contemporary position, suggesting that it is the 'difference' or distance from the primary caregiver position (the 'not-mothemess') that defines paternal functioning. In contrast P1, reflecting on his own experience of fathering, takes up a more traditionally aligned stance and implicates his maleness rather than his thirdness in thinking about how the 'bearing' of elevated emotion is instilled:

... when I'm with my child I catch myself doing those masculine things. He falls down--I'm a little less indulgent about wallowing in it. I encourage him to get over it. I do macho things about him 'bearing it ', so if he falls down we'll get into the pain of it but 'tough it out ' a bit (P1).

If P1 is indeed conflating maleness and masculinity in this instance, he overlooks the contemporary idea that gender is 'soft assembled' rather than hard wired as a result of biological sex. If this idea of the soft assembly of gender is considered then we are free to engage with a far more fluidly gendered parent. This in turn supports the single parent family--of which there are many healthy ones--for then the parent of whatever sex can oscillate, as appropriate, between maternally aligning with vulnerability (in this case responding to the child along the lines of 'Ow. That looks so sore. Show me where it hurts') and at other times paternally aligning with the strength of the child ('Tough it out, kid'). In other words, the 'difference' that participants so often underlined as important in facilitating the paternal function could conceivably be an internal difference in state of mind, in the fluid gender mix, of the single parent.

However, if we look at Pi's words again, although he chides himself for doing 'those masculine things', he shortly thereafter says 'if he falls down we'll get into the pain of it ', which suggests a component of maternal empathic functioning in the midst of 'the masculinity'. In those moments, P1 may well be inhabiting both maternal and paternal states of mind. It is this possibility, namely that of one parent and two different parental states of mind, that participants stopped short of considering, not only in relation to affect regulation but also in relation to other paternal functions.

Facilitator of mental structure

A third paternal function identified by Davies and Eagle (2013), prevalent in more recent literature, was that of facilitating the capacity to think. None of the practitioners interviewed directly broached this important facet of the paternal function. Certainly references were made to the paternal functionary promoting the development of a 'new perspective' or 'new view':

... you're offering the child another experience, another vantage, another point of view, another in to the world, another something (P1).

So from the beginning the father is on the outside in a way that the mother is not [pause] which I think then is partly what his function is--he helps the baby have an outside point of view, helps the toddler move outside (P2).

The development of a new perspective is an important aspect of the function of facilitator of mental structure. Britton (2004) and Fonagy et al. (2004), however, identify three quite specific new views. They are the self reflective view of 'I am excluded from a relationship', the perspective that 'I am in a relationship which excludes someone else' and 'I am in a relationship that someone else is observing'. These three perspectives help unite the disparate relational spaces in the very premature but developing psyche and assist with the development of triangulating capabilities, symbolic thought and the capacity to mentalize. These aspects of the paternal function were not explored by interviewees.

Port of psychic safety

The last of the four dimensions of the paternal function identified as salient in the literature (Davies & Eagle, 2013) is that of providing a refuge for the infant during periods when the safety of the relationship with the primary caregiver is threatened. Two of the eight participants made indirect references to this aspect of the paternal function.

In recalling clinical material, P8 alluded to the operation of this function, but in an older child:

I've heard it from a female patient [pause]I can't bear it, my daughter runs up to her father, throws her arms around him when he comes home from work, 'love you daddy'[pause]. She never does that for me and that's because I have to reprimand her (P8).

This father provides a safe, loving haven away from the reprimanding mother. This example seems helpful in that the relief this child gets 'escaping' the troublesome mother-child dyad of the moment is easily imaginable, and thus in turn provides a glimpse of the relief the far less agentic infant may experience when a paternal functionary to whom it can retreat is at hand.

P5 comments on how a tired, overwhelmed mother might inadvertently render the mother-infant dyad unsafe and how important 'relief would be in such a situation:

So the early years are very, very important, are crucial. That's why I'm thinking [pause] if the paternal figure is absent [pause] then maybe that person that can really just give some relief [pause] because if there is no relief everything the mother goes through is then projected to the baby (P5).

It was unclear whether the relief P5 referred to was to be provided to the mother or to the baby. In the former case, the reference would then really be to Winnicott's version of paternal functioning formulated as protecting the mother-infant dyad by relieving the mother. In the latter case, the paternal functionary would offer relief to the infant, thereby offering a relationship the infant can rely on to be safe when the relationship with the maternal caregiver feels hostile. The ambiguity may be telling of the complexity of the paternal function as positioned between the maternal and the infant.

Other than these allusions, this aspect of paternal functioning as a port of psychic safety was not at the forefront of interviewees' minds. Reasons for the absence, in the interviews, of contemporary thought relating to the paternal caregiver's attenuation of such experiences may be varied, but one reason may be that admitting such theoretical additions (namely the father as more than a body part in the mother's insides) threatens the loyalty that some practitioners may have to an unadulterated Kleinian theory.

The paternal function in the South African context

A few of the interviewees raised observations about the paternal function and fathering in relation to the local context. In South Africa fatherless children have existed for decades, partly as a consequence of historical legislation and migrant labour systems in particular (Holborn & Eddy, 2011). Several interviewees expressed concerns about the absence of provision of significant paternal functions in the absence of fathers. One interviewee reflected on how this absence of fathers has been managed in families, with female family members stepping into the breach.

I think, especially in South Africa, [the paternal function] is performed by grannies, rather than fathers (P3).

This idea was broached again later when this same interviewee appeared to suggest that in a certain socio-economic class the paternal function might be performed by a domestic worker or child minder:

... and I think it is the domestic worker who is often the other[pause] for South African middle class babies and I think when it works well is when the mother and domestic worker also form a kind of space and the domestic worker performs something of the 'other ' function (P3).

The possible role of domestic workers or childminders in providing aspects of the paternal function, while normative in some pockets of society, is not the norm generally speaking. However the example alerts us to a wider array of potential paternal functionaries, including older siblings or extended family members.

There was some questioning of whether, despite the usefulness of alternative paternal functionaries, there is something unique to the father that the infant requires. Referring to a particular case P2 noted it's not just about 'a third':

He doesn't need a third. He has a third with [the] housekeeper [pause] in fact he has a fourth [with X][pause] he had four adults and they have been part of his life every single day [pause]. They were quite profoundly separated out relationships [pause] so it's not the third. He needs a father, a male; he needs a different energy (P2).

What remained elusive through all interviews was what exactly this 'energy' is that P2, and others, refer to.

The father and the paternal function

Interview participants were invited to explore, and also challenge, their position regarding the metaphor of the father. As such participants struggled to find a balance between their rational minds which could hold the metaphor, and their emotional minds which left them rejecting the metaphor, feeling at a gut level that there was something important about the real father.

This struggle is no doubt unsurprising: thinking about the father as metaphor inevitably means confronting a long societal tradition of stereotypical sex bifurcation and associated sex-roles. The extended historical portrayal of heteronormative sexuality, along with the concomitant discrimination, tends to quickly suck the symbolic marrow from any metaphor which uses sexed or gendered terms, rendering it an unquestioned concretised object. In the particular case of the paternal metaphor, the result is the conflation of the real father and the paternal function, something participants struggled to untangle.

It might be argued that in the quote--

... And maybe it's politically correct, but it's what I really believe, it's the quality of the 'good enough'-ness [pause] I don't think you need to have a woman and a man (P3).

--the reference to political correctness alerts us to the pressure to conform to stereotypes and hegemonic models of parental sex-composition. It also alerts us to the conscious desire by the participants to avoid falling prey to stereotypes. Several interviewees expressed this directly:

I'm trying to detach paternal from its kind of stereotypical position (P8).

And I get nervous about assuming it's gendered [pause] or maybe it is gendered because it's socialised, but I get afraid of continuing [pause] of lapsing into stereotypes without challenging it a little bit (P3).

In countering stereotypical thinking, P4 echoed the view that more attention than is useful has been placed on the sex of parents:

... if [children have] a couple that are happy together [pause] that's more important than having a male and a female [pause] that's how I'd view it [pause] so I think there are more important things than the actual gender of the parents (P4).

However, as reported earlier, there were other interviewees, both male and female, who after initially expressing sentiments acknowledging that the paternal function could be performed by a grandmother, for example, then retracted the assertion. It appeared that reflecting on the initial thought of possibly being able to replace the real father with a father-of-whatever-sex aroused an anxiety in participants. Reframing the grandmother (or the female paternal functionary) performing the paternal function as no longer a paternal functionary but instead as performing 'just an extended maternal function' (P1) was one way of managing the anxiety. Generally, when pushed to think about what specifically the male figure might bring, participants would mention traditional oedipal dimensions, such as traditional sex-role identification. Arguments for why they believed male fathers were necessary pre-oedipally remained elusive. P5's words, quoted below, suggest a quiet desperation to find a reason why the male father is important:

... because I want to believe that they are different somewhere, that's why we are different (P5).

P5's words might be summarised as 'I want to believe men bring something different (because the thought of them not is in some way menacing) but I have no evidence other than their physical difference from women'.

P1 expressed the belief that, at the level of the male unconscious, there is an awareness of the dispensability of the father, but this knowledge is too unbearable to be made conscious. Men have managed this, P1 suggested, by concretising the metaphor of the father and making the real father the bearer of something that only the male could possibly provide. Moreover men have used whatever power they have over women to ensure their continued importance:

... we're bigger so we've asserted ourselves over women and we've got control over the system and we've made the paternal, the patriarchal into an edifice, into a thing so that we could not be forgotten, could not be marginal [pause] We had to create a role. We had to create a function for ourselves (P1).

In reflecting on what has emanated from the interviews, the state of affairs is quite remarkable. There is clearly a high level of uncertainty, unease and ambivalence in defining the paternal function. This is accompanied by a strong investment in keeping the male father relevant in the face of uncertainty regarding his relevance to pre-oedipal psychic development. This is juxtaposed with a maternal function which seems second nature in both the psychoanalytic community and the group of therapists interviewed, as evidenced by the regular reference to mother-focused understandings of the infant's developmental trajectory in interviews.

How might this neglected theory and knowledge of the paternal function be understood? One possibility may be that parenting is one area where there is unconscious fear around interfering with the sex role bifurcation that society has been comfortable with for so long. Alongside this is the fact that conventional language has its origins in binary opposites (i.e. mother/father, male/female, masculine/feminine) which are inadequate for describing the nuances of many psychological processes, forcing a default description as one or the other.

The implications are serious. A failure to interrogate the metaphors we use, the language we are comfortable with, keeps subtleties and nuances hidden and keeps our thinking and our theories tied to potentially incomplete or unrefined hypotheses.


This article has drawn attention to the nuances of the paternal function through exploring the theoretical concept of the paternal function as articulated by a group of experienced Johannesburg based psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapists.

It was clear that these research interviews offered one of the first opportunities participants had had to engage in a focused discussion dealing with the paternal function. Participants generally did not locate their ideas in formal theory, drawing predominantly on their own experiences of parenting, associations, observations and personal constructions developed over time. The thoughts of the interviewees overlap somewhat with aspects of the existing literature on the topic. In particular the idea of the paternal functionary as enabling dissolution of the symbiotic mother-infant dyad was mentioned often. In addition, at least two of the interviewees picked up on the idea that the paternal function included the facilitating of a non-soothing form of affect regulation.

Nevertheless, it seemed that there was a relatively better knowledge of the paternal function in so far as it influenced the baby's external world (primarily with reference to Winnicott's theory pertaining to fathers) as compared with the influence of the paternal function on the developing internal world of the infant.

At times participants found it difficult to separate out oedipal and pre-oedipal dynamics. The idea that the paternal function provided a figure around which sex-role identity could be negotiated was introduced on several occasions by several participants. While this may in fact be a valid aspect of the paternal function, it relates to a later stage of development.

Clearly some work remains to be done in progressing from the real father to an understanding of the metaphorical father. Training might also draw attention to the metaphorical nature of many psychoanalytic concepts (Wallerstein, 2011), rather than treating them as actual realities.

Interview material provided clear evidence that a gentler, more present and more benign father than Freud's and Lacan's is entertained by clinicians and that there was a conscious desire to move away from gender stereotypes.

However, there was evidence of unconscious gender biases and attachment to heterenormative models. If we are to talk usefully about concepts such as maternal and paternal functioning and apply them to early psychic development, we need to address our socialised gender biases. We are in the process of negotiating a way past gender bifurcation and discrimination and it seems we have to complete this before we can talk about the paternal function freely and in a way which is useful to clinicians and parents. The damage that has been brought to bear as a result of gender bias and discrimination has to be undone and only then can we move into elucidating developmental theory and further operationalising the paternal function.

In conclusion, it seems that knowledge and awareness concerning the construct of the pre-oedipal paternal function could be further enhanced by bringing to awareness both the full gamut of functions potentially associated with the construct, as well as the possibility that it is the position of the third rather than maleness or masculinity that is of the essence in pre-oedipal paternal functioning. This enriched understanding may allow for more comprehensive clinical formulations and consequent enhanced work with patients. Additionally, given transformations in family and parenting constellations, an increased thoughtfulness as well as research exploring whether and where maleness, masculinity and thirdness are significant in psychic development, is clearly warranted.


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Nick Davies

University of the Witwatersrand

(1) 'Pre-oedipal' refers to the early period of the baby's development (0-2 years) prior to the traditional Freudian oedipal period.

(2) The second parent may also be referred to as 'the third' (over and above the pair making up the mother-infant dyad).

Nick Davies is a registered clinical psychologist and lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand. His clinical interest is individual adult psychotherapy and his primary research interest is in the area of gender and masculinity studies, particularly with reference to developmental theory and clinical practice. He is currently reading for a PhD in psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.
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Date:Dec 22, 2014
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