The Father’s Gaze

Father Holding Infant 2002

I have a memory of my father from when I was about seven years old. Whether it is factually accurate, it is emotionally true.

My mother was in Texas at the time following the death of her mother. My other grandmother, my father’s mother, had come to stay with us because he didn’t cook, clean, or involve himself with the daily routines of his children. My father was a self-employed builder and worked long hours.

On this particular Saturday, I was running around alone in the backyard. I don’t recall playing any particular game or acting out some fantasy. I only remember running and running until I was out of breath and heated from the exercise. At that time, we lived on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, a part of the Greater Los Angeles area, and the day was sunny and warm.

Just beyond the sliding glass doors that opened from the breakfast nook onto our patio, my father had unrolled a set of blueprints upon the table. Because he was a builder, such plans were a fixture of our lives – lying in the back seat of his car, covering his desk in the home office, or spread out on the kitchen counter. The particular blue of the ink, their chemical, ammonia-ish smell, the smooth finish of the paper – these sensory memories linger from my childhood.

Feeling hot, I opened the sliding glass doors and entered the breakfast nook. My father’s gaze remained downcast upon the blueprints.

“I think I have a temperature,” I told him. “Would you check?”

Do people today still say, “I have a temperature” when they mean they are feverish?

Without glancing up from the building plans, Dad placed his hand on my forehead. A parental hand to a child’s forehead – the classic method of checking for fever before reaching for the thermometer.

“You’re just hot from running around,” he said. He never looked at me.

This brief memory summarizes my relationship with my father. Wanting his attention, asking for it in some covert way, and not quite getting it. This memory also seems important because it involves being seen or looked at. In the literature of my profession, much is made of how the mother’s gaze influences a baby’s developing sense of self. In a formulation that has become almost cliché, we say that the baby sees itself reflected in the mother’s gaze.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the father’s gaze and its importance for a child’s sense of self. In my experience, this occurs at a somewhat later stage of development. This may apply only to more traditional families where fathers played less of a maternal role in child rearing than they do today and devoted the bulk of their energies to career and providing for their families; although I’ve heard several similar stories from my (much younger) male clients of late.

I am speaking of fathers and sons but my views don’t apply to them only. Girls need attention from their fathers, too – that is, they need to be seen – but as it happens, the clients who’ve recently been talking about their fathers have all been men. For these clients, being seen (or rather, not seen) by their fathers has had a major impact on their sense of self and more importantly, on their sense of being an effective man in the world at large.

In particular, I’m thinking of one man in his mid-30s whose father has always been enormously successful, or at least has given that impression to everyone around him. My client – I’ll call him Seth – attended a first-rate university, has a high-powered and high-paying job, but still feels as if he lives in his father’s shadow. He still worries that he’s not a truly good and effective leader and has only managed to fool everyone. Seth and his father live in different cities now; at one recent family reunion, Seth’s father spent most of his time at the table texting and sending emails on his cellphone. Like my father, he wouldn’t look up, wouldn’t make eye contact.

Seth felt invisible. And furious. He eventually made some rather hostile and sarcastic remarks, which provoked his father to retaliate. This interaction reminds me of my teenage years and the way I used to provoke my own father. At least when he was angry with me, he engaged. His expression might have turned ugly as he glared my way but at least he was looking at me.

My older brother has told me that he has not a single memory of spending one-on-one time with our father. Not playing ball, not going fishing, not reading together. Nothing. On camping trips, I used to tag along when my father when fishing, and he did teach me how to tie on a hook and to gut fish; but even along the stream, I fished alone. I used to get up early along with my father – it was the only time we ever spent alone together – but we didn’t talk. My father’s gaze remained fixed upon his newspaper while I read a book.

Not being seen by your father makes you feel insignificant, of course – for boys and girls alike – but it has a special impact on a boy’s developing sense of manhood. As the spokesman (as it were) for society-at-large and what it means to be a man, the father’s loving and approving gaze validates you and your place in that society. It makes you feel that you can be an effective, self-confident, and successful man.

My brother and I have both struggled with this issue. I was fortunate to enter therapy at a very young age and to spend 13 years being “seen” by my analyst, a man I regard almost as a second father. Other important men in my life have also made me feel seen and accepted – a favorite college professor, supervisors during analytic training, even an older friend. I may not have received the father’s gaze I craved when growing up but I have since felt truly seen.

For most of my career as a therapist, I’ve viewed the transference through the lens of mother-infant relations; but lately, I’ve begun to focus more on the father-child aspect. Especially with the men in my practice, the ones who are much younger than I am, I sense how they view me as a sort of father figure. Being fully seen, accepted, and eventually loved by your male therapist can be a healing experience for men who didn’t get what they needed from their fathers.

The usual disclaimers apply: not all of what I’ve written applies exclusively to men, women can function in “paternal” ways, etc.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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23 comments

    That’s quite a powerful passage. I can relate to it well- my Dad was never there and when he was there he was always preoccupied and staring intently somewhere else- anywhere but at me. I used to try all kinds of antics to get his attention as a young child and teenager- mischief, lies, makeup, extreme demonstrations of one form of another- but always nothing from him. I have had very little contact with him as an adult. On one of the very few occasions we met up a few years ago I put a lot of effort into getting ready to see him- I wore new clothes, took a long time over my hair and makeup etc,I was even feeling a bit butterflyish inside. When I saw him at the station I walked up to him with a shy smile and bent forward for a peck on the cheek but he didn’t respond, he was staring over my shoulder into the distance and announced he was checking the times of the return trains . Talk about feeling invisible and utterly quashed. Why did I ever bother?

    On another more grave note- during my frantic years of desperately trying to find some way to get his attention , just a reaction from him, I went through episodes of depression and seriously contemplated suicide. You know what the one thing was that stopped me? I realised that even then he wouldn’ t react. I would be dead and he would still be reading his paper.

    Now that is very sad. I’m glad you stopped short of suicide, but your comment shows just how far we will go to get a father’s attention. Almost anything is better than being invisible.

    This post is rather timely for me as I’ve just started properly acknowledging how unseen I was. I had a father who blamed me for his depression, who taught me that I was not important, who abused me in many ways and who projected many things onto me, having not dealt with his own childhood wounds. I think he expected to feel better when he was in the father role, but his wounds came with him. He was so jealous of his children because we supposedly had it better, except it wasn’t better. I am still unpicking the effects, and am still learning what good-enough fathers do. I remember reading a book where the main character’s dad asked if she was okay as she looked pale and I was surprised as I didn’t know dads did that. I hadn’t been able to let myself know. There are lots of extreme examples of my father’s treatment of me but actually the worst memories I have are not the ones involving violence or obvious abuse. They are things like the time I gave him an article I’d had published and he gave it back because he didn’t want it. My therapist has been more of a father to me in the 120-odd hours I’ve spent with him than my own father ever was. I had a lovely grandfather and great-uncle (both died many years ago) on my mother’s side, but the fact is that it’s not enough. The experience of not mattering to my father has cast a cold shadow over my entire life. And of course people find this stuff hard to acknowledge. I remember telling someone that my dad literally never contacted me and she said: isn’t that just how dads are? Because that’s so much easier than saying: that sounds painful, I can see that this has really affected you. Believing this was just how dads are was a survival mechanism for me for a long time, but not a good one. Like the previous poster, I realised my dad wouldn’t care even if I attempted suicide. Unfortunately I realised this after I did actually try, genuinely wanting to die, as my parents both acted like nothing had happened. I remember wanting my dad to walk me down the aisle on my wedding day, wanting so badly to pretend I had a normal family, but he was horrible to me in the seconds before. The thing is that it’s hard to accept that this is caused by his issues, that I was and am not simply worthless. I keep thinking: if I was not worthless how could he live with me and not care about me or be kind to me, how could that be possible? A friend told me it’s like I’m trying to get a fresh grilled steak out of a vending machine. The problem isn’t whether I deserve steak. It’s that the vending machine doesn’t know how to grill it. But then I have to come to terms with getting a vending machine when I should have had a grill. My therapist has had to be careful not to overload me as I could only take a bit of caring at a time – I had to go through a period of separation from my internalised parents. I’d be yearning for my therapist to fill my black hole of unmet need and then find it painful and be unable to accept any caring or kindness. Gradually I’ve separated from my internalised parents and can accept caring but also am not still trying to fill the black hole as it were. My friend’s dad just died of a heart attack and I’m so jealous of her grief. I am mourning the father I didn’t have, and I’d trade for a dead father worth missing in a heartbeat though obviously I’d never say that to her.

    Yes, I’ve often wondered why people who have problems with their fathers seem to be equally as messed up as those of us who have ‘mother issues’. I would have thought if they had mother’s gaze they’d be ok or at least better than those of us with ‘mother issues’ but obviously not. I do understand the importance of father’s gaze but surprised it matters as much as mother’s (or seems too).

    In my own case my father adored me and spoilt me. I was probably his ‘golden child’ and it caused resentment from my siblings (understandable). However he was also controlling and possessive and his attention did get a little sexually inappropriate as I got older. I think (not sure about this) that girls who have been sexually abused by their father’s tend to be the father’s favourite ( how messed up that would make one!!)

    My mother hated me so it was a very confusing situation to say the least and my father’s favouring did not make up for my mother’s hatred !!!

    My favourite of your blogposts so far. I felt very sad when I read it. It seems common, this need and lack from fathers. Therapy, as you say, can do great things and in turn heal the following generations. Btw, In England we still hear people say: ‘He/She has a temperature’ !

    I can really relate to this. The lack of being seen by your own father is devastating. My own father, who was detached and unavailable, left us when I was about 10 and we never saw him again. When I was 27 and in graduate school, I received a call, as did my brother, that my father was in a coma and that they needed our permission to turn off life support. It took them a bit to find us because my father had always denied having any children. How odd to get a call like that and basically to feel … nothing. My proudest life accomplishment is to have married a wonderful man who is a fantastic husband and very involved, loving father to our 2 girls. My brother doesn’t like to discuss it but he, too, has fashioned his life so that he is the opposite of our father – a devoted husband and father. I guess he served as an anti-role model in the end.

    This is a sad story. It comforts me to know that you found father figures outside your family, but still…. Why is it so difficult for some men to relate to their children? Why do they have them in the first place?

    In case of my father, I know that he didn`t really want to have children. But my mother told him very early in their relationship that it was either marriage, children and a house or breaking up right away, and since he did want to keep her, he agreed.He found lots of ways to make her regret that ultimatum later, though…

    In my early twenties, when my father visited me at college, I often wondered why he critisized me so harshly in case he disliked my choice of wardrobe. Much later, my mother told me that he had once said to her how much he liked the thought that strangers might think I was his young lover when they saw us together in a restaurant. It was then I finally understood the wardrobe criticism. Apparently, it was much more important to him to be seen with me than to see me.

    I relate so much to this. I’m a woman whose parents divorced before age 3. My father, a university professor, took my two older brothers (6 and 9 years older) and relocated 2000 miles away, leaving my mother and me to get by on food stamps and live in a crappy development. I saw my father once a year for a week, thereafter, and most of that time he spent holed up in his room, feeling unwell. At his new wife’s urging he called me a few times a month, predictably asking how school was, and how the weather was, and then abruptly having to go because he needed to go to the store. When I attended the university where he taught, I had high hopes of establishing the father-daughter bond I was sure he would want. I could not have been more wrong, and in fact, he could not have been less interested in me. I see now, 20 years later, how this gaping hole in my life affected me. I began drinking and sleeping with much older men. I actively tried to seduce men who were in authoritative positions. I married a man who “took care of me” and then became angry at him and all men when it looked like he was straying. I became a “lesbian”. Which did not last too long. I have never had a relationship with a man that was not overtly sexual, or where I was not pining for that connection, obsessively so. In therapy a few years ago, I began to put pieces together and realized that, like my daughter, my father likely has Asperger’s syndrome. It explains so much, and I’m not sure why I hadn’t seen it before, given that his brother was on the spectrum. I believe I have Aspergers too, but that boat sailed out of port with the advent of the new DSM. i just started seeing an older male therapist in hopes that I can have a well-boundaried relationship with a caring male… though I’ve not told him this. Is it unethical to keep this hope from my new therapist? I’ve only seen him a few times so I’d like to see how it goes first.

    Asperger’s is a form of Autism, a neurological developmental disorder – not a mental illness. You don’t sound like you have Asperger’s at all. You sound like you have serious mental issues and probably a personality disorder. By the way –