Book Review: Reclaiming Father: The Search for Wholeness in Men, Women and Children

by Benig Mauger

Soul Connections: 2004 ISBN 0-9547012-0-8

Benig Mauger’s book Reclaiming Father: The Search for Wholeness in Men, Women and Children set out to reinstate ‘the father’ and fathers as centrally significant in the lives and development of children. The book draws on Jungian psychoanalytic theory and the author’s psychotherapeutic experience to argue that the absence of masculine presence as embodied in actual fathers is detrimental to the development of the human being, but particularly to boys and men. At an intuitive level, this appears to be a well-supported argument in a context where children are increasingly growing up in families that are headed by women and where the public discourse and political debates focus on damage and risks to ‘fatherless boys’.

In a society so driven by the demands of paid work and consumerism, the need for caring and loving guidance for children is beyond question. Traditionally, this care has been provided by mothers while fathers have been subject to the demands of the public sphere and paid work. Thus, even fathers who have not been removed from or left their children have not been present in the ways that mothers have to children through daily care.

Mauger recognises this issue of the presence of mothers and absence of fathers within the family as a consequence of the traditional ordering of society. She repeatedly acknowledges the ways in which individual men have been disempowered through the organisation of the social structure and she seeks to address the traditional imbalance in caring relations. Throughout this book she argues for the need for the male principle to be valued and recognised within intimate relations in order for young men to be able to fully develop into their masculinity.

While appreciating Mauger’s argument for balance between male and female principles and energies, of embracing both light and shadow, and outward and inward journeying, I run into some difficulty with her suggestions of how these principles are embodied in actual mothers and fathers. Mauger seems to suggest, in line with hegemonic gender ideologies, that men are essentially unconsciously programmed to act and embody particular masculine principles such as strength and rationality while women are seen to embody emotionality and a softness and lack of boundaries that can be chaotic. In pursuing this line of argument she implicitly reinforces traditional binaries. She therefore suggests that the differences between men and women as categories of being are greater than differences that occur between men as a group or between women as a group themselves. This essentialist perspective reinforces the traditional division of caring and nurturing work in society as feminine, which is not what Mauger wishes to do.

In my opinion, the heart of this problem in Reclaiming Father lies in the theoretical position Mauger inherits in using Jungian archetypes. These archetypes are formed, as she does fleetingly acknowledge, from patriarchal values and ideas. She comments that patriarchy is in our very bones. A number of problems for women flow from this position-one being that actual mothers in Mauger’s analysis become abusive and Jocasta-like, selfishly keeping their sons for themselves. This may be so in certain cases, but using these metaphors to describe the sets of relationships between mothers and sons merely reinforces the power of this traditional ideology. It ensures the continuing dominance of the ‘king’s’ power, and the ‘queen’s’ subversive reaction to her position as subordinate to the masculine.

The polarisation of mothers and fathers and their practices of mothering and fathering according to archetypes forged under patriarchy contributes to the continued oppression of both men and women. The suggestion that male and female principles become balanced through a reclaiming of actual and metaphoric fathers within heterosexual family relations also ignores the diversity of contexts in which human beings live out their identities.  It veers towards a pathologisation of mothers and children, but especially young men, who grow up in families that have no ‘actual’ fathers.

If Mauger wants to argue for the need to reclaim the masculine principle and reconstruct our understandings of masculinity to include relationships of care, then her argument might benefit from being located in a broader, more inclusive egalitarian vision of human relations. It has been said that it takes a village to raise a child, so perhaps the masculine and feminine energies that are embodied not just within traditional familial structures, but in varieties of caring relations beyond actual mothers and fathers can provide the kinds of balance and love that human beings need to grow into their own individuality.

Mauger herself sows the seeds of this possibility in the resolution of the book. She suggests that an inner marriage of masculine and feminine energies is the goal of all individuals, and that intimate relations can only grow and survive in this environment. However, in our diversity and uniqueness there is no formula for this except to keep journeying and to look for acceptance and tolerance in whatever supportive caring relations we find ourselves. Therapeutic processes are a clearly a support but in this increasingly unequal society are only the privilege of some few.

Maeve O’Brien is a mother of two, lecturer in Sociology and Human Development in St. Patrick’s College Dublin and has recently completed her PhD in Equality Studies.