Years ago, when I worked at an inner-city clinic, many of our pediatric patients were born to single mothers. Often I would inquire about the father. Was he involved with the child? Did he offer any emotional or financial support? Sadly, many times the answer was “no” on all accounts. I distinctly remember one young mother’s response to my questions: “Why—do you think it matters?”
What a sad state of affairs when even mothers themselves feel that a paternal presence is unnecessary for adequate rearing of their children.
For me, this issue surfaced again during my recent viewing of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” a French film about the life of Jean Dominique Bauby, the former editor of Elle magazine, who, at 43 years of age, suffered a massive stroke that left him paralyzed and mute. Bauby eventually learned how to communicate by selecting letters of the alphabet to spell words by blinking his eye. A victim of “locked-in syndrome,” Bauby spent the remaining year of his life in the shell of his body with only his imagination and memories.
One poignant scene takes place the week before his stroke, when Bauby visits his 93-year-old father and proceeds to give him a shave. During the interaction, the father chides the son for not visiting his three children often enough, for not being an integral part of their formative years. “Children need a father,” he says. A few lines later the father tells the son how proud he is of him. “Every son wishes to have such praise from his father,” Bauby replies.
This scene lingers in the viewer’s mind when Bauby’s father telephones him at the hospital. The old man knows he will never hear his son’s voice again, in fact will never see his son again, for he too remains a debilitated prisoner in his fourth-floor walk-up apartment, physically unable to descend the stairs. Yet the viewer senses this all-important bond between father and son. Indeed, in a recent New York Times interview, Max von Sydow, the actor who plays the role of Bauby’s father in the film, states that he had great difficulty getting rid of his emotion after making the movie—“the sorrow and the compassion were overwhelming.”
Paternity issues run deep. Witness James Joyce’s treatment of the theme in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Ulysses. In the final pages of the latter work, Stephen Dedalus meets Leopold Bloom, his spiritual father, in a poignant encounter. Cyril Connolly writes: “The whole climax of Ulysses is a single moment of intimacy, when Bloom, the comic character, rescues Stephen in a drunken brawl … in an instant of spiritual paternity.”
Lately, more of my pediatric patients are brought to the office by their fathers, who seem every bit invested in their nurture and care. In the rearing of children, fathers figure. Today more than ever children need to experience the presence of a father figure in their formative years—and beyond.