The Forgotten Parent:
The father’s contribution to infant development
by Dorothea Kay Stone, 2008
(abridged and adapted with permission by Malcolm Idoine)


I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection (Freud, 1930/1961a, p32).

Much literature has been devoted to the infant’s relationship with its parents, yet the importance of fathers to infants is still very much under-researched. This article focuses on the father’s contribution to the child’s development during infancy. Several themes emerge: the supportive father; the father object; the parental couple; the father and separation; the father and gender identity.

The Supportive Father

From the time of conception, the father’s support is valuable for both the mother and the infant. Even the knowledge that the father is thinking about the infant provides the mother some relief and allows her to risk forgetting her child and have mental time out (Marks, 2002).

According to Winnicott (1960), the father’s role with the newborn is protecting the mother/child relationship. This provides a secure environment for the mother, which in turn enables her to provide a nurturing environment for the baby. The father can offer both physical and emotional support. Physically he can help with practical matters. Emotionally the father’s support allows the mother to cope better with the frustrations of motherhood (Winnicott 1964). In some cases, the father is required to provide parenting for the mother who is struggling with the demands of mothering (Tuttman, 1986). Of course, fathers can also be 'good mothers' — providing a sensitive and responsive quality of parenting.

The Father Object

The idea of an internal mental and emotional world is central to much psychotherapy. In this inner world, we create representations of other people that are referred to as 'objects'. These objects, created in early childhood, profoundly influence later emotional and mental health. As such, understanding how these internal objects are formed is of central importance.

It is generally understood that the mother-infant pair is experienced by the infant as a single entity. As such the mother object comes into being by being separated out from the merged mother-infant dyad. In other words the infant experiences the mother as emerging from within.

How the father object develops is a matter of debate. Many writers argue that there is a significant difference in how the mother object and the father object develop. They hold the father is the first object to come from the external world, entering the infant’s consciousness from the outside.

Following on from this various authors argue that the father and mother object have different qualities. Davids (2002) maintains that the two objects occupy two mental domains of the infant; the mother’s domain is that of nurturing, comforting and attending to the infant’s needs, whereas the father’s domain consists of boundary setting and reality testing. Similarly Wisdom (1976) explains that the father encourages the infant to tolerate frustrations, and to bear difficulties.

Many writers have noted that fathers are often more exhilarating, interactional, playful and stimulating than mothers in the way they relate to the infant. This include encouraging muscular activity, a sense of body self and exploration of space.

Attachment theory

According to attachment theory, a secure relationship is essential to healthy development (Bowlby, 1988). While the mother is usually the first person with whom the infant forms an attachment, infants also develop attachments with a small number of other individuals including fathers. As such the father offers an alternative attachment figure and a bridge to the external world.

The Parental Couple

A strong relationship between the father and mother provides security and safety for the infant. This provides the infant a “rock to which he can cling and against which he can kick” (Winnicott, 1964, p.115). There is some evidence that if the parental couple is missing in the mother’s (or father’s) mind, it can lead to an impairment to the infant’s capacity to think clearly. The infant may feel forbidden to think about one parent in the presence of the other (McDougall 1989). This interferes with the infant’s ability to think creatively (Feldman, 1989). Indeed, Marks (2002) cites evidence that links poor parental relationship and impaired cognitive and social development in the child.

The Father and Separation

The father becomes an important figure who can assist the child in separating from the mother and provide a way into the world (Mahler & Gosliner, 1955). Indeed, an infant who lacks the assistance of a third may struggle to emerge from the maternal relationship (Greenspan 1982). Thus the father plays a crucial role in the disentanglement from the mother (Abelin 1975). One way the father can do this by spending time with the infant away from the mother, knowing that the child can be returned to a secure base with the mother (Bowlby 1969; Trowell, 2002).

The Father and Gender Identity

Coming to terms with the anatomical differences of sexes is an important and necessary milestone. Benjamin (1988) asserts that the father’s role in assisting differentiation of self makes a vital contribution to gender identity formation.

Many feminist psychoanalysts argue that the boy is at an advantage during this time, one reason being that he has more motivation to separate from the mother because he does not want to be associated with dependency. Society’s perception of the father as the powerful other is also advantageous to the boy in the formation of gender identity.

For boys, fathers tend to respond more to their son’s needs and form a more intense bond of identification (Lamb 1981 and Gunsberg 1982). Further, the father may recognise in his son’s need his own need to dis-identify with his own mother which contributes to him treating his son differently to his daughter (Benjamin, 1988). Benjamin (1991) adds that in addition to the mother’s support of the boy's move towards independence, the boy is able to recognises himself in his father and to feel both protected and powerful like him. Loewald (1951) contends that the boy dreads re-engulfment by the mother and that identification with the father provides support against a fear of fusion with the mother.

The ‘Good Enough Father’

Under optimal conditions, the father plays many roles for both the infant and the mother. From the infant’s conception, the father supports the mother by providing a secure environment, protecting the mother-infant child relationship, (Winnicott, 1960). If required he may provide ‘fathering’ or ‘mothering’ to the mother (Tuttman, 1986). Like the ‘good enough mother’ the ‘good enough father’ is not required to be perfect. Rather, he is required to fail from time to time, enabling the infant to develop.

The father assists the infant in separation from the mother (Mahler et al., 1975). He provides a source of early identification and offers support against re-engulfment by the mother (Loewald, 1951). The father is a model of work and the world (Winnicott, 1964) and represents progression, independence, activity (Chodorow, 1989), boundary-setting and reality-testing (Davids, 2002). He assists in the formation of gender identity (Stoller, 1968) and finally he provides a real relationship for the infant (Winnicott, 1964).

The Actual Father and the Father Object

Under optimal conditions, the actual (real) father both offers a real relationship and contributes towards the development of the father object. The actual father, being a male, possesses qualities and attributes that are different to the mother. It is not only his role that influences the infant, but the father by his very essence is different to the mother (Forrest, 1966) and the infant can distinguish these subtleties in his presence.

The Father, Mother and Infant

Under optimal conditions, both father and mother are attuned to each other’s and the infant’s needs. It is the complexities of these relationships that contribute to the infant’s development. The father is one half of the ‘parental couple’ and the presence of this relationship in the parent’s mind is important to the infant (Marks, 2002).


This paper has explored psychoanalysis’ growing appreciation of the role of the father for infants. This includes the complex dynamics with the mother and the ‘parental couple’, and the many variables that may affect the quality of fathering provided. Furthermore, the absence of ‘good enough fathering’ and its possible consequences and implications have been briefly explored.

While mindful of the complexities of the role of the ‘father’, and differing theoretical perspectives in the reviewed literature, I argue that the ‘good enough’ father plays a pivotal role in the infant’s emotional development.

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