The importance of fatherhood

Author Robert Graham writes about the crucial relationship between father and son.

fathers and sons


In my new novel The Former Boy Wonder, I set out to grapple with some of the issues a son may have growing up without a father, as I did.

For Peter Duffy, my protagonist, the issue is abandonment: his Mum and Dad break up and when the boy is 8, his father leaves their home in Northern Ireland to go to London and seek his fortune. The book begins by showing how close father and son are before this and then, as Peter enters adolescence and his father grows increasingly distant, Peter’s longing for him turns to anger and their troubled relationship continues well into his adult life. Running in parallel with this narrative strand, we see the difficulties the middle-aged Peter has with being a father to his teenage son, Jack.

Freud had quite a bit to say about sons and fathers. He observed, for instance, that a 16-year-old boy’s need to be affirmed by his father is stronger than his urge to mate (in othered words, strong). In Raising Boys, Steve Biddulph examines what a father can do for his son while the boy is growing up. He argues that boys like to accompany their fathers on adventures in what Biddulph winningly terms “the big wide world”. They learn from what their Dads say and do and from their attitudes. Biddulph concludes his exploration of a Dad’s role by wondering if mothers can’t do it all and asking if fathers really matter? He argues that they do: “The research supporting the importance of Dads is overwhelming. Boys with absent fathers are statistically more likely to be violent, get hurt, get into trouble, do poorly in schools and be members of teenage gangs in adolescence.”

There are other effects on a child of losing a father during childhood. Like many boys who grow up without a father I, however unconsciously, lacked the affirmation that a father should provide. Because of this, I have had – and still have – a yearning to be affirmed. Many fatherless sons hunger for affirmation and try to find it through success. To an extent, that hunger derives from an emotional hole that’s hard to fill. A good, present father shows his son that he is okay; he affirms his son in who he is and as a result the boy grows up secure in his identity.

In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell observes that for many, the death of a mother or father is a spur that catapults them into life. He dubs these fatherless children “eminent orphans.” Study after study, Gladwell writes, demonstrate that among those who have succeeded the incidence of “eminent orphans” is oddly high. The last time he saw his father, Barack Obama was 10.  Eleven other U.S. presidents lost their father at a young age.  From the beginning of the 19th century through to the start of World War II, 67% of British prime ministers lost a parent before the age of 16. One of the most celebrated eminent orphans is John Lennon, who in childhood lost both parents.  He expresses his feelings about that in the words of his song “Mother”. In it, he positively roars about being abandoned by both his mother, who died when Lennon was in his teens and his father, who abandoned the family when the former Beatle was five.  At the end of the song, the singer bawls out “Daddy come home”.

So yes, fathers are important. I wanted one as a boy and the same is true of Peter Duffy in The Former Boy Wonder, who has spent his whole, globe-trotting career looking for the affirmation of success. His struggle in the book is to avoid repeating history and learn to properly affirm his son.

The Former Boy Wonder is out now.


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