Sexual politics in the 90s: Mothers and fathers - When did you last see your father?

He's the first man in your life, a daughter's window on the world. So what if he's not there? asks Julia Hamilton
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Indy Lifestyle Online
A few weeks ago I read an extract from Kathryn Harrison's shocker The Kiss, a "novel" about her incestuous relationship with her father. I found her prose style awkward and self-conscious, full of portentous imagery and tiny stylistic knacks designed to raise something sad and sordid into the realms of "art".

But what struck me most forcibly was my own inability to believe that she was really writing about her father. The man described as "my father" was a man she had not ever lived with or known personally until she was 20. He had sired her but he had not "fathered" her in any other way that counted. Obviously , kinship is decided by blood and is indissoluble, but the taboo that had been broken here was not one of trust and affection and care: all the things that go into the happiest mix of father and daughter relationships, the ingredients that make the relationship sacred.

When I was in therapy I remember asking my therapist what fathers were for. She came up with an answer of startling clarity: fathers are for handing their daughters gracefully and lovingly into the outside world; during their daughters' adolescence they should help them steer their way through the difficulties and hazards of puberty, exams, boys, and be on hand to answer from their own fund of wisdom those all-consuming questions that plague most teenagers about life, death and the universe. In other words, fathers should be there. They must bestow affection and, above all, approval. Their function is to endorse their daughters' choices and to support their mistakes.

Yeah, well. How many people do you know whose fathers have fulfilled their role in quite that way? What happens if, in Alice B Toklas's words, "there is no there there"? An awful lot of girls now, just like Kathryn Harrison, don't live with their fathers at all; it is quite common to hear of girls who have not seen their fathers for years. How do they manage the balancing act on their own?

I didn't live regularly with my own father from the age of about 13. I saw a fair bit of him, but it wasn't the same as having him on tap. I missed him terribly - we had been the best of companions before he and my mother parted. I am twice- divorced. Are these two facts related? If he had been there, would I have avoided the two most gigantic mistakes of my life? On balance, I think the answer is yes, but it's not his fault, it's not anyone's fault. And you can't rewrite the past unless you are a novelist (which I am), but I wouldn't be the writer I am if it weren't for the problems I've encountered that forced me to take my life apart at the seams.

My own two daughters have not lived with their father for a decade - more than half their lives, although they do see him. All sorts of questions litter the path ahead about the choices they will make when it comes to men, because (if my therapist was right) the good father is the basic pattern-book of successful future decisions regarding the opposite sex where girls are concerned. Even lesbian couples who are joint-parenting babies talk boldly about the need for a male presence in the lives of their children. But it needs to be more than that, more than just a bloke who pops in occasionally and takes an interest.

Ideally girls need an attentive, loving, permanent masculine presence. Ideally. But is all this part of one of the central problems of modern life? We are all so well-informed about so many things. We know what we should eat and drink. We all know our Freud and our Jung. We know our Oedipal complexes and all about that tweedledee of masculine and feminine consciousness. But knowing, as anyone who has been in therapy will tell you, does not solve the problem, it merely makes you aware that it exists.

After all, ours is not the first fatherless generation. There are probably more men hanging around in domestic situations than there have been since the turn of the century. Two world wars wiped out a whole lot of fathers, but things were different then; the old order, although collapsing, still prevailed. Fathers were enshrined in paternalistic institutions. God was still a man in the Fifties. Girls were expected to marry and have children.

The dissolution of old certainties has resulted in tremendous confusion and anger in the relationships between the sexes. Millennium-man may or may not be married to the mother of his children; it is highly likely that he doesn't live with his family. Millennium-daughter, reared on feminism and self-defence classes, regards the idea of a "father- figure" as a bit of a joke and is likely to judge her own father, particularly if she does not live with him, with affection mixed with a large dose of hostility. Fathers who are not "fathering" are more like other, ordinary, people; they are demythologised and their offspring do not necessarily extend to them the immunity that family members who live together automatically grant each other.

And just to confuse matters, consumerism has latched onto the family as hip. It's cool to push a stroller with a pink-cheeked baby in it: a healthy, well-turned-out, beguiling baby is a designer accessory: it means we ourselves are healthy, well-turned-out and (we hope) beguiling. But, as one friend said to me, "Any fool can look after a baby, it's when they get older that the going gets rough." A daughter is for life, not just for Christmas.

The trouble is that the content of the push-chair does not remain docile and beguiling. It grows up and gets cheeky. It doesn't believe everything you tell it. It becomes a typical teenager - stubborn, cussed, and more demanding than ever, but in a different way, by which time many fathers of such daughters are long-gone, often in new relationships, with another delicious, pink-cheeked bundle in another push-chair. So, what is the answer? I don't know, but there are two dictums on which I am content to rest my baffled and weary brain. The first is "Know thyself", the second is Socrates' gem: "The unexamined life is not worth living."