The Special Role of Fathers

Listen on Spotify

Things have changed a lot in recent years. The traditional roles of mother and father aren’t what they were when many of us were growing up – and certainly not what they were in the time of our grandparents and those before them. Today, both parents – regardless of gender – are much more involved in the raising of their kids. This is great. Yet the archetypes of Mother and Father remain. And the function of these archetypes is still important.

The special role of fathers is vastly different from that of mothers. Mom is responsible for providing home while Dad is responsible for us leaving home.

Archetypally, home is the realm of Mom. Mom is home. And it is Mom’s role to nurture us inside this safe place.  Meanwhile, Dad, the archetypal Father, exists mostly outside of the home. Father goes to work, to a place unknown. Dad’s constant leaving of the home acts as a bridge for us to explore something beyond what we know.

Eventually, we all need to leave home in order to find and create home for ourselves as adults.  We need some break with Mother (literally our first home and archetypally always our home) in order to grow up. Father teaches us, inspires us, and - sometimes even - pushes us to go out into the world.

It’s important to remember that archetypes are without gender. Mother and Father can be any gender. The emphasis here is on the role each archetype plays.

I’m going to share a personal example of this and then a slew of fun examples. (This is a longer post than most. Note that the titles of most examples have hyper-links to more information.)

Recently I mentioned a single male friend who adopted a young girl. He was her sole parent for almost 19 years. He fed her, protected her, and nurtured her through her entire young life. Until he moved to another state when she was almost nine, he had a cadre of wonderful women friends who spent time with her. Still, on a day-to-day basis, it was just the two of them.

As she grew into her teenage years, single parenting became more difficult. Her physical development into a young woman was completely foreign to him. More than that, due to his own upbringing (lack of strong parental models, lack of structure), he struggled to provide boundaries and discipline. In short, there was no authority in the home.

The Father (as an archetype) is largely responsible for providing rules and structure that teach children how to successfully become responsible adults. The Father “lays down the law,” so to speak. Why? Because this is the archetype that exists mostly outside of the home, who understands the behaviors needed to survive in the world. Whereas, inside the home, Mother rules. Behavior at home is quite different. This is why we long to go home, where we are comfortable, where we can relax, where we are accepted just as we are. This is what the Mother archetype provides. But we cannot live at home forever or all the time. Growing up means leaving home. Father is that bridge.

Just before this daughter turned 15, she asked me if I would be her mom. Having known and loved her since she was 18 months old, and having always wanted to be a mom (but had miscarried twice), I was thrilled. Technically, this meant that I would be her legal guardian if something happened to her father before she turned eighteen. More immediately, however, it meant that I was free to indulge her with shopping sprees. We spent long hours searching for bras and other appropriate, yet chic, clothing to fit her shapely body. It also meant that her father could now send her to stay with me. We even planned for her to come live with me – if only for one semester – to give her father a break. After which, her father would relocate as well.

In my eagerness to be a mom, however, I failed to realize that I would always inherently fulfill the Father archetype. Her home was her dad. Her dad embodied the Mother archetype. Wherever he was would always be her primary home. I was the one who lived outside of the home (in another state, in fact). Yes, I was a feminine presence, which is important, but more than anything, I was a Father. I showed her what life could be as an adult, I embodied another possibility. Living with me came with rules, which I enforced. Yet, at a crucial time when as parents we needed to insist on her going to school, her dad buckled. I was stripped of my authority. The two of them returned to the home they shared alone and, at age 15, she never returned to school again.

After that, I struggled to find and understand my role. I tried to be a mom, I tried to be a friend, I tried to be a co-parent. It took a tragedy for me to understand that I would always embody the Father. When her dad died suddenly, she reached out to me as the other parent. But she would not allow me to comfort her. She would not allow me to protect her, take care of her, or do anything that a Mother does. She was now 20 years old. I had no authority. There was nothing I could do.

Of course there is more to this story but, in a nutshell, while she may have called me Mama, I was always in the Father role. I provided instruction, discipline, and a bridge to beyond what she knew. Hopefully, I helped her on her journey to becoming an adult. I will always love her. I will always be here for her. Maybe someday she will leave home and come find me, and along the way discover her full potential.

This is, at least, how it happens in stories. We see the successful fulfillment of countless hero journeys in myth, movies, and literature.

In the Navajo tradition, the great sun god Jóhonaa’éí, fathers Monster Slayer but always remains in the sky. Eventually his son leaves home to find his father and, in doing so, discovers his calling (his purpose) as the one who rids the earth of monsters. In Christianity, God is the Father of Jesus who, like Monster Slayer, was born of a woman and who grows up to fulfill his destiny of crushing the head of the greatest monster of all – Satan.

In other words, Father is the spark, the one who sires creation but is not involved in daily life. The Father guides a child’s potential and inspires possibility.

Many popular movies illustrate this archetype. In the 2014 blockbuster, Guardians of the Galaxy, the father of the protagonist, Peter Quill, is “an angel” from another galaxy. After Peter’s mother dies, he spends his life in space. Before he finally finds his father in film 2, he grows ups, creates his own family out of unlikely friends, and battles a monster dictator who wants to destroy the planet. Interstellar, also from 2014, features a father who leaves his children to save the world and spends the rest of their lifetimes in space. Yet his distance is what motivates his daughter to study science and ultimately save civilization. In the film The Terminator, John Connor—the boy who leads humans to victory over machines—was sired by a man from the future. He comes from another time to create a son who will be a modern monster slayer.

As regular Dads go, perhaps the best example is George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. While very much a loving father, George is not grounded in the home. Every time he touches the knob on the staircase it comes off in his hands. George belongs in the office. When he comes home, he is distracted. When he tries to take care of family issues that his wife already has under control, he makes matters worse. George Bailey is a father who lives in his work. His actual job is, in fact, to assist others in finding new homes! And yet, here, too, we see that George is a hero figure. His life outside of the home, as simple and as unimportant as George thinks it may be, is responsible for saving – at the very least, enriching – many lives and even an entire town.

We also see in this film how George’s father wants him to join him at the building and loan, but George wants an adventure. This predicament is common. Before joining the Father (in the world outside of home), the child needs an adventure. This adventure, which starts by leaving home, culminates in adulthood. This is not restricted to any gender. True, George does not go on the adventure he dreamed of having. But when he marries, he leaves his Mother’s home. And in the short span of a few hours while he fights against the evil Mr. Potter and managers to save the building and loan, he has all the adventure needed to become a hero and an adult.

The role of the Father is to encourage the child to leave home, to have an adventure, and become an adult.

When the actual father is deceased, or the Father archetype is absent in the home for any reason, a substitute may step into this role.

In the Harry Potter series, Harry’s father dies when he is a baby. The great wizard, Albus Dumbledore, is Harry’s Father figure. While Hogwarts is Harry’s home, Dumbledore (as headmaster) does not concern himself with many of the internal details of the school. Instead, he is active in the wizarding world and often away on business. He allows Harry some freedom for his adventures while still providing him structure and rules. He provides sage council. His influence eventually convinces Harry to leave Hogwarts and to, well, slay the greatest monster of all.

In some cases, when there is no Father to inspire the child to leave, the child will remain at home. This can be a huge problem as the child will then not grow up. The child may be intelligent and appear capable but never differentiates themselves from the original home (Mother) and never fulfills their own potential.

In the 2011 film, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Jeff is a thirty-year-old who continues to live at home with his mother in the house he grew up in; the house in which he was a child when his father suddenly died. Jeff has spent his life looking for a meaning to his father’s death, unable to find an answer to the haunting “Why?” that is exaggerated by a child’s perspective. Jeff has been unable to achieve anything in his life: he doesn’t finish school, he can’t hold a job, he spends his days in the basement smoking marijuana. Jeff and his older brother, Pat, have never been close, even as children, and his mother has had no romantic relationship since her husband. Jeff has no one in his life who might embody the Father archetype and call him out into the world. Consequently, he continues to look for “signs” to direct him: he is looking for a higher power—one that the Father normally represents—to guide him.

Forrest Gump (in the film of the same name) also has no Father. His father is completely absent from his life and he has never known him. No teacher, doctor, or college football coach ever steps into this role. Forest leaves home but never really leaves his mother when he goes to college or enrolls in the Army. His promise to Bubba, his Army friend who dies in his arms, motivates him to go to Louisiana and try his hand at shrimping. This, too, is not really leaving home since he sees it as only keeping a promise, a value his mother taught him. Lieutenant Dan, his commanding officer, could have become a Father to him except that he is emotionally unavailable and falls apart after he loses his legs in combat.

Instead, Forrest only truly leaves home after there is no longer anyone at home. His mother has died. And Jenny, whom he has loved since childhood, leaves him. Everything that Forrest associates with family and home is gone. He is completely alone. So one day, with nothing left to hold him in place, he starts running. He runs and runs and runs. He has no direction, no plan, he just runs. He runs for three years, two months, fourteen days, and sixteen hours. Running is in fact how he finally puts his adolescence behind him by separating from his original home. When he returns, he returns home a man. Now he can marry and accept the responsibilities of being a father himself.

Another great example is in Ben Stiller’s 2013 film adaptation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. In this scenario, Walter’s father dies when he is sixteen, leaving him to take care of his mother and younger sister. Despite being incredibly responsible, Walter has never really grown up, he has not come into his own. Just before his father died, he gave Walter a backpack, encouraging him to travel the world, but of course Walter went to work instead.

Eventually, the mysterious photographer Sean O’Connell steps into the Father archetype. He sends Walter a leather wallet with a personal dedication and Life’s motto embossed inside:

To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, to draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the Purpose of LIFE.

This is a classic gift of the archetypal Father: one that is both useful and inspiring.

Walter leaves home in search of O’Connell, believing that O’Connell has the answers he needs. Instead, he experiences a transformative hero’s journey and discovers that what he was looking for was always in his possession.

“You’ve always had the power, my dear. You just had to learn it for yourself,” said Glinda to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy arrives in Munchkin Land, she is heartily welcomed to stay. But Dorothy is already on an adventure and is now determined to go home. So Glinda gives her instructions and sends her on her way to find the great and powerful wizard. Only after the great wizard leaves Oz without her does Dorothy discover she always had the power within her. The Father has returned to the sky and she alone is responsible for finding her way home.

One of my favorite examples of the archetypal Father embodied in a surrogate is in the critically acclaimed film, Good Will Hunting. Here, Sean Maguire, a therapist, acts as the father needed to push the main character, Will, out into the world.

Will is a twenty years old orphan, who suffered severe abuse in foster care. He lives alone in a run-down apartment, works as a janitor, and hangs out with friends doing much of nothing. He is also a genius who refuses to embrace his extraordinary intellectual abilities. Instead, he intends to be a labor worker his entire life and never leave South Boston, the only home he has ever known. Eventually Will bonds with Sean, the therapist that the court orders Will to meet with regularly. Sean imposes rules on Will that assist in helping Will take responsibility for his life. At the end of their last court-appointed therapy session, Sean hugs Will and tells him “Good luck, son.” After this, Will is able to move past his fears and leaves on an adventure to become the man he was meant to be.

It is really important to note that the Father archetype can appear in anyone.

In the novel (and subsequent movie of 2015), Brooklyn, Eilis’s sister, Rose, embodies the Father archetype when their father dies. Rose continues to live with their mother, but she is also an independent woman who plays golf and works as a bookkeeper in an office. It is Rose who arranges for Eilis to go to America, buys her new clothes, and provides her with money to survive until she is earning her own way.

In the hit musical Mamma Mia!, daughter Sophie is getting married but intends to keep living with her mother, helping her run the bed and breakfast. But, not knowing who her father is, she has always felt like a part of her is missing. When she sends wedding invites to the three men who slept with her mother, they all attend, and each pledges to share her as their daughter. Now the archetypal Father is finally present in her life and Sophie decides not to marry. Instead she insists that she and her fiancé should explore the world. The presence of Father has released her bondage to home: she is now free to leave.

Mother is home. Our first home and our connection to home. She is the comfortable womb, the place where we are taken care of and where we can just be. Father disturbs that comfort. Father calls us out of this safe place and requires us to think, to become conscious, to become.

Even with same gender parents (or parents that identify as non-binary), these archetypes still occur. Archetypes are genderless. Mother and Father can be any gender. The emphasis here is on the role each archetype plays. Home will always be associated with the Mother archetype because Mom is indeed our first home. And the Father archetype – whether that is a parent within the household or someone outside – is the one who calls us out of the home, encourages us to leave  home. And this is critically important.

We need this balance of archetypes in our lives.

We can’t stay in our original home forever and we can’t remain children forever. We must leave home to become an adult and then find and create home as an adult for ourselves. Only then can we  potentially fulfill these archetypes for our own children and others.


Who embodied the Father archetype in your life? How did this person influence your leaving home? Were you inspired or encouraged? Or were you essentially forced out?

Or, did you grow up with parents who were not fully adults themselves, people who could not fully embody either the Mother or Father archetypes?

Looking back, can you recognize your leaving home as embarking on a hero’s journey? How did leaving home impact your life? Along the way, did you discover gifts you didn’t realize you had?

I took this photo of a friend’s father in Resuttano, Sicily in May 2020. In his riding away, he embodies one image of the Father archetype: always leaving home on a road that shows us the way to something beyond what we know.