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When Willie Wet the Bed
Fathering poetry about a classic problem.

When adult control fails, the resulting power vacuum is filled by gangs and bullies. By Clyde Verner.

Teaching Children the Importance of Winning
Encouraging in our children the drive to win can be just as important as teaching them to lose gracefully. By Chris Call.

Suggestions for the New Single Father
Russel Wayne provides some immensely practical childcare tips for the man who has to go it alone.

Promoting Your Child's Balanced Development
Giving your children the opportunity to develop a special talent can provide them with a sense of their uniqueness and be a healthy enhancement to their self esteem. By Gerald Alpern.

Classical Fathering versus the Judeo-Christian Model
We interview historian Frederick Hodges about raising children with classical Western values by avoiding the methods imposed on the West by Middle-Eastern religions.

What Fathers Do
by Jack Kammer.

The Fathering Advisor
Selected Reader Mail Gets Our Response

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young son photo (c) Corbis. All rights reserved.
© Corbis. All rights reserved.

Encounters with Oedipus Rex

by Matthew Westra

One evening as I was leaving to teach a night class, I kissed my three-year-old son, Ben, goodbye as he played on the living room floor. I went to the couch and kissed my wife, Cheryl. As I reached the front door, Ben sprang from the floor, climbed onto the couch next to Cheryl, wiped the kiss from her lips with broad strokes of his open palm, turned to face me with a challenging, chest-out posture, pointed his finger accusingly, and declared, "You don't kiss her. She's MY wife!"

The kid had me over a barrel. He was going to win this battle because, after spending all day taking care of his needs, I was off to earn money to feed and house this insurgent. Despite my tenuous situation, I was caught by the sight of this former cherub, now puffed up like a bullfrog in mating season and full of himself.

Actually, Freud would say, "Good! The child needs to engage in this type of scenario for healthy development." Well, Freud comes under fire pretty regularly. There are a variety of reasons, from telling people truths they don't like to hear, to saying stuff that hasn't been borne out as truth at all. It's hard sometimes to ferret out which is which. I could go on in defense of Freud, but let's just accept the position that we should not throw out the proverbial baby with the proverbial bath water. Freud provides some of each.

The basic idea is that children in this age group come to want total possession of the opposite-sex parent's time, attention and love. Meanwhile the child sees the same-sex parent as a competitor. Don't get bogged down by arguments over whether or not the child wants sex with the parent. Some psychologists believe that the child does, but other psychologists reject this belief. Basically, there can be sexual overtones such as flirtation, inappropriate or adult-style kissing, and attempts to mimic adult love relationships, but not every child displays these.

Freud refers to this situation as the Oedipal Conflict (the O is silent, so it starts like "Ed"). Freud refers to the ancient story set down by Sophocles about Oedipus Rex. In a nutshell, the story goes like this: It was foretold to the king that his son, Oedipus, would grow up and kill him. The king wanted the boy disposed of, but rather than being killed, Oedipus ended up in a foreign land. He grew up a strong warrior, traveled far to seek his fortune, had an altercation with a stranger and killed him -- guess who? Later in the story, Oedipus ends up marrying the queen, his mom. You can read or attend the trilogy of plays to witness the rest of the tragic tale.

Stories that stay around for generations are considered to be enduring because they say something to humanity across time and place. Freud considered that the story of Oedipus related to the unconscious remnants of our own Oedipal conflicts (the parallel for girls is the Electra Conflict).

So boys, like Ben, develop a strong desire for mother. Father is seen as a competitor. Father and son must do battle. The father must be symbolically killed, or incapacitated, or driven out. Ben and I did battle in many ways. He was a fierce opponent -- children often seem to have greater stamina than their parents.

When Cheryl and I would stand to hug, we'd often feel a child wedging between our kneecaps. In the mornings, Ben would slide between us in bed and push his back against me while saying, "You get up now Dad, there's not room in the bed for you." The second "you" came out like a word describing a bad smell. If Ben got hurt, and Cheryl was away, my kisses were a miracle cure for any injury. When Cheryl was home, my kisses were salt in the wound. There were innumerable other statements and acts that generally had the effect of making me feel rejected, unloved, and exiled from my son's life. And I was home with him four days a week.

Fortunately, this time passes. The son discovers (hopefully) that he cannot defeat the father, and that the mother is out of his reach. Healthy resolution involves the son changing his perspective and coming to identify with the father. The reasoning, though the child may not be able to articulate it, goes like this, "I want Mom, but I can't get her away from Dad, and Dad is stronger than I am. So, since Dad attracted Mom, if I become like Dad, then maybe I can attract a woman like Mom for myself." Now comes the glorious moment in the father's life when suddenly he goes from chopped liver to Master of the Universe. The son wants to go with Dad, to be like Dad, to talk, walk, dress, work, and do all things like Dad!

Of course, part of what convinces the child that he should turn to emulating Dad rather than battling him is fear of castration. Now the degree to which boys actually think Dad will sever the penis is a matter of debate. However, if we look at the situation figuratively, rather than literally, this makes more sense. The night of Ben's pronouncement that Cheryl was his wife, I laughed at him. He was displaying all his strength, his power. He was proclaiming for all to hear. I found all this bravado as unthreatening as a bug is to a windshield. My laughter was, in a figurative sense, castrating -- taking away his manhood, his strength.

Once we see the Oedipal Conflict in the figurative, we can recognize how Sophocles' story is retold in popular literature, song and film. Peter Pan has several Oedipal components. Peter, the eternal boy who refuses to grow up, takes Wendy to Neverland to serve as a "mother," yet there are certainly romantic tensions present. Captain Hook represents the father. When done on stage, the same actor is generally used for both Wendy's father and for Captain Hook (some Electra issues there too). In the Disney animated move, Hans Conried provides the voice for both. In the exciting conclusion, Peter rescues Wendy from Captain Hook -- the heroic son rescues the romantic-ideal mother from the evil father.

This Oedipal parallel was not lost on Ben. For most of the year Ben treated me as competition. His favorite activity was to role-play Peter Pan. In the game a bed served as a ship, the surrounding carpet was ocean, and an imaginary tick-tocking crocodile was ever present. When I tried to reverse roles, since it was just a game, Ben would refuse and become distraught near tears if I persisted in wanting a turn as the heroic boy.

The 1890's song, "I want a girl just like the girl that married dear old Dad" is a tribute to mother that hides a greater Oedipal meaning. Essentially, we can translate the lyric to "I want to marry my mother, or at least a reasonable facsimile."

So, how does the child get through all this to grow into a healthy, happy adult? Basically, for the boy to develop properly, he must not succeed in driving the father out, or in replacing the father. The child will do battle, but he must lose this battle. Mother must remain loyal to father, and father must not give up or give in. Only in his failure to replace the father does the child come to identify with the father and do the growing up that is necessary to successfully look for his own adult relationships. It is when he somehow becomes the "little man" in his mother's life that the stage is set for problems.

The Oedipal conflict is generally discussed in relation to the traditional family. But our purpose here is looking at the father as primary parent. We are the dominant adults in our sons' lives, so why doesn't that attachment develop to us rather than to the mother? Many of you may have been queried by well-meaning relatives, friends, and other busy-bodies about whether we are providing the "right" (read heterosexual, macho, ready-for-war-or-at-least-a-good-bar-brawl sort of regular guy) image for our sons. Well, rest assured that children will find a way to encounter the Oedipal conflict with, or without, our cooperation. Most will not display the striking drama that Ben provided, but they will establish a preference for the opposite-sex parent. They will also come around to identifying with the same-sex parent.

A single parent may find that the child substitutes an aunt or uncle, an older sibling, preschool teacher, a parent's date, or even a fictitious character from TV or movies to fill a vacant role in the Oedipal conflict. A son may idealize one of these women, work to be close to her, ask Dad scores of questions about her and about whether she and Dad might get together or get married. At the same time, he might wedge himself between the adults. Essentially, he needs to create some semblance of an Oedipal conflict in order to engage the father, define his own sense of being male in relation to females, and prepare himself for the transition into identifying with the father.

Remember, the attachment and desire to possess come from the mind of a three- to-five-year old. When the child says, "Mommy, I want to marry you," he perceives it from the relationship of mother and son. What man wouldn't want a wife who gives the idealized love a mother gives her son -- unconditional love, kisses that cure, recognition of his heroism, etc. Even when we transfer our desire from parent to peer, we never leave behind the desire for our sweethearts to provide those qualities. I want my wife's unconditional love, kisses that cure, and to be her hero.

Full-time fathering won't create sissified boys or professional wrestler daughters. These outcomes depend on the temperaments of the children and the particular parenting approaches that the individuals bring into their own families. Be aware of the types of conflicts you encounter with your children. Be aware that they may be part of something greater than just a single day's frustration. Lastly, be aware that as challenging as this time my be, it does end and your son needs this struggle to mature and ultimately become more like you.

Matthew Westra is the father of Benjamin (5) and Cameron (2). He shares parenting with his wife, Cheryl, who just finished her degree in social work. He teaches psychology at Longview Community College in Lees Summit, MO. He is the author of a textbook for the helping professions, "Active Communication - A Training Manual," Brooks/Cole, Monterey, CA.

This article originally appeared in Full-Time Dads, and is copyright 1995-1996 by Full-Time Dads. No reprint or other use of this article is allowed without express written consent of the author and Full-Time Dads.

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