Encounters with Oedipus Rex

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

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.