Oedipus in modern-day France

I used to think that Freud was crazy when I thought about his theory about the Oedipus complex. I mean, really! Every boy wants to have sex with his mother and kill his father? And I could relate even less to castration anxiety. Were boys really afraid of being castrated by their father, to end up with a cut off penis like their mother?

At some point in my life, around the time when I was getting married, I got into Jungian psychology. It’s a depth psychology, called analytical psychology, which takes into account the unconscious: both the personal unconscious (discovered and explored by Freud) and the collective unconscious. Carl Gustav Jung was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, and they were friends and collaborators before their famous split, of which the consequences are felt to this day in the psychoanalytical world. At some earlier point in life I had come across Jung’s theories about archetypes, and I had found his ideas very weird and had dismissed them. Years later, though, when I took the time to read and truly understand his theories (by reading the books of his followers rather than his own, less accessible works), it made total sense to me. Before I knew it I was talking about archetypes, and the animus etc. without blinking and it was only a while later that I remembered how odd I had found these ideas before and how I had dismissed them.

This made me wonder about Freud. Could it be possible that there was some truth to Freud’s ideas about the Oedipus complex? Would I find it incredibly helpful and insightful if I made the effort to really understand it? From the sheer amount of followers that Freud has even to this day, it certainly seemed so. So I decided to go for it and I signed up for a weeklong intensive reading seminar, in which we discussed the major works of Freud. It opened up a whole new world to me, and I finally decided that, no, Freud was not simply mad.

Infantile pleasure

Reading Freud on the Oedipus complex made me realise first and foremost to not confuse the Oedipus myth and the psychological drama to which Freud gave that name. In the myth Oedipus is sent away from his parents as a baby (because of a prophecy that says that he will kill his father) and grows up somewhere else. As an adult man he goes to war, kills his father, the king, and then ends up marrying his mother, the queen. But he doesn’t know that the king and queen are his father and mother! So it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

From the way I read Freud, I got a different image of the Oedipus drama, one that was very much toned down. The way I understand it, it goes like this: a boy (and any child, but Freud is most comfortable with male psychology) loves his mother. The first, life-saving pleasure comes from the mother: from suckling at the breast and drinking warm, nourishing milk. This, by the way, is also valid for modern-day bottle fed babies. They are also experiencing their first, life-saving pleasurable feelings by being fed by the main caretaker (most often the mother) while enjoying the closeness of being held and the sucking on the teat of the bottle. Freud calls this “infantile sexuality”[1], but I think we would all feel much more comfortable if he had simply called it “infantile pleasure”. The reason he calls it sexual is because these early experiences of pleasure, originally tied to self-preservation (sucking in the oral stage), and later different ones (in the anal and phallic stages), will later be transformed and come under the sway of the reproductive system. Remnants of these infantile ways of obtaining pleasure will be found in adult sexuality (in the genital stage). The reason that we feel so uncomfortable with Freud’s “infantile sexuality” is that we equate “sexuality” to “adult sexuality”, which of course is completely taboo when we think of a child-parent relationship.

So the love for, and pleasurable feelings generated by the mother are in fact the prototype of later adult love for, and sexual feelings generated by a romantic partner. From an evolutionary point of view it would be very difficult and inefficient if we had to come up with a whole new way of relating to someone by the time we reach adulthood. It is much more likely that some experiences that we had as a child are then changed slightly to fit the needs of our reproductive system. In order for our species to survive, we must reproduce. In other words: we must have sex, and in order to be motivated to have sex, sex must be pleasurable.

The Oedipus drama

So we come back to our initial statement: a boy loves his mother. As everyone who has children knows very well, a child can never have enough of what he loves. My oldest son’s favourite toys are cars, and, even though he has way too many cars (in my opinion), every single day he asks for more cars. I could buy all the cars in the store and it still wouldn’t be enough. And, at the age of nearly four, Louis can never get enough of his mother: me. I spend a lot of time with him every day, but it is never sufficient. He doesn’t want to go to school because he misses me. When I go upstairs to get something, he follows me. When I go in a different room to get away from his noisy play (toy cars can be very noisy indeed) to get his 4-month old brother Lars to sleep, he follows me. Asking him to be quiet doesn’t work, and he gets very upset when I close the door to try and shut his noise out so the baby can finally sleep. In fact, at this point I should just give up, because the baby isn’t going to sleep with Louis wailing in the next room and while his mother is upset because of the endless harassing. Yes, this is a strong word, but I’m sure many mothers will understand the severity of the sentiment. When I am in the toilet, he shouts and asks where I am and what I’m doing. It drives me absolutely nuts, especially after a night of being woken up numerous times with the request that I sleep in his room, and in his bed. I try to remind myself that it is because he loves me so much, but after months of sleep deprivation, I sometimes wish he would love me just a tiny bit less, at least for a little while, to give me a break.

My husband Leonard has been very much involved in the child rearing from the beginning and is very close to Louis. Because no child likes to sleep alone (the night is scary and lonely, even for adults), and to avoid jealousy towards Lars who still sleeps in my room, we got him a bunk bed. This way Leonard could read (or fall asleep) in the top bed when Louis was feeling particularly scared or lonely. It was a good plan, and it worked for a while. But for a long while, he just cried for me, and wanted his father to go away. In the evening, after an hour-long night routine that consists of reading books, cuddling and playing with the stuffed toys, he wants us to stay longer. When we explain that we want to spend some time together, he responds “ok, but not too long”. At some point he even said: “no cuddling”. Sometimes he tries to kiss me on the mouth, and when I explain that only Leonard, my husband, has the right to kiss me on my mouth, he tries to insist forcefully. In fact, I dare say that he tries to seduce me.

It is very clear that he wants to take his father’s place as my husband, as Oedipus (unknowingly) does in the myth. There is clear rivalry, despite his love for his father. When I’m not around, he is perfectly happy with having Leonard bathe him, brush his teeth, help him to put on his clothes, give him his breakfast and bring him to school. But if I’m home, I have to do it. To me, this is part of what constitutes the Oedipus drama. As the famous French psychoanalyst Françoise Dolto says: a boy will do anything to keep his parents apart and have his mother to himself. However, if he succeeds, he will feel very guilty and it will have negative consequences for his future, especially his future romantic relationships.

Speaking true

In keeping with French culture, Dolto therefore insists that parents are very firm, especially at the time at which the Oedipus drama plays out. She advocates openly talking about the taboo or prohibition of incest. Children need to know from a very early age that they cannot have a sexual relationship with their parent. Most importantly, they can never have that type of relationship. Many parents tell their children that they are too small to kiss or sleep together, which results in boys growing up under the impression that once they are big, they can take the place of their father. It’s important to make it clear that they cannot have that type of relationship exactly because they are related, as child-parent, or as siblings, and not just because they are too young.

Dolto is very confrontational in her speaking and writing, and she has a very distinct style. She is still a household name in France. She was a paediatric nurse and psychoanalyst and worked with heavily disturbed children and infants. She was also very much involved in outreach, in educating the educators: parents, teachers, childminders, etc. Later in life she answered to letters sent in by parents and teachers on the radio. She had an enormous influence on the way people saw infants, and even infants not yet born. She knew intuitively how the emotional experiences of the mother and surrounding people affected the foetus. Modern neuroscience and experimental psychology have shown that she was right, but at the time her ideas were very innovative.

As a psychoanalyst, she was a contemporary of Jacques Lacan, a famous controversial French Freudian revisionist, according to whom language is the most important and determining dimension of human experience[2]. Dolto was a very practical person and admitted to not understanding all of Lacan’s writings and presentations[3][4]. As such, she can’t be considered a Lacanian psychoanalyst. She did however agree on the importance of language, and this from as early as the final months in the womb. To her, language is what makes us different from animals: language is the ultimate humanising factor.

So it comes as no surprise that she was such a proponent of “speaking true” to children, independent of age. Dolto liked to invent her own language and in French she advocates “parler vrai”, which literally translates into “speaking true”, and can be understand as speaking truthfully or speaking in a truthful way but also includes speaking in a simple way that the child can understand, without embellishments or niceties, and without restraining oneself due to social conventions and good manners. As Dolto was so fond of examples, I can offer you an example from my own interactions with Louis.

When he was two and a half years old, he started spending his days with a new childminder. She told me that he was very possessive of her, and acted jealous when she gave the other children her attention. I decided to try Dolto’s “speaking true” and have a little word with him. During the 5-minute car drive to the childminder’s house I told him that I had a lot of studying to do and needed peace and quiet at home. Therefore we were paying a childminder to help us take care of him. I explained that the parents of the other two children also paid her to take care of them, that she was not his mother, and not their mother. And that it was her job to give them equal attention. I added that she liked him as she liked the other kids, but she didn’t love him like his parents and family loves him. She has her own children whom she loves. Finally I said that he shouldn’t be clingy with her. He seemed attentive in the car, and when I went to pick him up in the afternoon, I was curious to hear how it went that day. The childminder told me that his behaviour was as different as day and night. He had been very independent and patient when she was helping the other kids. I was amazed. After all, he was only a little over two years old, and he had understood all that? Incredible! I don’t think I believe that young children – and even less unborn infants! – really understand the meaning of these kinds of explanations, but the effect of “speaking true” cannot be denied. Something is definitely going on.

Castration anxiety

In Freud’s psychoanalytic theory the Oedipus conflict gets resolved with the help of castration anxiety. It goes something like this: the son wants to take the place of the father in his mother’s bed, and for that reason he fears the father as a rival. He is afraid that his father will cut off his penis, hence the term “castration anxiety”. Because of that fear, he finally learns to channel his sexual feelings towards girls, and later women, his own age.

When I read about this, I was extremely sceptical to say the least. I made some sense of it by not taking it literally, but symbolically. If you cut out the penis cutting part (no pun intended), it becomes more believable. I can see how a boy, out of fear of his father (or out of respect for the incest taboo firmly applied by both his parents and society) would learn to channel his sexual (pleasurable) feelings elsewhere more appropriate. But when I gently posed the question at the reading seminar series, the teacher said that he thought that Freud had meant it both figuratively and literally. Freud was convinced that all children, boys and girls alike, think that everyone originally had a penis, and that the penis of girls and women had been cut of. When I expressed disbelief at that – after all, I certainly can’t remember thinking any such thing as a child – another participant told us that she had two children, a boy and a girl, and that they had indeed, without anyone saying anything of that sort, decided that the girl’s penis had been cut of. I wasn’t convinced, and I still am not, but I decided to take things in my own hands and teach my then two and a half year old son exactly what the difference is between boys and girls. I got a good educational book adapted to his age and started naming body parts. The funny thing is that for a very long time, Louis kept insisting that I had a penis, that grandma had a penis, and so on. I kept responding that girls had something else (I used the Flemish word, which literally translates into “little slit”, which makes it very clear), but he would have none of that. After a while we compromised on girls having a type of penis, different from the penis of boys. For some unknown and possibly unrelated reason he also insisted that his female relatives had a beard. I wonder if it’s just a matter of children thinking that everyone else is like them, and whether a girl would think that everyone has a vagina. But I guess I’ll never know because my second child is a boy as well, and we are not planning on having more children.

At the age of three and a half, Louis liked to point out that I am a girl, and daddy, his baby brother and he are boys. He actually said that I am a mummy-girl and that he likes mummy-girls. When I asked him whether he likes small girls as well, he was uncertain. There is still some confusion as he sometimes talks about his own vagina, but he quickly corrects himself and calls it a penis when I interject. For some reason he says that he wants grandma to be a boy. When I ask him why he just responds that he would like that.

At the age of nearly four, Louis showed clear signs of going through the Oedipus drama and experiencing anxiety towards his father as a rival. One day Leonard and I were discussing the premise of the American TV show called “The Bachelor”. It’s a reality show where one man gets to date 25 women in very exotic places. At the end of every episode he has to send a couple of women home. In the season finale he is expected to propose to the last woman standing, after which they ride of into the sunset and live happily ever after… or not. I love watching the show, discussing all the drama and speculating about the outcome. One of the awkward things of this show is that the bachelor ends up kissing many women in a very short time interval. On group dates he often kisses several of them on the same night. Their website even contains a scoreboard to keep track of how many times he kisses each woman.

Leonard asked if he missed anything in last week’s episode and I told him about all the drama that ensued because this particular bachelor was not very considerate and kissed a woman in front of the others. Louis was playing with his cars, but heard everything and started asking a lot of “why” questions. We explained to him that you’re only supposed to kiss one person on the mouth at any given time. We have to specify “on the mouth” as we live in France and it is common to kiss friends on the cheek to say hello and goodbye. As an example we said that when Leonard and I got married, we promised to never kiss anyone else on the mouth but each other. We told Louis that he could kiss someone on the mouth when he was older, and asked him whom he would like to kiss, expecting to hear the name of one of his girlfriends at school. He answered: “mummy”. Then we explained that only daddy was allowed to kiss mummy. He could never kiss mummy on the mouth, not even when he was as tall as daddy. Kissing on the mouth is simply not allowed between mother and child (at least not in our culture. I know it is different in Latin America, but we didn’t want to confuse him, and we didn’t want to explain what French kissing was at this stage in his life.) Louis was not happy about this at all and started whining.

That night he woke up crying and was very upset with his father. I had a hard time calming him down enough to get him to tell me what was going on. He had a nightmare. In his dream he had been cuddling with his father, when all of a sudden Leonard started hitting him and hurting him. How terrible! No wonder he was so upset! But why had he dreamt such an awful thing? Leonard is a very gentle person and father, and we are very much opposed to corporal punishment. The only answer I can come up with is that it was related to our discussion on kissing earlier that day. Leonard wanted to kiss me, but he knew that his father – like the women on “The Bachelor” – would get very angry. So in his dream he imagined his father retaliating for the forbidden kiss and hurting him. We could even go further and imagine that a small part of him had wanted his father to be out of the picture so that he could kiss mummy. The mere thought of hurting the person you love most would instil a lot of guilt. The dream could thus also be explained as self-punishment for wanting to hurt his father. I think these are the kinds of explanations that Freud would have had.

So the fact that he had these desires for his mother made him feel anxious and fearful of his father. Freud translates this anxiety into a fear of his father cutting of his penis, an interpretation that I would have never personally come up with. Where does it come from? According to me, one part of the puzzle lies in the fact that Freud lived in a different time than I do. I can imagine that in the early 1900s, when Freud put forward the theory of “castration anxiety”, parents talked much less openly, or not at all, about their genitals and about sex. If something cannot be discussed, everything is left to the imagination. In such circumstances it might not be so strange to come to the conclusion that the penis of girls was cut off, especially since boys had no way of knowing that girls had a vagina, since it wasn’t easily visible and wasn’t discussed. From there it’s not such a stretch to imagine your father avenging your desire for your mother by cutting of your penis. Especially not if you have a mother who threatens to cut off your penis if you don’t behave, as the mother of at least one of Freud’s patients did[5].

Jung would have probably had a different take on Louis’ nightmare of being hit and hurt by his father. Jung put forward the idea of archetypes. The way I understand it, they are like instincts, but they preside in the mental world rather than the physical realm. One important archetype is that of the Father. According to this theory, any newborn inherits unconscious knowledge of the full range of archetypes, just like he inherits his instincts. The complete Father archetype contains all the elements of the good, loving, tender father as well as those of the bad, cruel, punishing father. Because these archetypes exist in the unconscious, it is not a problem that the complete father archetype is internally inconsistent. Contradictory elements can coexist quite happily in the unconscious, as opposed to the conscious, where any contradiction or ambivalence makes us feel so uneasy that we work overtime to reach consistency once more. According to Jung our internal world (our dreams, fantasies, creative work, slips of the tongue) balances out or compensates for the incomplete or one-sided views and feelings we have in our external or “real” world. My Jungian analyst in the U.K. used to say that the children with the sweetest mothers had the worst nightmares. Similarly, the fact that my husband is such a sweet and gentle father (99,9 % of the time) could explain the need for Louis to experience a compensatory mean father in his dream. With this explanation the question remains why Louis had this particular dream the night after we told him that he would never be allowed to kiss me on the mouth because only my husband was allowed. Coincidence? I prefer to think that Freud has a point and that Louis felt afraid or guilty for wanting to take his father’s place. But fear of castration goes a little too far for me, at least in the literal sense.

More than one castration

One of the things I like about Françoise Dolto is her interpretation of castration. As far as I can tell, she uses it only in a symbolic way. She says that in order for a child to grow up, it must endure many successive castrations. It becomes clearer when we substitute the word “castration” for “weaning”. Just as the child is weaned from the breast at some point in his early life, a child is gradually weaned from all aspects of parental care that he enjoys as a baby and a child. This includes drinking from the breast or bottle, sucking on a soother, sleeping in mummy’s bed or bedroom, being spoon fed, being carried, being washed and dressed, sitting in mummy and daddy’s lap, being tucked in with a bedtime story, being brought to school, enjoying parental kisses and cuddles, and so on: everything we have to give up in order to become an adult.

To end I would like to offer up the idea that the castrations that Dolto talks about seem to be imposed very early in the lives of western children. The timing of birth, cutting of the umbilical cord (called the umbilical castration by Dolto), weaning from the breast, potty training, sleeping alone, going to school – in short: becoming independent – seems to come earlier and earlier in our western world. I just wonder if that’s a good thing…

Sofie Vantiers

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  1. S. Freud (1905). “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality”.
  2. M. J. Black and S. A. Mitchell (1996). “Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought: A History of Modern Psychoanalytical Thought”.
  3. F. Dolto (1987). “Tout est langage”.
  4. F. Dolto (2000). “Les chemins de l’éducation”.
  5. S. Freud (1909). “Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-year-old Boy (Little Hans)”.

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