Hal is nearly three and bedtime reading is being disrupted by what look like Oedipal issues. His father, Roger Mills, explains.
A colleague of mine was recently telling me how bizarre and implausible she found Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex when she first encountered it. Her experience was pretty close to mine, and I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t become a father or gone into analysis myself the theory would have remained abstract at best, and absurdly far-fetched in more sceptical moments.
In broad outline what Freud argued was that in early childhood there is a pivotal psychological crisis. A child wants to have exclusive possession (and this includes an infantile version of sexual possession) of the opposite sex parent, and to get rid of the other parent who is seen as a rival. If all goes well the complex is resolved by the child who, through fear of retaliation from the parent rival, gives up the desire for the opposite sex parent and opts instead to identify with the same sex parent. So a little boy gives up wanting to have his mother all to himself and starts to see himself as his father’s son instead.
So what has this got to do with Hal and reading books? Well simply that Hal seems to be in the throes of what looks exactly like an Oedipal struggle at the moment, and this is impacting greatly on the bedtime reading ritual. Most of the time these days Hal refuses point blank to have me read to him.
‘No, Mummy do it,’ he says if I try to settle down in the big armchair in his room and pick up a book. In earlier diaries I’ve described times in his second year when Hal refused to let me read to him and demanded his mother. At that point I suggested that what was going on was an increased anxiety about the safety of the world, ushered in by increased cognitive powers, which led Hal to seek the security that only his mother could represent. The refusal to have me as bedtime reader now has a different quality. It feels as if he wants to exclude me from something that is special and that he shares exclusively with his mother.
There’s plenty of more overtly Oedipal behaviour too. Hal has been coming into our bed in the early morning for some time, but recently he has started claiming some rights there too. ‘No,’ he’ll say to me with great firmness. ‘That’s not your bed. That’s Mummy’s bed and Hal’s bed.’ Time and again Jo and I correct him and most days he will eventually concede defeat and admit that his bed is in his room, and this bed is Mummy and Daddy’s. But the next day it is as if the debate never happened and Hal is staking his claim once more. ‘You go to work,’ he offers as a solution to the potential overcrowding and back we go to putting the record straight.
Hal’s suggestion I disappear to work actually raises an element Freud doesn’t really look at. I’ve noticed that at times when I’m around more, and particularly if we have been doing things together in the garden or about the house, Hal can often be persuaded to let me read to him. It is as if an afternoon, say, sweeping leaves together, enables him to identify with me more and he doesn’t seek his mother quite so ardently. The power of Oedipal desire for mother is, unquestionably to my mind, a hugely powerful force in a young boy’s life. But perhaps anger at Dad’s constant absence plays its part too.
Roger Mills is a Psychodynamic Counsellor.