Dr. Dad


A New Interpretation of an Old Myth: Oedipus Rex reconsidered

Sigmund Freud was a physician whose interest in neurology led to the development of modern psychology. He used the Oedipus Rex story from Greek mythology to express how strongly young boys may be attached to their mothers' love. He felt that this story explained what he considered to be an unconscious process in which young boys reject their fathers so that they can have their mother's love all to themselves. The Oedipal complex and the Oedipal phase of development have become commonplace in the terminology of childhood psychology. Working through the Oedipal phase, young boys separate from their mothers and begin to develop their sense of themselves as men. Unfortunately, if one accepts the traditional interpretation of Freud, it means that boys must reject their mothers (and the femininity which their mothers represent) in order to develop their own identity and masculinity. This not only devalues mothers and women but cuts off boys' connections to the feminine principal, which limits their development of a more whole and well-rounded psychological/emotional life.

Let's reconsider the Oedipal myth. The story Oedipus Rex is about King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes. Laius learns of a prophecy from the Oracle of Delphi that they will have a son who will kill his father and marry his mother. When their son is born, Laius has the newborn child left on a hillside to die so that the prophecy cannot be fulfilled.

The infant boy, Oedipus, is found by a shepherd and raised by King Polybus of Corinth. As a man, Oedipus hears the prophecy and leaves Delphi and Corinth for fear of fulfilling it. On the road Oedipus encounters an arrogant, rich nobleman who orders him off the road. Oedipus kills the man, who turns out to be Laius, in a duel. Oedipus ends up outside the city of Thebes, which is terrorized by a Sphinx and can only be saved by someone who can answer the Sphinx's riddle. Oedipus answers the riddle, the Sphinx kills herself and Oedipus is honored by the whole city. Queen Jocasta has lost her husband and Oedipus is deemed a good match for her, so they marry, fulfilling the prophecy. When Oedipus becomes aware that the prophecy has come true, he blames himself for all that has happened and blinds himself.

In my interpretation, this myth says more about fathers than it does about boys. It is the father who is jealous and fearful that his son will marry his wife and become king. The father is worried that his son will replace him, and this is what motivates him to attempt to kill his own child. It seems more like a father-son complex to me than a mother-son problem. Why doesn't the father protest the prophecy? Why does Freud choose to ignore the father's conscious and cruel behavior toward his son?

In working as a psychotherapist with couples who have young children, I find that the Oedipal theme of the father's jealousy is common. Many men were the primary focus of their mate's attention prior to the birth of their child. Often new fathers report the jealousy they feel because of all the attention the baby is getting and the neglect they feel as a result. New fathers often have a conscious wish to go back to the relationship they had before the baby was born. Helping couples develop into a family and adjust to being parents requires having fathers come to terms with these feelings of jealousy, abandonment, and lack of attention from their mates.

I think it is time to reexamine the Oedipal myth in terms of what it is saying about a father's unconscious feelings regarding the early stages of parenthood. The fear of having a son or daughter become the primary recipient of his mate's attention and affection and the possibility that the child will replace him as the "king" in the family is a very difficult concept for a new father.

Under Freud's interpretation, fathers can displace their own emotional difficulties onto their children and then punish them for the normal loving relationship that exists between mothers and children. Projecting onto innocent children the feeling of wanting to murder their father for desiring their mother's love appears to me to reflect more about fathers' fears and jealousies than anything else.

As fathers today, we need to recognize the mythology that has guided our development. As we create a new definition of fatherhood, we must examine and educate ourselves about the fears and aggressive feelings that becoming parents stir within us. We must come to terms with our own emotional projections and breathe new meaning into a mythology that honors our children and mates. It may not be an easy task to reflect on our own emotional vulnerabilities but it is one we can help each other with as we grow and develop in our relationships and lives.

For Further self-reflection and discussion:

1. How are you "jealous" of the relationship between your partner and your baby?
2. How do you "handle" the frustration, when your child's needs must come before your needs?
3. When you were growing up, how did your mother and father regulate their needs as individuals and as a couple, with your needs as a child?

© 2008 Dr. Bruce Linton

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The kind of man who thinks that heping with the dishes is beneath him will also think that helping with the baby is beneath him, and then he certainly is not going to be a very successful father. - Eleanor Roosevelt

Dr. Bruce Linton is the founder and director of the Fathers' Forum in Berkeley, CA. In his weekly columns he share his expereinces and insights gained from his work with fathers in his groups, classes and clinical work. He explores how parenting and fatherhood effects us as men. Bruce is a Marriage and Family Therapists and recieved his doctorate for his research into men's development as fathers. He is the father of two children. Dr. Linton is the author of Finding Time for Fatherhood: Men's concerns as parents. Visit Fathers' Forum

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