This case study
from the New York Child Development Center reminded readers that
father absence could jeapordize child development as seriously as
maternal deprivation, which attracted a great deal of attention
in the 1940s and 1950s. Rita, a child raised by her mother after
being abandoned by her father shortly after birth, was first seen
at three and was followed until the age of six. The interpretation
of this case illustrates the influence of the Oedipal theory, a
developmental crisis that Sigmund
Freud believed all pre-school children faced. This crisis was
resolved only when children finally accepted the sad fact that they
could not compete for love with the parent of the opposite sex.
Having two heterosexual parents, in other words, was a necessary
condition of normal development. This helps to explain why so many
Americans feared that growing up in a single
parent family would be psychologically damaging to children—resulting
in gender disorders and homosexuality as well as general maladjustment—and
believed that even parentless children should never be placed with
single adults. (It is interesting that this case is about a girl.
Considerably more worry was expressed about what might happen to
boys if they grew up without fathers.) The author of this case history,
psychoanalyst Peter Neubauer, worked closely with Viola
Reviewing the literature on children who grew
up with only one parent, we find that attention has been paid mainly
to the preoedipal period, and recently more to the first year of
life, particular to the absence of mothering in the need-satisfying
phase and its effect on further development. These studies of maternal
development, as summarized by Bowly and by Glaser and Eisenberg
demonstrate the inexorability with which the infant requires need
satisfaction through one consistent, empathetic mother; if the infant’s
needs are not fulfilled, e.g. through separation from the mother
in the first year of life, his future may be threatened by vegetative
dysfunction, and disturbance in object relations and ego structure. . . .
As indicated, our own study deals with the effect of disturbances
in the oedipal triangle, and the variety of oedipal solutions adopted
by children under these conditions. We will attempt, then, to single
out the effect of parental absence during the oedipal phase of development,
a step which may permit a closer examination of processes of sexual
identification and superego formation. . . .
Rita M. was brought to us by her mother in July, 1955, at the age
of three years six months. The mother’s difficulties were
expressed in the three problems which concerned her most: (1) how
to deal with the disinterested, absent father, and Rita’s
questions about and wish for him; (2) the excessive eating, which
Mrs. M. considered to be a forerunner to Rita’s becoming a
fat, ugly child, as she describes herself as having been. In this
connection, Mrs. M. expressed guilt about the punitive way in which
she handled the eating problem; and (3) Rita’s sexual confusion
and expressed wish to be a boy, which Mrs. M. felt at a complete
loss to deal with. . . .
Rita’s father, who had begun a clandestine affair during
his wife’s pregnancy, left one week after she was born, excusing
his departure with, “This is a good time to leave, before
I establish a relationship with the child.” He had, as we
have stated before, expressed preference for a boy, and his aversion
to accepting a daughter has never diminished. He has visited her
only twice, on her second and third birthdays, and then only upon
the mother’s insistence.
We find Rita, at the age of three and a half, approaching phallic
development. Her previous longing for her absent father now changed
to overidealized fantasies about him, accompanied by sexual confusion,
expressed in her preference to be a boy. At this time, too, begin
the bouts of excessive eating; the complaints of feeling itchy,
of her clothes being too tight or too rough; and an intensified
meticulousness. These are connected with earlier prephallic problems,
such as difficulties in feeding, skin sensitivities, and concern
that doors and drawers be closed, or rugs and blankets be smooth.
While in the past she had accepted many important separations from
her mother without showing overt signs of being disturbed, now she
reacted with severe anxiety. . . .
Rita’s wish for a penis was accompanied by increasing castration
anxiety. We are not sure of the extent to which her identification
with this mother prepared her for the fantasy of a phallic girl,
or whether the penis envy was stimulated primarily by the exposure
at school to the anatomical differences, as expressed in sexual
games to which she, a fatherless, only child, may have come unprepared.
The mother not only failed to permit the prephallic regression which
might have protected Rita against the castration fear, but she also
set the example of the powerless woman who has to be rescued by
the man. Rita tried to turn away from her mother and seek help from
her father. But then she had to face the specific condition for
his acceptance—that she be a boy. The wish for a penis, therefore,
was a defense against the castration anxiety, as well as the only
means at her disposal to reunite with her father; the wish was not
only to be like father but to be with father.
In this case, the penis envy was in the service of the positive
oedipal relationship. . . .
For the next two years, Rita tried to live up to her one-sided
bargain with her father, to become a boy in order to maintain his
love. She preferred pants to dresses; in the Child Development Center’s
nursery, she played the role of a father or a cowboy; and she augmented
the masculine fantasy with belligerent, demanding, controlling behavior
(though this was not without prephallic determinants). . . .
As a boy, she would have to make a choice to give up mother and
stay with father; this forced her to change the child’s sex
back to a girl, and then back and forth again, interminably. We
see, in her contradictory phallic wishes, her inability to find
a solution; and ambivalence, in her need for both parents. . . .
The mother’s plan to remarry when Rita was six years old
gave us an additional opportunity to study the development of this
child. We had several questions in mind: Would she continue to cling
to the fantasied image of her father, particularly since she had
neither introduced substitute fathers into her play, nor had she
in reality formed any attachment to another man; or would she shift
her relationship to a stepfather and then continue with him where
she had left off with father, namely, to seek phallic completion
from him. . . ? Would she regress, or how far would
she progress toward facing a true oedipal conflict in the continuous
presence of a man? . . .
Very much to the relief of mother and stepfather, Rita became a
good girl, that is to say, obedient, happy, wishing for the marriage
and thereby an early realization of her family dream. . . .
We shall now compare our clinical material with similar studies
in the literature. Though the cases described do not show a unique
clustering of symptoms, there is characteristic pathology of phallic
fixations, whether the parent of the same or opposite sex is absent,
leading to homosexuality; and superego disturbances, expressed in
either a too severe superego with sadistic features or a harsh,
preoedipal quality or a deficient superego which allows incestuous
acting out. . . .
The lack of oedipal stimulation, normally found in the continuous
day-to-day interplay between the child and each parent, and especially
as evidenced by the relationship of the parents to each other, imposes
a primary imbalance. Synchronization and dosing of oedipal
experiences in a continuous reality context, within which phase-specific
events can be absorbed, is not present. In the absence of the parental
interplay—that is to say, in the absence of the primal scene
with all its social equivalents—developmental forces crystallize
too suddenly around events, rather than being slowly but continuously
interwoven in experience, and hence have an extraordinarily traumatic
effect. . . .
Just as the autonomous ego is structured by need satisfaction through
mothering, so does, as it seems to us, the oedipal Anlage, “the
readiness for oedipal experience” described by Anna Freud,
require the stimulation of both parents for the unfolding of all
the complexities of the oedipal organization.