Peter B. Neubauer, “The One-Parent Child and His Oedipal Development,” 1960



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 Bernard.

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.


Source: Peter B. Neubauer, “The One-Parent Child and His Oedipal Development,” The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 15 (1960):286, 287, 293, 295, 297, 298, 299, 302, 303, 305, 308.

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