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Printable ument Kathie Gossett


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                       The Relationships within the New Nuclear Family:
                    A Psychoanalytic Look at Families with Same Sex Parents


         The concept of utilizing theory to understand the relations between child development

and adult relations and identity is not new. There is a vast amount of research on how the father

figure and the mother figure endorse relations and identity concepts that will cultivate the child

into the eventual adult. Psychoanalysis theory provides the basic conceptualization of how the

parents affect the child’s development, but this theory leaves behind one important factor: the

nontraditional nuclear family. What happens when the family is not comprised of a father and a

mother? How does having two mothers and no father affect the child’s development into an


         These questions have yet to be truly defined by psychologists or theorists. Although J.

Laird claims in Normal Family Processes that “any attempt to define families is fraught with

political and ideological implications,” (113), the new nuclear family is defined as lesbian

couples who conceive and raise a child in an attempt to void the politics and ideologies present

in the male-centered society. Because lesbian mothers were considered taboo until recently (and

arguably are still considered taboo by some), research on the topic of the effects on child

development by the new nuclear family are limited. In order to rectify the situation, using

psychoanalytic theory with object relations theory and research on the fatherless child’s

development in relation to the lesbian parent’s child, it will be argued that the new nuclear

family has, in fact, the same effect on a child as the traditional nuclear family but with small

conditional changes.
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Psychoanalysis Theory

       Pioneered by Sigmund Freud at the turn of the twentieth century, psychoanalysis

provides the basis for the understanding of social roles in adulthood through unconscious

reasoning. Freud outlined stages of development in which the child has different demands and

needs. In each stage, if the child becomes fixated on any particular need, the child will crave this

need in his or her adult life. Otherwise, if the child matures through the stages “normally,” the

child will lead a “normal” adult life. Because the phallic stage is the crucial stage in which

children view the parents as role models for the children’s own identities, for this analysis, the

focus is on the phallic stage of child development.

       In the phallic stage, Freud targets the genitals as the prime erogenous zone. The child is

intrigued with not only his or her own genitals, but also the genitals of those around the child.

As the mother is generally the chief caregiver for children at young ages, the focus is on the

female genitalia. Freud outlines the conflict that arises in the phallic stage as the Oedipus

complex. For the young male, the mother is the object of affection and thus the father figure is

considered to be the rival for the mother’s attention and love. Because the mother lacks a penis

and the father has a penis, the young male begins to have castration anxiety. According to

Freud’s theory, the young male will begin to fear that the father will cut off his penis in order to

have the son resemble the mother. This fear ultimately connects the father and the son because

the son can only have his mother sexually vicariously through his father. This connection

ultimately provides the basis of the young male’s sexuality and role as an adult (Stevenson n.p.).

       The female offspring, on the other hand, identifies the father as the object of her

affection. It is because of the realization of the father’s penis in comparison to the mother and

daughter’s lack of a penis that the daughter is intrigued by the father. The daughter is struck by
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penis envy, the opposite of the son’s castration anxiety, and begins to resent the mother because

the blame for the daughter’s lack of a penis is placed upon the mother (Stevenson n.p.).

According to Freud, the daughter never fully reaches a stage where she does not have penis envy

and only comes to understand her role as an adult through the lack of a penis and identification

with her mother as a fellow castrated individual. The daughter, like the son’s relationship with

his father, identifies with the mother only because it is through this identification that the

daughter can vicariously possess the father (Stevenson n.p.).

        Freud, although a pioneer in the field of psychoanalytical theory, can be criticized for his

lack of insight into the female psyche. He fails to find a distinguished point where the child

moves from the phallic stage to his next described stage of development. Because of this and

more, followers of Freud have come to branch his original theory into many narrower theories

under the umbrella of psychoanalytic theory. For instance, Luce Urigaray uses Freud’s theories

to state very simply that identity in children is a predominately male concept as it is used to

separate the male child from the mother (Holmlund 285). The daughter sees no separation from

the mother and therefore the female identity is unrecognized (Holmlund 285). In this manner,

the father is not necessary for the identities of the children to mature; only the mother is a

necessity for the children to develop personalities and identities. For the purpose of this

argument, Object Relations theory, based on several psychoanalysts’ work in the late twentieth

century, is pertinent.

        Object relations theory can be best summarized as understanding relationships with

objects, both humans and inanimate objects, to obtain insight onto the individual’s needs, wants,

and drives as an adult. According to Thomas Klee, a licensed psychologist as well as scholar on

object relations therapy and practice, the theory “is a modern adaptation of psychoanalytic theory
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that places less emphasis on the drives of aggression and sexuality as motivational forces and

more emphasis on human relationships as the primary motivational force in life” (n.p.). The

theory focuses less on Freud’s drives for the Oedipal complex and more on the object (the

mother, in the son’s case, or the father, in the daughter’s) as the target of “relational needs in

human development” (Klee n.p.). Theorists believe that humans have an innate need to have

relationships, which is the reasoning for the libidinal (the sexual desire for the parent of the

opposite sex) and the aggressive (the jealousy and rivalry with the parent of the same sex) drives

that Freud outlines in his psychoanalytic theory (Klee n.p.). According to the object relations

theory, it is through children’s relationships with objects that, as adults, these children form

identities and personalities. A person, who had a lack of any object, whether parent figure or any

other object, as a child, will search for the missing component to his or her childhood in adult

relationships. Psychological dysfunction happens when a person is stuck in a stage of

development because of a trauma (i.e. a lack of a relationship with an object) as a child which is

then acted out in adult relationships.

       Why is it important to view the relationships within the new nuclear family through a

psychoanalytic and, more specifically, an object relational lens? Nancy Chodorow, in The

Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender, states:

       Object worlds interact with and affect one another. Psychoanalysis shows how
       the unconscious inner world, or worlds, developed during childhood affect the
       external experiences of adulthood, and how different aspects of psychic life enter
       into conflict. These inner worlds and intrapsychic conflicts are imposed upon and
       find meaning to external situations. (51)

Thus, it is within the realm of psychoanalysis that we can perceive how relationships as children

affect the day-to-day relationships present in the lives of adults. Chodorow also states that “early

experiences common to members of a particular society contribute to the formation of typical
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personalities organized around and preoccupied with certain relational issues” (51). Through the

relational aspects of childhood, the adult becomes preoccupied with notions of relationships as

adults. As Freud only detailed the relations in a patriarchal family, by using psychoanalytic

theory, it is possible to understand how the relationships of child to parent in a lesbian

partnership can affect the idea of relationships and gender roles based on the child’s upbringing.

The lack of a parent with the penis upsets the entire framework of the psychoanalytical model of


Applications to the New Nuclear Family

         Although it is not a personal subscription to the patriarchal notion that same sex couples,

particularly lesbian couples, have a lack in their relationship, psychoanalytical theory defines

them in terms of a deficiency of the heterosexual combination of penis and lack of penis. For

this argument, the lesbian couple must be defined in terms of lacking the male counterpart of a


         Because the penis is not present, this new nuclear family is easily comparable to the

traditional nuclear family whose father figure is absent. Dr. Kim Jones, a scholar in the social

work field, details in “Assessing the Impact of Father-Absence from a Psychoanalytic

Perspective,” that the loss of a father has harsh ramifications on the child. Jones suggests that

the stage of development that the child is in when he or she loses the father figure has different

effects on the child’s development. If loss occurs early in the development of the child, he or she

can have deficiencies with “self and object differentiation, reality testing, frustration-tolerance

and the capacity for basic trust and confidence, and disrupt the proceeding tasks of separation-

individuation” (Jones 46). All of these characteristics would be the result of losing the father in

the first year of life for the child. If between the ages of one and two years old, the child could
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have deficiencies with narcissistic development (Jones 46). Through the Oedipal stage, father

loss would create a deficiency in the competitive aspect of a male as the father figure is absent to

compete for the mother figure’s attention. As well, both the female and male child would lack

the perceptions of what the father figure should look like. Because of this, the concept of a

father becomes highly distorted (Jones 46). Jones goes on to state that the children who lack the

father create a father in their minds in order to suit their developmental needs at the time (47).

The children without a father create a father figure in their own minds in order to rectify the state

that their family is to what the children need in order to develop. Jones also cites a twenty-five-

year-long study in which the children of fatherless families have trouble relating to love and

marriage because of their childhood (47). The absence of the father provides a deficiency in the

manner that the child relates to objects in his or her future life.

        This, although insightful into the mind of a fatherless child, does not completely answer

the question of the new nuclear family’s conditions. Although analyzing through research and

case studies the relationship between the absence of the father and the child’s development, this

still concerns the idea of having a father and then losing the father during development. In the

family relations of the new nuclear family, there is often never a true father in the form of a

figure with a penis. The child is born into a family that has two mothers as figures who are

castrated in the psychoanalytical sense; there is never an actual loss of the father, the father was

never present. The oversight of the lack of a father is still a problem within today’s research.

According to Katherine Allen and David Demo, only eight articles in the span of January 1980

through October 1993 in Family Relations, a leading scholarly journal in the understanding of

families, have been studies of family relations within the lesbian or gay families (116). Research
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is limited to the few studies of all families that are considered non-traditional in sexual

preference. Research confined to the scope of just children of lesbian mothers is even rarer.

       Although limited, some research on the effects of lesbian mothering on children does

exist. Charlotte Patterson, of the University of Virginia, in “Children of Lesbian and Gay

Parents” compiles research and speculates effects of childrearing by these new nuclear families.

Patterson expounds upon several arenas of development. In terms of two clinical studies that

compared children of lesbian mothers to children of heterosexual parents, “no evidence of

special difficulties in gender identity among children of lesbian mothers has emerged” (Patterson

1030). As well, Patterson cites research in the arena of gender-role behavior. Children of the

new nuclear family were found to have the same “conventional sex-typed toy preferences” as

well as “vocational choices within typical limits for conventional sex roles” as children of the

traditional nuclear family (1030). Favorite television shows also did not differ from children of

lesbian mothers to heterosexual couples (Patterson 1030).

       One of the most stereotyped assumptions about children of lesbian mothers is that the

children’s sexualities will be affected by the parent choice of sexuality. Patterson provides a

range of studies to analyze this myth. In 1978, a study was done where pubertal and postpubertal

children of lesbian mothers were asked to share erotic fantasies. Each of the children assessed

described themselves as having a “heterosexual orientation with no inclination toward

homosexuality” (Patterson 1031). Although this seems to be a conclusive study, only four

children were assessed. As this does not provide enough information about the offspring of the

new nuclear family, more studies must be reviewed. In 1983, another study compared nine

children of the new nuclear family to eleven of the conventional nuclear family.      There were no

significant differences in sexuality between the two groups of children (Patterson 1031). A study
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in 1989 proved the same results as the previous study but with more validity as thirty-six

children between the ages of thirteen and nineteen years old were interviewed. Of the eighteen

children of lesbian mothers, zero stated to have homosexual drives. Of the eighteen children of

heterosexual parents, one stated to have homosexual drives (1031). Another study performed in

1990 proved that sixteen percent of adult daughters of both heterosexual and lesbian mothers

identified themselves as lesbian. As this is within the normal range of variability within the

population, it is not seen as a marker. As well, no significant difference of sexual identification

between the daughters of the heterosexual and lesbian mothers was present (Patterson 1031).

These studies, which utilize over one hundred children of lesbian mothers, show no proof that

the sexual orientation of the parent affects the sexual orientation of the child.

       As well as sexual orientation, other large arenas of development are separation-

individuation and self-concept. In a 1985 study of eleven preschool-aged children of lesbian

mothers and eleven children of heterosexual couples of the same age, no significant change was

found in “independence, ego functions, and object relations” (Patterson 1032). In 1987, another

study found the same results with seven children born to lesbian mothers (Patterson 1032).

Although this research continues the trend of limited difference between the children of the two

nuclear families, it can only be considered suggestive since few children were studied. Self-

concept has been investigated by two studies: the first in 1983 with thirty school-aged children

and the second in 1989 with adolescent children. These studies both proved conclusive in that

no significant difference appeared in the arena of self-concept (Patterson 1033).

       Leslie Koepke, Jan Hare, and Patricia Moran concluded in their study “Relationship

Quality in a Sample of Lesbian Couples with Children and Child-free Lesbian Couples” that,

although typically linked to the sexual preference of the parent, family difficulties “may be mjore
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related to personality differences among family members, normative developmental issues, or

problems that are common to [families]” (228). Their research on the consequences of children

on the strain of the lesbian relationship allows for conclusions to continue the trend that there is

no significant difference is trends of child identity of the traditional and new nuclear families

because a happy couple will have a more friendly environment for child-rearing.


       Laird states that it is imperative to understand not only the relationships of lesbians, but

the lesbian mother and her effect on the psychological development and social adjustment of

offspring (282). With studies proving the development of children stays stagnate from one

nuclear family to the next, the psychoanalytic and object relations model of attaining the self

identity must be revisited.

       Sons of lesbian mothers lack the presence of Freud’s father figure. In the model for

development, the father is needed to create the sense of rivalry and competition within the son.

The father figure is also the only manner that the son can break away from the mother as a sexual

object in Freud’s theory. By having two lesbian mothers, it can be assumed that the lack of penis

causes for the son to not have castration anxiety which would cause an abnormality in the son’s

psyche. In object relations theory, the father is needed as an object of modeling in how an adult

male is to act and what the adult male is supposed to like. Without the model of normalcy of a

father, the son will not be able to function properly. As research clearly shows that there is no

significant difference in children of lesbian mothers, Freud’s theory dictates there must be a new

father figure present within the triangle to have such results.

       Daughters of lesbian mothers need the presence of a father figure in order to create the

penis envy which results in the daughter’s normalcy as an adult. As well, in object relations
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theory, the daughter needs to view the father as a source of what a husband should be and act like

for her adult relationships. The absence of a father, according to these theories, creates an adult

female who will not be able to function properly in society and be confused about gender roles.

The research clearly states that this does not happen for females.

       Since there is no father, where is the normalcy in development of children of lesbians

coming from? The child must achieve the necessary castration or penis envy in order to function

as an adult according to psychoanalytic theory. As well, the child must have a model for

normalcy in adulthood according to object relations theory. Is the only father the one who has a

penis? No; just as mothers are not always the put-together June Cleaver, the mother from the

sitcom Leave it to Beaver, fathers do not necessarily have to be men. Having the authoritative

father figure does not mean having a male as a parent. A father figure can be present within a

mother. In this way, the new nuclear family defeats the concept of the creation of identity

through the phallic stage of development. Even though the triangular situation of emotion that is

present within the new nuclear family is not the typical male-female-child triangle, it does not

mean the child does not or will not create this triangle without the presence of a penis on a

parent. The child can relate one of his or her mothers as a father. Without the presence of a

penis, the child creates the relationship necessary for development. As well, the child can look

to the rhetoric of fatherhood present in media and other families in order to develop an idea of

these roles. Patterson cites that mothers believed the principal influence on children’s toy and

activity selection is largely through peers of the children rather than through parents (1030).

Even in research, children do not use their parents as the only tool in development of self and

gender roles. Chodorow state that children of lesbian mothers will still be heterosexual because

they will look for the “early mother-infant exclusivity” in their future relationships (199). The
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child will not necessarily take on the sexual orientation of the mother. As research shows that it

is not the sexual orientation of the parent and certainly not the lack of an actual male figure, it is

my prescription that the genders of the parents do not function as a tool in development; rather, it

is the relationships within the triad that provide the basis of the children’s identities and

personalities. As the father figure can be male or female in gender, the only difference between

the two parents is how the father figure relates to the child in comparison to the mother.

Patterson argues:

        Certain kinds of family interactions, processes, and relationships are beneficial for
        children’s development, but that parents need not be heterosexual to provide
        them. In other words, variable related to family processes (e.g. qualities of
        relationships) may by more important predictors of child adjustment than are
        variable related to family structure (e.g. the sexual orientation, number of parents
        in the home). (1036)

I would argue that the relationships of the parent to the child are more important than the sexual

drives or genders of the parents. It is through the relationships that the children seek how a

mature adult acts and behaves as well as what the mature adult likes. Judith Butler, a post-

Freudian theorist, furthers my assertion as she believes the roles that the parents play for their

children are not defined by actual sex of the parent (Adams 477). Relationships shape the way

the identities of the child; the presence or lack of presence of a penis does not shape the identities

of a child.

        Freud and his followers in psychoanalytic theory seek a reason for the identities of the

next generation. Although I agree that it is through the parent that the child receives the identity

and personality, research shows that the actual presence of a penis is not necessary to shape a

culturally normal adult. It is relating to the child both in what is considered the motherly and

fatherly roles that shapes the child as an adult. A child needs a stable, loving relationship with

the parent in order to have a successful idea of identity and personality in adulthood.
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                                         Works Cited

Adams, Alice. “Making Theoretical Space: Psychoanalysis and Lesbian Sexual Difference.”

       Signs. 27.2 (2002): 473-99.

Allen, Katherine and David Demo. “The Families of Lesbians and Gay Men: A New Frontier in

       Family Research.” Journal of Marriage and the Family. 57.1 (1995): 111-27.

Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of

       Gender. California: The Regents of the University of California, 1978.

Jones, Kim. “Assessing the Impact of Father-Absence from a Psychoanalytic Perspective.”

       Psychoanalytic Social Work. 14.1 (2007): 43-58.

Klee, Thomas. Object Relations and Psychotherapy. 2007. 11 November 2008.


Koepke, Leslie, Jane Hare, & Patricia Moran. “Relationship Quality in a Sample of Lesbian

       Couples with Children and Child-Free Lesbian Couples.” Family Research. 41.2. (1992):


Laird, J. “Lesbian and Gay Families.” Normal Family Processes. Ed. Froma Walsh. 2nd ed. New

       York: Guilford. 282-328.

Patterson, Charlotte. “Children of Lesbian and Gay Parents.” Child Development. 63.5 (1992):


Stevenson, David. “Psychosexual Development.” The Victorian Web. 11 November 2008.


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