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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.