Mommy, Will You Marry Me?
Question: While I was taking him to preschool the other day, my 4-year-old son asked if I would marry him. I told him that boys and Mommies don't get married, but I didn't know what else to say. What should I say if he asks again?
Answer: For centuries, "Can I marry you?" has been a question heard routinely by the mothers of boys and the fathers of girls, ages 3, 4 and 5 in cultures across the globe. Often used to describe a young child's wish to be married to his or her parent, the term "Oedipus Complex" has become part of our common vernacular, thanks to Sophocles and Sigmund Freud, among others.
Oedipal feelings are universal among children and should be welcomed as an important step in their normal development. But why do children have such wishes?
Until the age of 3, children's main emotional tasks are to feel safe, loved and secure and to develop a sense of identity and confidence. Around the age of 3, children begin looking into the future. They imagine becoming dancers, firemen, doctors and especially — the roles they most admire — fathers or mothers with a family. Not understanding all the realistic and social impediments to such a plan, children cannot begin to imagine a more suitable candidate to become their future spouses than their own beloved mothers and fathers.
Because a young boy's mother and a young girl's father are usually already married, children often view their same-sex parent as the main impediment to their marriage plans. Your son's Oedipal Complex is likely to involve both loving feelings toward you and resentments to his beloved father who had the nerve to get you first.
What does being married mean to a young child?
Around age 3, children also begin to have sexual feelings. They have a general awareness that something special and physically intimate occurs between a mother and father and that this is somehow related to making babies, although without undue exposure they will not understand the details. Thus, children's thinking about marriage includes a sexual tinge.
Although children may only ask once or twice about marrying their parent, the transition from viewing themselves as marrying a parent to viewing themselves as marrying someone from outside the family takes a long time. After all, this transition involves a basic change in their own feeling about themselves and their future, requiring their confidence that someday they will not need their parents to take care of them. It is wonderful and exciting to imagine a new kind of future, but there is also mourning for the old relationships and a permanent childhood. Therefore, children usually work on their Oedipal wishes from the age of 3 to the age of 6, although they may keep many of these tenuous and sensitive thoughts private.
Responding to your child
We are pleased that you did not laugh at or trivialize your son's question. The question may feel cute to grown-ups, but your son is not trying to be cute and deserves dignity and protection as he receives a hurtful rebuff. The fact that the question often comes out of the blue demonstrates that he has an inner life. That he is pondering matters of great importance and seizing a moment that feels right.
What about some common responses? Saying that you met Daddy first is true and helpful, but it is not the whole story. Your child knows something about death, perhaps even about divorce, and this answer does not fully eliminate the possibility of a future marriage between parent and child. Similarly, saying that you are too old and that he will find someone his own age also leaves a bit of hope alive because he may believe that he can catch up in age or that you might change your mind about the importance of the age gap. Therefore, it is important to convey in words and attitude — in a gentle and tactful way — that such a marriage can never be but that your love as a mother is forever.
The lessons of the Oedipal Phase
Children learn invaluable lessons as they lay the groundwork within their imagination for a future life outside the family. The Oedipal years provide opportunities to learn about love and about the limits of any given relationship.
For example, during this time, children learn that love that doesn't necessarily involve a sexual component. They also discover that a person can love in different ways, for different reasons, without the various loves detracting from one another. A mother's love of her husband should not detract or compete with the love of a child because it fulfills different needs in her. Furthermore, as your child experiences his and his father's love for each other while he also is feeling some envy and resentment toward his father, he will learn that even loving, stable and secure relationships include elements of anger, resentment and jealousy.
Finally, children can learn that bad or unfair things, such as being rejected by a parent, can happen without anyone being responsible. The reason children and parents cannot marry is not due to any problem with the child's or parent's attributes, thoughts or actions. Undesirable things frequently happen independent of human responsibility. This is the real value of the "just because" part of your answer. Wishes and reality are different, as are events and what is fair. The Oedipal phase provides most children with their first real opportunity to separate the issue of fairness from life's fortunes and misfortunes.
You have handled your child's question well. As you can see, not only is "Mommy, can we get married?" a complicated and important question for a child, your assistance with helping your son to accept reality can strengthen him to face life with increased maturity and confidence.