Entering the Phallic Phase: Psychoanalytic Feminists, Help!

May 24, 2018

Poopy poop head. Our daughter, Cozy, is transitioning out of what Freud called the “anal stage” of child development. She was was fully potty trained by three and half. Sometimes I’ll look for her in the house and she is sitting on the toilet having her morning constitutional. The diapers are long gone and her kiddy potty is in the basement for the next trainee. She has marked this occasion by proclaiming that calling everyone “poop head” is the funniest thing ever. It’s pretty funny.

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Sigmund Frued (1856-1939) made the case that there are three stages of child development and by the end of the process the child’s psychodynamic (essentially, their personality) is formed. The first two years take up the oral phase. I’ve written about how Cozy survived putting nearly everything not nailed down into her mouth. Two to four takes up the anal phase, where the requirements of society appear in the form of potty training. It’s been fun sharing Cozy’s journey to the john with the world. Next and last for Dr. Freud is the phallic phase in which children become aware of sexual pleasure and learn to control their sexuality, going from age 4 to 6. In this phase it’s not uncommon for little kids to “touch themselves” as they figure out what the rest of know. That God put our junk exactly at arm’s length for a good reason.

Let’s get this out of the way at the start. There is a danger in putting all our faith in Sigmund’s tight timeline. Added to that is that Freud theorized that girls in this third stage develop “penis envy,” when they realize they are not getting a tallywhacker. This leads to the quintessential “anxiety of womanhood.” (Um, that can’t compete with my male anxiety, Siggy.) There is a whole Electra Complex as the little girl has to detach from her mother and fight her for dad’s attention. Freud has been roasted for reinforcing the sexist tropes of his time.

The cool news is we don’t have to eject all the insight Freud had to offer because of this really dumb and sexist idea. (I remember a bumper sticker in a feminist bookstore that said, “War is menstrual envy.”) There are Freudian psychoanalytic feminists who make the case that penis envy isn’t about the envy of male genitals but of male power. It’s patriarchy envy. There was a classic cartoon in the 1970’s that had a female baby looking in a male baby’s diaper and saying, “Oh, that’s why you’re going to make more money than me.”


Cozy doesn’t turn 4 until mid-August but the phallic stage is already showing up. When she was 2, I was getting out of the shower and she came into the bathroom, pointed at my crotch and said, “Daddy, your booty is CRAZY!” It was funny and also the first acknowledgment of the physical differences between us. Last month, though, was the classic Freudian moment when, while she was on the potty, she asked me she when her penis would grow. I had to explain to her that, because she was a girl, she wasn’t going to have a penis and she burst into tears. Then I tried to explain to her that her vagina was pretty awesome than there are plenty of boys who wish they had a vagina instead of a penis.

Why I didn’t know this would come up or how to respond says a lot. I can’t be the only one that’s had this conversation land in their gendered lap. Apparently, it’s just me and Thor, God of Thunder.

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Psychoanalytic feminists put a lot of emphasis on the early bonding girls have with mothers and learning the domestic house duties. In our home, that’s me. As the stay-at-home dad, Cozy gets a lot more of time with me, including preparing her meals, washing dishes, and doing the laundry. (Oh, the drudgery.) Much to the chagrin of my wife (who is the most wonderful mother), Cozy seems more attached to me just based on the number hours and diaper changes I’ve got with her. I have a feeling that’s added to her “penis” envy in one way, but since my wife has been working more, it could just as easily be vagina envy. Inspired by the work of psychoanalytic feminist Nancy Chodrow, I’ve tried to model both male and female attributes for Cozy as does her mother. (Are Mexican mothers more authoritarian? I’m just asking.)

I feel like as we enter Freud’s phallic stage, there’s a real possibility of screwing up the whole thing. She’s already confronting sexism from the outside world. A little boy in her pre-school told her that “girls couldn’t be bosses.” (The owner of the daycare facility is a woman). The message that those with penises are the defacto authority and those “without” are the second sex is showing up with more regularity. There’s gotta be a good way of turning this penis envy thing on it’s head, or, even better, just erasing it. Maybe we need a handy psychoanalytic guide for parents with cute pictures and tips to spare our children years of therapy.



February 3, 2015

My baby’s face is quickly becoming a vortex, something between a Dyson vacuum cleaner and super massive black hole. Suddenly everything that’s not nailed down is headed for her mouth. Where are my car keys? No, no, no, not the beer bottle! Your toes are safe, kid. That will come in handy when dad sends you off to Yoga Camp.


I’ve been lecturing about the good Doctor Freud for over 20 years. His phases of child development make a lot of sense. Birth to 2 years old is the Oral Phase. Cozy is coming up on 6 months and you can see her discover her mouth. It started with nursing and now it’s not just the boob she wants.

It think the turn was the moment she realized she could put the binky in her own damn cake hole. Since then everything has to be tried for tastiness. Last night she chewed on my belt for 20 minutes like a puppy. Hey, I was watching The Bachelor and wrapped up in Kelsey pimping her dead husband story. The kid’s fine.

But that’s the thing. Now you’ve gotta be Eagle Eye Cherry. At any moment some choking hazard could be going down your precious child’s gob and you better have had that baby choking class. The other day Cozy was napping in the crib. Or so I thought. She had quietly chewed the tag off of a stuffed animal and had it in bits in her mouth. Those two little teeth are like a super cute version of the wood chipper from Fargo.

So here is another thing to constantly worry about. I’ve finally stopped staring at her to make sure she was breathing. Now I worry she’s going to find a rubber band or an old Cheerio and it’s gonna be lodged in her larynx. It never ends. Do they make masks for little babies? Like ones for tiny Japanese people. Baby Gap must carry some kind of face filter.

The next stage should be even more fun. Freud believed the Anal Phase was from 2 to 4 years old. This is when toddlers get a rude awakening because “society” says there are rules to follow, the main one being pooping in a toilet. For Freud, potty training was the key act that shapes the personality. Oh, joy.

Third is the Phallic Phase, from 4 to 6, when kids discover their sex parts. Nobody wants to think of a 5-year-old masturbating, but it happens. Just keep your hands out of your pants, thank you. Feminists have had issues with Sigmund at this point because of his assertion that girls begin to develop “penis envy” here. (I saw a bumpersticker in a feminist bookstore that said, “War is Menstrual Envy.”) The “biology is destiny” bit is seriously problematic.

But Psychoanalytic Feminists (yes, they exist) think penis envy is just “patriarchy envy” and we shouldn’t write Freud’s theories of the unconscious off over a little dick. Freud argued that you need to make it through the three stages without becoming fixated. We all know people who are anally fixated. They are called “Virgos.”

But Cozy is a long way off from any phallic fixation, symbolic or otherwise, thank the psychological gods. I’m just trying to get her through this phase without choking on a pen cap or becoming orally fixated. Lord knows what that could lead to.

It’s always a balancing act with Freud. Not enough oral stimulation (mostly from nursing), the kid is neglected and will manipulate others to get something in her mouth. Too much stimulation and she stays in baby mode. So how we handle this phase could turn Cozy in to a manipulative nail biter or a sadistic homicidal maniac. Can a neurotic parent get a break?


The good news is Freud’s theory from 1905 has lots of modern critics. There’s no evidence that extended breastfeeding turns a kid into Bette Davis, chain-smoking her way into the grave. But Sigmund still has his supporters. And do I really want to risk it? Just get me to the Anal Phase in one piece, OK?