The Curse of the Parent’s Pet

Can a good parent have a favorite child? Or does the existence of preference count as a mark of parental failure?

Don’t apply the question to mega-families, where the older kids end up rearing all the little ones who come after. Look at what’s called a nuclear family: mother and father and two to four children. What does it mean when Mom or Dad have a favorite?

Some folks would respond: it depends. No it doesn’t. A healthy parent can’t have a favorite. That would be like saying the parental heart has a fixed amount of love – there’s only so much to go around – and naturally some will get more and some less. But that’s not the truth. The heart sprouts a room each time a new child is introduced. Infinity plus one is infinity. These emotions aren’t relative.

But how many parents are healthy? It’s not like psychological health is a requirement for reproduction. In fact … we all agree that most of the unwell we’ve known have NOT refused to reproduce. If anything, they had babies thinking the experience would cure them or the relationship would protect them.

Personally, I’m experienced. I saw examples in my family of origin and I’ve watched the behavior replayed in my own generation. And I’ve seen enough cases outside my family. In the same way that an astronomer can sense the presence of the unseen by the effect it has on what can be observed, it’s gotten to where I can suss out who was the favorite of a bad parent simply by assessing the pet’s dysfunction.

Take the nest in which I was incubated. I was first, followed in three years by a brother. There was a bonus brother as well, but he didn’t hatch till I was almost nine.

My father was a civilized well-rounded individual. My mother not so much. Mom was cold, insecure, brash, judgmental, and very into herself. Dad’s one mistake was thinking that Mom knew what she was doing, at home all day. Mom did not want to be at home all day, but her culture didn’t offer many alternatives, and her middle-class ideas permitted none.

A first-born often becomes the bad parent’s pet. Based on my understanding of fairy tales, that’s the usual case with stupid royalty. But it’s just as likely that the bad parent won’t warm to the baby. It’s a sad situation when the flood of natal oxytocin doesn’t flow, but it happens. Surely not most of the time, but a lot. Nine months of pregnancy, the travail of childbirth and then? Very little. The baby is a selfish little lump of newness, not as cute as advertised, and the work and sleep interruption are endless.

That’s what happened with me. I was a full-term baby, blue of eye and pink of skin, plump and well-formed. My mother’s labor wasn’t long and, through the fog of 1950s anesthetic “assistance,” the birth wasn’t too painful. I was wanted. I arrived to a loving couple.

But Mom didn’t experience any flood of affection at the sight of me. She counted my fingers and toes, she nodded with satisfaction at my sex (she still believes all women need at least one daughter), she sighed with fatigue, and she left the job of integrating me into the family to the German baby nurse she hired, and to my father. She didn’t breastfeed (she says the doctors told her formula was better for me, and I don’t doubt that, but I’m still flabbergasted that she believed them), she held me when the nurse told her it was time to hold me, and she was terrified of activities like bathing me.

My mother is task-oriented (to put it mildly), so she neglected no responsibilities. But she treated my needs like a job, ticking off duties as they arose, never fooling baby me into feeling she acted out of love.

But I probably wouldn’t have noticed she was behaving inadequately (at least till I got to school and among friends) if she hadn’t shifted her attitude, extremely, 40 months later. That’s when my brother arrived.

He was not pink and white and perfect. He was below average weight, a bit blue at first, with feet curled at an odd angle. Nowadays the doctors would have smiled and let him grow out of it; when Sam was born, though, intervention was the recommended course. The docs put casts on his tiny feet for the first several months of his life.

My mother says, if you’re lucky, you’ll have two profound love affairs in your life: one with your husband and the other with your first-born son. She heard that from her mother, but she spoke it (to me, repeatedly!) because it was true for her. She was besotted by blue, crooked Sam, from the moment she came out of the sleepy drugs and held him in her arms.

And she was confident. She didn’t have a nurse at home after Sam’s birth, and she felt like she knew what she was doing when she cared for him. The extra time required by his casts just made him more precious to her, and made her care of him more heroic.

She shuffled me aside. I’d probably still been her baby till the April night that Sam arrived, but by the time she came home with him, I’d morphed in her view into a three year old pre-schooler. I no longer needed to be picked up, or pushed in a stroller, or held when I cried. “You’re a big girl now. Get over it,” my mother would say when I was unhappy. “I need roller skates to keep up with your demands,” she’d complain when I felt unwell.

But Sam. Sam could do no wrong. I even agreed with her about that, for my baby brother was in fact wonderful. By the time his casts were removed, he was plump and handsome. As he matured, he exhibited traits of fairness, good sportsmanship, and honesty that were beyond my inclination. I wanted to resent him, but he was too likeable.

Poor Sam. Mom doted on him. She thought his good looks resembled her family’s. She liked him for being a normal kid, running and playing and laughing gleefully, in contrast to my bookish moodiness. Sam helped her in the garden. I wanted to be alone in my room, reading or designing paper doll clothes. Sam never troubled Mom with metaphysical questions. Sam didn’t get himself kicked out of Sunday School, for doubting. There were countless occasions when Sam and I overheard Mom praising his looks and personality while she complained about my laziness and selfishness and assured her friends that she’d be able to guide me, regarding fashion, to minimize my flaws and make the most of my less-than-beautiful face.

Sam’s old now. He’s still a wonderful guy, but not everyone realizes that any more. He drinks a lot. My kids think he’s mean.

He got away from his family of origin as soon as he could. He married an ambitious woman and agreed to her diplomatic career. He continued to be physically attractive and personally fair, but he moved away and only visited once a year or so, and he became accustomed to living in other countries, with servants to cook and care for the kids, with lots of time for socializing with other ex-pats, for many cocktails. His wife Betsy drinks nightly; even if Sam were as alcohol-reluctant as I am, he would have learned to imbibe for marital harmony.

He hasn’t prospered. He isn’t miserable, but he’s not happy either. He rarely initiates any activity, and he teases as he goes along with Betsy’s (and others’) ideas, so thoroughly and unremittingly that he seems mean. Maybe he is mean. Maybe I’ve got blinders on, because I’ve known him all his life and I understand his innate sweetness.

The disease didn’t stop with him. He and Betsy have two sons. Sam is a lackadaisical parent, but Betsy is a bad one. She’s the most self-referential individual I’ve met since my mother. She appeared to love her first-born Tom but four years later, when Jack emerged, we all got to see what obsessive doting behavior she put him through. Jackie, she called him from the gate. Her little Jackie. Her precious.

Betsy’s favoring of Jack(ie) was over the top. She hid it from no one. She swamped her baby boy with baby talk and caresses. Betsy still attended to herself, so there were many nights when she socialized with adults and didn’t see either son, many mornings when she didn’t feel perky enough to hover over Jack, but still she corralled him with her affection and retarded his development. She managed to prevent him from outgrowing an anger problem. Jack is now in his early 30s and still throws tantrums. It’s obvious that unless something catastrophic throws him into heroic mode, Jack is going to waste most of his existence.

There are many other examples. Most are outside my family. I worked for 20 years with a woman who never really warmed to her daughter. Nancy fulfilled her maternal responsibilities with Jessica but it was Craig, born three years later and besotting his mother immediately, who got all the love. But Nancy’s love wasn’t a benefit. Craig didn’t outgrow it. He’s a goldbricking user, readier to file a false disability claim than to give an honest day’s work for a wage, a flatterer and a cheat. Jessica isn’t exactly thriving but, compared to her baby brother, she’s living and deciding and capable of improvement.

Looked at this way, I think most of the fairy tales got it wrong. Odds are the parents weren’t good at their job, or there wouldn’t be a problem to be resolved by the story. If the parents have three kids, it’s likely that they’ll make a pet of the middle child, or the baby. The oldest kid, riddled as we all expect with neurosis and anxiety and drive, protected by parental insecurity from dotage, that lonely oldest barrier-breaker is probably the hero of the tale.

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