Growing up as an only child for the first nine years of my life with a mother who didn’t love me, I fantasized daily about having an older sister. She would be my protector, my comrade-in-arms, loyal and loving, and would run away with me, if need be. Most unloved singletons share this fantasy, though sometimes it’s an older brother they yearn for.
But the reality of sibling relationships in a family where the mother is unloving is far more complicated than that. The truth is that the sibling relationship —which stretches over more years of life than any other—is often damaged or lost entirely when a mother is unloving to one but not to all; it’s a kind of collateral damage that is rarely talked about but has great influence on the unloved daughter’s life, whether she maintains ties to her family of origin or not. Her siblings’ view of their mother is often radically different, isolating the unloved daughter in yet another way. When the stories siblings tell about their mothers are radically different or at odds, there’s never room for negotiation or dialogue; it’s more like war than not.
We like to think that mothers love all of their children equally and well but that’s just another piece of the mythology of motherhood. Even when a mother is loving, one child may be easier for her to parent because of similarities in temperament and personality, and another may be more difficult. This is called goodness of fit: Just imagine an introverted or nervous mom who needs quiet with a child who is just like her, who likes alone time. Then imagine her with a rambunctious toddler who’s always pushing the limits and who needs help containing her emotions, and ask yourself which child she’s likely to prefer. Parental differential treatment is so common that it’s earned an acronym: PDT.
Keep in mind that studies show that even very small children are highly sensitive to and aware of parental differential treatment, whether it’s displayed by a mother or father. In fact, one pair of researchers, Judy Dunn and Robert Plomin, found that observing differential treatment influenced the development of a child’s sense of self more than the amount of affection received directly from the mother. So when you see that Mommy reacts differently to Tommy or Sarah and seems more loving to them that stays with you longer and shapes your thoughts and feelings more than Mommy smiling at you and giving you a hug.
Of course, with an unloving mother, the pattern is far more insidious. The self-involved or controlling mother may play favorites openly, lavishing praise and affection on one child, while marginalizing and criticizing another loudly. “ My younger sister could no wrong,” said Leah, age 42. “I, on the other hand, could do nothing right. My mother always compared us and I was always the loser. My sister and mother were peas in a pod—liked the same things, needed the same kind of admiration from others. I was the ugly duckling, ”
As hard as it is for a daughter to be compared to a sister, being cast off for a brother has its own kind of heartbreak, as Gillian, 39, recounts: “My mother lavishes money, affection, and everything else on my younger brother while I remain the thorn in her side, the butt of her derision. I hate to say it but I think she’s jealous of me and always has been. The irony is that while I’m the family success story—a solid career, a good marriage, a college education—my brother has been in and out of trouble all of his life. He has never finished anything. But none of that matters to Mom. It’s hurtful and demoralizing.”
Growing up with a controlling or combative mother who’s honed in on one daughter, siblings often consciously align themselves with their mother in an effort to please her, bullying the unloved daughter in kind. This is what Jenna, 44, the middle sister, emailed: “My two sisters taunted me mercilessly when I was a child, and that pattern continued into adulthood. They think my mother is a saint and that I’m the bad seed, the ingrate. When I finally went no contact with my mother, the rest of the family—my dad, my sisters, my aunts, uncles, cousins—all sided against me. My sisters’ propaganda worked.” Sustaining these kind of emotional losses isn’t, unfortunately, that unusual for the unloved daughter when she decides that she has to get maternal toxicity out of her life.
Other daughters report a different sense of isolation, of living parallel but disconnected lives in the same household, and having no relationship at all. This is what Jane, 55, reported: “ My lack of self-esteem and my problems connecting to people stem from my mother’s dismissiveness but I’ve come to realize in therapy that my siblings just intensified my feeling that there was something wrong with me. I was the youngest, the after-thought, with my first-born brother and my sister in the middle. Even though he was only four years older and she only two, they were close and ignored me and still do. I always felt like I was an uninvited guest at a dinner party, shut out. Now that we’re adults, we never talk except to appear polite—so holiday and birthday greetings are exchanged and nothing more. We keep the peace by never discussing the past or our mother.”
The complexity of the unloved daughter’s wounds is hard to overstate. Sometimes, alas, siblings are part of the problem, not the solution we all hope for.
Photograph by Annie Spratt. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Dunn, Judy and Robert Plomin. Why Children Are So Different. New York: Basic Books, 1990.