While some differential treatment of children is normal even in loving families, the unloved daughter feels it keenly all of the time. Scapegoating is a variation on the theme but it is aggressive, out in the open, and—even worse—often articulated and justified by the mother and, sometimes, the father. The scapegoated child is a magnet for blame which is expressed openly and vehemently. When the daughter reaches adulthood, she’s likely to be treated as the black sheep of the family, the one who is justly and rightly excluded especially if she protests her treatment.
While the pattern is at its most toxic when there are three or more children in the family—and everyone lines up to bully the daughter in turn—it can play out in smaller families of two children and even in one with only child, although it takes different forms.
The scapegoated only child is wrongly blamed for something that has gone wrong in her mother’s life. It could be the thwarting of her ambitions or success (“If I hadn’t had you, I would have had a brilliant career in dance”), choices she made (“I’d have finished college if it weren’t for you”), the state of her health or looks (“I never was able to lose the weight I gained when I was pregnant with you”) or the failure of her marriage. The latter is the one most frequently mentioned, especially if the daughter looks like her father, reminds her mother of him, or is sufficiently “disloyal” to want a relationship with him and his relatives.
“My dad left when I was six and remarried days after the divorce became final. My mother blamed me for his leaving. She said that if I hadn’t needed so much of her attention, he wouldn’t have felt neglected and cheated,” Marcia, 35, emailed. “I believed her for years and years and felt guilty and terrible.”
It’s understandably very difficult for the scapegoated only child not to feel responsible unless someone, inside or outside the family, takes an active role in defending her and setting the record straight. Even then, she’s often burdened with not just loss but shame.
The dynamic with two children is often a scenario featuring one child who can do no wrong and the other who can do no right, with the “golden” child sometimes, but not always, joining in on the criticism. These daughters either go into high gear trying to please—getting good grades, racking up achievements—but to no avail. Others simply give up, and may derail completely, “proving” their mothers right by flunking out of school, hanging with a bad crowd, or engaging in dangerous and self-destructive activities. Regardless of the path the daughter takes, she internalizes the message that she’s to blame for whatever it is that is pinned on her in the moment, and may indulge in so much people-pleasing that she’s constantly on the short end of every adult relationship, whether it’s with a colleague, a friend, or a lover. Insecure and fearful—although that may be masked by bravado for the outside world—she may still believe her mother was right.
In the larger family, scapegoating becomes a team sport as her siblings are motivated to stay on their mother’s “good side” and continue to enjoy her favoritism. They may earn points by picking on their sister in many ways, pointing out her flaws, singling her out, and making her the butt of jokes and derision. It is hard enough not to assume you’re to blame for being unlovable in your mother’s eyes to begin with; it is even harder when there’s a chorus of people repeating the same message.
Among the typical patterns of familial behavior that accompany scapegoating are:
1.Making the daughter “responsible” for Mom’s anger
Many families adopt their own mythology to explain the child’s treatment, and the storyline is usually strictly adhered to. The treatment is justified by the child’s supposed incorrigibility or refusal to abide by the family’s rules or some other variation on the theme of infraction. The mother resists any open discussion and actively denies maltreatment or verbal abuse. When the daughter protests, the mother and the children close ranks, as they continue to in adulthood.
2. Making the daughter the universal fall guy
No matter what goes wrong—a dish gets broken, something is lost—it’s always the daughter who’s to blame. The logic is usually tortured and circuitous but the pattern is always the same. She’s at fault because her brother is late. She made him late by taking a shower first and one that was too long. And if he hadn’t been late, the family would have left on time so it’s her fault that Mom and Dad are angry. Small children and even older ones easily buckle under the constant criticism, especially when no one offers a corrective. One daughter, 36, tells of being blamed for winning trophies at summer camp while her two brothers didn’t: “My parents berated me for making my brothers feel bad. I cried and then threw the trophies out. It makes no sense now but, trust me, it hurt plenty then.”
3.Exaggerating or making up stories and circulating them
Scapegoating ends up being much more public than the usual treatment of an unloved daughter which is usually secret and kept in the family. Because the treatment is rationalized, the reasons are often broadcast. Additionally, mothers often manipulate their daughters into believing their lies—telling them how their teachers had nothing but bad things to say about them, or denigrating an achievement by saying it must have been “easy to win” or that the competition “must have been a bunch of losers.” Siblings and other relatives are fed the same “party line” stories which, for the most part, they tend to believe.
4.Rupture and going no contact are often the only answers
Many scapegoated daughters report that it’s virtually impossible to repair relationships in adulthood, as Maryellen, 45, told me in a message: “I was always labeled the troublemaker in the family even though I was the highest achiever. My mother couldn’t stand the fact that I outshone my brothers and she still can’t. I’m an attorney, married to another attorney, but I am still the loser in their eyes. I finally cut bait on my mother, my father, and all of them.” Pamela, 38, is the middle sister and says,” Every time I pushed back against being the family’s punching bag, they would get vicious. My older sister would make stuff up about how I insulted her in some way and tell it to my younger sister who would then tell my mother. Then I would get a call from Mom, telling me what an ugly person I was and how she wanted nothing to do with me. That she was tired of my drama. My drama? Umm, no.”
Scapegoating is one of the ugliest variations on family dysfunction and lack of maternal love.
Photograph by Topich. Copyright free. Unsplash.com