Of all the stories that run counter to the myths of motherhood—that all women are nurturing and that mothering is instinctual—there is one that stands out: The unwanted child. This is usually a closely-held secret outside of the family’s four walls —this isn’t something a woman can admit to publicly—but it’s sometimes an open secret within them, horribly enough. These daughters are damaged in many of the same ways that other unloved children are but with more force and intent.
Sometimes, though, the circumstances of a child’s birth become the framework for how a daughter is treated as well as a justification. Karen is now fifty and her relationship to both of her parents has everything to do with her birth.
“I knew from early childhood on that my parents got married because of me. I was also the reason my mother had to drop out of college which effectively wrecked her dream of becoming a lawyer like her father. And my dad had to take a job to support us instead of following his dream to become a writer. Mind you, they went on to have two other children five years after I was born. Presumably she could have gone to college when I went to kindergarten instead of having more kids, but that honestly didn’t occur me until I was in my twenties and making choices for myself. I was blamed for her life pretty much and she repaid me by ignoring me except for taking the time to heap blame and criticism on me and loving my brother and sister. They’d been chosen to be born; I hadn’t. My own children are treated differently by my parents than the children of my siblings.. It’s apparently an inescapable legacy.”
Even if being unwanted or unplanned doesn’t become part of family lore as it did in Karen’s case, the unwanted child often reports that she knew that she was somehow different and being treated differently, even at a young age:
“When my brother was born, I was four and I remember being absolutely floored by how my mom was with him—singing, cuddling him, cooing to him. She rarely touched me and what she did for me, she did in the most perfunctory way. I thought it was something I was doing, of course, and I worked so hard at trying to please her. Well, guess what? It didn’t work. My brother was her favorite, her darling. Are you surprised that Cinderella was my favorite story? My father was largely emotionally absent too—hiding behind his newspaper—so I had no support or validation at all growing up. When I was thirty, I finally worked up the courage to ask my mother why she loved my brother more and without blinking, she looked straight at me and said, ‘I never wanted a girl. I only wanted a son.’ Most people don’t believe my story, by the way, but it happens to be true.”
Today, the decision not to have children—for any reason or no reason at all—is much more socially acceptable than it has ever been but that’s a relatively recent phenomenon. In talking to some unloved daughters (and sons, for that matter), it becomes clear that some mothers had a child simply because they were expected to and that their treatment of that child reflected their own ambivalence or even unwillingness. That was certainly the case for Katja, 30:
“It was clear, even when I was quite small, that my mother saw me a burden or a task that she had committed to and had to see through, however unwillingly. She complained constantly about the time taking care of me took away from her own pursuits—her work, her hobbies—and even young, it was easy for me to see that she derived no enjoyment at all from being a mother. I thought it was my fault, of course, and the older I got—when I saw mother/daughter pairs who were actually happy together—I got more desperate but also angrier. I worked at making her smile but nothing happened. I left home at eighteen and, guess what? She convinced my father it was a great idea and that was that. I don’t speak to either of them.”
Women have children for a variety of reasons but not all reasons are created equal. Having a child to repair a floundering marriage as Marci’s mother apparently did can turn a theoretically wanted child into an unwanted one and can result in an emotional disaster for the hapless child caught in the middle.
“My mother is and was verbally abusive and cold to me. She has always blamed me for my father’s leaving her when I was three. My parents married at twenty-five and started having problems almost immediately. My mother is very high-strung and quick to anger. She decided that having a baby would be the glue to hold them together and I was born when they were both twenty-eight. He split three years later and then remarried and started a new family when I was six. I kept seeing my dad on weekends which made my mother angry and left me feeling horribly conflicted because she called me disloyal if I came home happy after seeing him. My mother has always said that if I hadn’t taken up all her attention, he might not have left. I felt guilty and responsible until the year after college and I sat down with my father. He told me that he couldn’t deal with my mother’s anger and abuse and that his leaving had nothing to do with me. In fact, unbeknownst to me, he’d wanted joint custody but she’d said no. How crazy is that?”
Children aren’t, of course, responsible for the circumstances of their birth nor are they in control of the changes their arrival on the planet may rain on either or both of their parents. But, for some unloving mothers, that doesn’t appear to make a difference, alas.
Photograph by Annie Spratt. Copyright free. Unsplash.com