Most daughters first recognize the toxicity of their childhood experiences by focusing on their mother’s treatment of them; that’s the issue that is front and center-stage. That’s the information that’s needed when everything seems fraught. But later, perhaps after you’ve finally spoken up and set boundaries or, more drastically, have chosen estrangement, it occurs to you to look around and start tallying up the losses you incurred by having an unloving mother. The loss of connection to siblings—which can begin in childhood with a mother bent on dividing and conquering and may become set in stone in adulthood—is another loss to be reckoned with.
There are exceptions to the rule but it’s not a pretty story by and large.
Sibling relationships in the dysfunctional family
There are different variations on the theme, all of which prevent or discourage close sibling ties for the most part. The mother’s behaviors largely determine the tenor of these relationships in childhood, and they tend to remain stable through adulthood.
Mothers who are high in narcissistic traits, those who are combative by nature, and those who relish control all play favorites; mind you, parental favoritism isn’t limited to dysfunctional families—it happens even in relatively healthy ones—but it is always damaging. In a dysfunctional family, the mother actually uses favoritism to keep her children in check or in her orbit; it’s deliberate and not unconscious. In this kind of household, the children largely do whatever they can to jockey for their mother’s approval, and all of that takes a toll on whatever sibling bonds there might have been. That was “Lacey’s” observation:
“My mom actively encouraged us to tattle on each other, if you can believe that. My two brothers reported on me and I tattled on them. My older brother was the apple of her eye, I was the one she resented, and my little brother was what she called ‘her cross to bear.’ As adults, we only speak when it’s absolutely necessary.”
Favoritism has its flip side which is scapegoating and while this may be a rotating role in some families, it’s most usually one child in particular who’s designated the scapegoat—the person on whom the mother and everyone else heap blame and criticism. While sometimes the scapegoat is the outspoken rebel who actively resists her mother’s control and perfectionism, she’s often the most emotionally vulnerable and an easy mark. Scapegoating allows a mother and the rest of the family to look away from real problems and pretend that everything would be just hunky-dory if that one child weren’t around. Scapegoating feeds all manner of denial, not just in the scapegoating parent but in the other siblings who go along to get along; these patterns persist in the family long after the children have grown up and established their own lives and the scapegoat becomes the black sheep.
There are some siblings who band together—they are called “Hansel and Gretel” pairs, as in the fairytale—which might be a good thing in terms of getting through childhood but may have long-term consequences for the sibling relationship. While ideally the roles are supportive but not dependent, that doesn’t always happen. That was true for “Denise” and her brother, “Tom “who was four years older:
“Our mother had a terrible temper, made worse when she drank which was usually; she is also very controlling. Tom took the role of being my protector, taking the blame, interceding and taking the brunt of my mother’s anger when I was young. He had a temper too, and fought back. The problem was that he could never see me as anything else but his little sis who needed protecting. He tried controlling me as I got to be a preteen and teen, acting like a third parent or something. He disapproved of some of my friends and made things worse for me at home than they might have been had I been allowed to fend for myself. When I cut contact with my mother, I cut contact with him too. He’d gone from protecting to me to being just like our mother.”
Sibling loss in adulthood
Some siblings grow up living parallel but disconnected lives in their families of origins meeting up at breakfast and dinner but having little in common. They may not even experience the family they’re growing up in the same way either; that’s counterintuitive but, upon closer examination, it’s actually not. Families change over time not just because new babies are born but because the marriage of the parents is never static and neither are the other factors that shape life such as economics, resources, work issues, and health. Parental favoritism obviously shapes a child’s experience of family life; the point-of-view of a favored or trophy child is going to be very different from one who was mocked, marginalized, or scapegoated.
Most unloved daughters believe that simply growing up and leaving the family of origin will fix things and make them happier; they tend not to see the emotional damage done by their family experiences in a direct way. Most usually, they begin to recognize the damage because of other failures in their adult lives such as picking partners who treat them as their mothers did, an inability to sustain healthy relationships, or coping with constant self-doubt. Many report that they end up in a therapist’s office, thinking that they need help in the present only to find out that the roots of the problems lie in the past. Those are the lucky ones; others may spend decades of adult life without connecting the dots. (For more on the process of recognition, see my book Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.)
It’s more likely than not that the process of recognition plays out over time and, sometimes, the understanding of the role a sibling played is both disturbing and painful. That was “Kathy’s” realization:
“It was only when I started talking about childhood in therapy that I realized my brother was my mother’s enforcer when I did something that ran counter to her version of our family history. When I started to set boundaries and objected to her treatment, he was the one who called me and tried to guilt me into apologizing to her. When I refused, he called my husband, and tried to recruit him, as if I were a toddler having a tantrum. In the end, I had to cut him out of my life along with my mother.”
Ultimately, it’s the unloved daughter’s refusal to buy into the family mythology—the one curated by her mother and embraced by her siblings—that causes produces the more enduring sibling rifts. It’s not unusual for siblings to maintain those myths and the smear campaign long after the mother’s death; that was the case for “Keara,” who wasn’t even mentioned in her mother’s obituary:
“Even though I was used to being maligned by my mother and two sisters, I honestly could not believe that they wanted to erase me from the family history. Or that they needed to in order to prove their point. It was painful but also clarifying. I don’t want to be associated with people who put vindictiveness first.”
Sibling relationships are potentially the longest ones of a person’s lifetime. Alas, they are often part of the collateral damage with a toxic mother at the helm.
Photograph by Annie Spratt. Copyright free. Unsplash.com