As the daughter of an unloving and often cruel mother and an only child for the first nine years of my life, I had two major fantasies. The first involved a hospital mix-up on the day I was born and it included my “real” mother ringing the doorbell and coming to reclaim me. The second was of a wise, protective, loving older sister—think Jo in Little Women—who would be my best friend, tell me I wasn’t to blame for how our mother treated me, and would even run away with me if need be, just like Hansel and Gretel but with two girls.
My fantasies notwithstanding, the truth is that sibling relationships are complicated under the best of circumstances, even in loving families, and when you add an unloving mother into the mix, there are many variations on the theme, most decidedly not pretty. The one that’s closest to my fantasy is the bond that’s called “the Hansel and Gretel pair.” As in the fairytale, in light of maternal or paternal neglect or cruelty, siblings can become mutual caretakers. Note the italics, because while this is one response to a difficult childhood situation, it’s neither automatic nor common. When a mother is unloving to or hypercritical of one child but not another, patterns of relationship emerge that vaguely resemble patterns in relatively healthy families but that differ in kind because they are cruel, deliberate, and conscious.
Despite the mythology of all mothers treating and caring for each child equally, favoritism occurs in almost every family, as a large body of research and an acronym PDT (Parental Differential Treatment) attest. Because mothering isn’t biologically driven in our species but learned behavior, personality and other factors shape a woman’s ability to mother a specific child, which can result in differential treatment. “Goodness of fit” makes one child easier to raise than another. Imagine a relatively introverted mother who needs quiet with a highly expressive, rambunctious child, and then imagine her with a quiet child who is much more like her. Which of the two will she feel closest to? Who will frustrate her less? External factors such as the mother’s age and emotional maturity, the economic status of the family, the amount of stress the mother is under, and the stability of the marriage also shape how and why children are treated differentially. In a loving family, differential treatment can even be motivated by good intentions, such as a mother’s perception that one child needs more support and attention than another.
Most important, research shows that the impact of a child’s perception of differential treatment (“Mom loves Timmy/Molly more than she loves me”) is greater than the impact of the love and attention she receives directly from her mother.
But while the patterns of sibling relationships may look similar in broad strokes, there are major differences when a mother is unloving. First of all, the differential treatment is usually conscious and deliberate and even acknowledged, although it will usually be accompanied by a rationalization for the behavior, The unloved child will be labeled as stupid, stubborn or lazy in comparison with her “gifted” sibling, and will be made to feel “less than” on the daily.
Second, many unloving mothers actively orchestrate their children’s behavior by pitting them against each other or by co-opting the siblings so that the daughter becomes the odd girl out (which is called triangulation, a term coined by Murray Bowen). Sometimes, the behavior is aimed at keeping the family’s attention on the mother or making sure that the mother’s vision of what’s happening becomes the family truth. One adult daughter, now estranged from her mother, recounted that when her brother confessed that he’d had coffee with his sister, their mother hung up the phone. She then sent him an email, demanding that he never do that again because “Your sister always has been difficult and crazy, and it’s painful and insulting to me that you are taking her side. Do not ever contact her again if you want to stay in contact with me.” Third, an unloving mother will usually do what she can to make sure that sibling relationships are neither close nor intimate unless she is in control of them.
Thus, the lack of maternal love is often not the only loss sustained; sibling relationships, a sense of belonging to a family, and connectedness are among the others, all of which affect the daughter’s sense of self in myriad ways.
Gleaned from interviews I conducted for Mean Mothers and supplemented with conversations I’ve had with the daughters since, here are some of the patterns in sibling relationships that are reported the most. This isn’t, of course, a scientific survey and is based on my layperson’s observation and unloved daughters’ reporting and is seen from their point of view. These patterns may co-exist or overlap as well.
1. Hansel and Gretel
This strong bond is one daughters rarely report, but if they do, it’s usually when the mother treats all the children equally badly or there’s an underlying cause, such as a personality disorder or addiction. Even then, siblings often understand the dynamics of the family differently and, more important, react to them differently. When there is a large age gap between the siblings, it’s more likely for the older sibling to become a substitute “mother” to the younger one.
2. Rivals for the prize
In some families, the unloved daughter’s hardwired need for her mother’s love and attention creates an inevitable and toxic rivalry with a sibling who gets both. Daughters report that when the rival is a brother, it’s somehow easier and the blow delivered to the soul and self-esteem is not as great; the pain is intensified when one daughter is rejected and another embraced. That was certainly the case for Gayle, now 44, whose sister—just 22 months older—was the “good” child while she was the “bad” and “difficult” one. Her mother meted out affection and reward on the basis of achievement, and her sister, athletic and an A student, easily beat out Gayle, who was dyslexic; their mother proclaimed Gayle an embarrassment, both inside and outside of the family. While Gayle was intensely jealous of her sister, her sister suffered too, given the enormous pressure on her to succeed so that she could garner her mother’s love and attention. In this family, it was a rivalry in which there was no winner. At one point, both daughters were estranged from their mother, though Gayle’s sister now maintains a relationship with her. Not surprisingly, the two sisters have no relationship to speak of, exchanging pro forma phone calls on birthdays and holidays.
3. The favorite and the scapegoat
You can call the favorite the “Golden” child but the bottom line is that he or she can do no wrong while the unloved daughter can do nothing right. A terrible and agonizing clarity (which also often prompts self-blame) envelopes the unloved daughter when she realizes her mother can love a child who isn’t her. One daughter, who was five when her sister was born, recalled the pain and shock she felt seeing her mother with her sister: ”My mother would rock her, constantly singing, loving, kissing, and I had never once seen her act like that. I remember watching her interact so lovingly with my sister and it was like watching a movie I had never seen.” It remains that way to this day.
Sometimes, the favorite is simply seen as an extension of the mother, as one daughter explained. “My younger sister was my mother’s clone. They liked the same things, looked alike, had the same priorities. My mother was horribly critical of me—calling me bookish and dull, compared to my sister’s charm—and I always felt like an awkward and unwanted guest who couldn’t join in. My mother was never interested in me, and when I married and had children, she was equally distant. It was my sister’s kids and husband she adored. I speak to my sister twice a year, over the phone, for no more than five minutes.”
Leah was the middle child with a sister two years older and a brother who was four years younger, and as she recalls, all the attention was lavished on her brother while her mother’s harsh and frequent criticisms and put-downs were for her alone. “My sister and my mother were a team in the sense that they both adored my brother. I always felt like an outsider looking in, walking on eggshells to make sure I didn’t do anything to invoke my mother’s withering dismissal of me. I have spent years in therapy, trying to shake the feeling of being ‘less than,’ with mixed results despite a happy marriage and two wonderful children. My childhood sense of self still dogs me.”
In some families, though, the treatment of the unloved daughter becomes a cruel team sport, rendering her a scapegoat. Mary, now 51, was one of four, with one older sister and two younger brothers. While all the children feared their mother, Mary was the one labeled the “bad” one or the “troublemaker,” and picking on her or placing blame on her worked well as a tactic to deflect attention from themselves. She remarks that, in hindsight, it’s clear that “We never had any control or choice about our relationship. We had a master puppeteer.” She is estranged from all of her siblings and comments, “If I were to meet them today as strangers, I would not be interested in being friends."
4. Odd girl out
In this dynamic, the unloved daughter isn’t actively set upon as in the scapegoat pattern but siblings co-conspire with their mother to isolate the unloved daughter in order to gain her love and approval. They reinforce and sustain the mother’s vision of things. Corinne, 40, recounts the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which she was marginalized by both her mother and her siblings: “My older sister followed my mother’s lead to stay in her good graces. If I succeeded at something—getting good grades, winning the lead in a play—my mother would first deflect the conversation by praising my brother or sister, and then my sister would start in on how my achievement was no big deal. I felt close to my brother, the baby of the family, when he was little but as he got older, he just didn’t have the courage to stand up to Mom and take my side. I always and still do feel like an outsider mostly.”
Daughters who were the odd girl out in their families of origin often report that they have difficulty forging close friendships with women and have trouble trusting their own judgments in relationships generally. They also report that they’re highly sensitive to rejection and criticism.
5. Parallel lives
Almost all daughters report that, in one way or another, their mothers orchestrated their sibling relationships with deliberation. In some cases, a mother will actively work at making sure that her children don’t bond by setting one against the other, or triangulating. As a result, some daughters grow up in households where, despite the fact that the children are under the same roof and sharing experiences, they end up living parallel lives without any connection to each other. There’s no open warfare or enmity as there can be in the other patterns, but there’s also no or very little emotional connection. One daughter described it as “living among strangers who were related to me, who had the same parents, but we knew nothing about each other at all.” In a similar vein, Cynthia describes her relationship to her sister and brother, who are three and two years older than she. In this family, it was the older sister who was shunned and actively disliked by their mother, the brother who was adored, and Cynthia who was deemed an embarrassment and failure. Their mother was vocal about her opinions, remarking that she neither knew nor liked her oldest daughter or that she had one child too many. And while both daughters struggled with self-esteem, they did not bond. The older sister rebelled, drinking, and acting out; the brother internalized everything as a reluctant “golden” child; and Cynthia, in her own words, “floundered.” Her mother used tactics to divide the siblings such as badmouthing one daughter to another or complaining loudly about both to her son. When the children reached adulthood, their mother would never permit them to visit her at the same time, not even on holidays (that is so telling, isn’t it?). Cynthia surmises that this “rule” was partly a function of her mother’s need to be the center of attention and partly an effort to make sure her children did not communicate directly with each other. Not surprisingly, Cynthia reports that “All three of us are emotionally detached when it comes to our relationship. We would never hug each other, not even after long absence.” They mainly communicate by email nowadays, if at all.
I’ll close by saying that I haven’t seen my brother, nine years younger than I, in almost 25 years and, yes, ultimately the falling out was about our mother. The taboos against criticizing or blaming our mothers and the myths of motherhood mean that the damage done to both unloved daughters and their siblings hides in plain sight. It’s time that stopped.
Copyright© 2015 Peg Streep
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Bank, Stephen and Michael Kahn. The Sibling Bond. New York: Basic Books, 1997.
Boer, Frits, Arnold Goedhart, and Philip Treffers,” Siblings and their Parents, “ in Children’s Sibling Relationships, edited by Frits Boer and Judy Dunn. Hillside, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1992.
Jensen, Alexander, Shawn Whiteman, Karen Fingerman, and Kira Birditt,”Life Still Isn’t Fair: Parental Differential Treatment of Young Adult Siblings,” Journal of Marriage and Family 2013), 75 (2), 438-452.