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Not the favourite child

An old friend of my mother’s was refreshing my teacup when she said, looking wistful, “It must have been hard for you, knowing that your sister was her favourite.”

I should have known better than to argue with this woman, whom I privately call The Queen because of the authority that stamps her every utterance and gesture. On this particular matter, she is surely the world’s ranking expert—not only my mother’s confidante over many pots of tea and stiff drinks, but herself the mother of quite a few adult children with the usual resentments and rivalries. I have one child and a vested interest: baggage dating back to the days when my younger sister Joyce and I squared off over which of us got the taller glass of ginger ale and whose tearfully defended complaint of ill treatment at the hands of the other won acceptance by our mother as the truth.

“My mother didn’t have a favourite,” I insisted to The Queen. She loved each of us in a different way.” Precisely what my mother always said when I accused her of favouring my younger sister Joyce. I didn’t buy it at the time. Yet there I was getting huffy in my seventh decade, when I can help myself to all the ginger ale I want and haven’t touched the stuff in years.

I’m clearly not the only sensible grownup who reverts to childhood on questions of familial status. Last fall I noticed a collective shiver of recognition during a performance of Tracy Lett’s bitingly magnificent family drama August: Osage County, after a put-upon daughter told her monster of a mother that she liked to think “my parents loved all their children equally.” Scoffed Mom, “I’m sure you’d prefer to think that Santy Claus brought you presents at Christmas, too, but it just isn’t so. If you’d had more than one child, you’d realize a parent always has favourites.”

Some children pay an excruciating price for not being the family darling. My grandmother, born to a woman who preferred sons and viewed daughters as drains on the household, was addressed throughout her childhood as “Ugliness.” I know of other people who as kids endured constant, slighting comparisons to deceased siblings (sometimes punctuated with “If only it had been you”). But these are extreme cases, thank goodness. In my experience, not being the favourite had a distinct advantage—one that escaped me until I grew up. My mother looked to Joyce for the affirming passion that she wasn’t getting from our alcoholic father. She would later punish Joyce harshly for trying to break free, as even the most loyal favourites do sooner or later. I, on the other hand, had always been left to find my own path—a lonely one, but healthier for a child than the lockstep imposed by overloving.

You don’t have to take my word for that. Listen to another wise friend of my mother’s—Sophie Freud, author, social worker, teacher, lifelong student of the ties that bind and granddaughter of Sigmund. After my mother died, I tracked down Sophie’s quirky, provocative and intermittently mesmerizing book My Three Mothers and Other Passions, in which she explores the themes the two of them loved to debate in a rich, at times prickly correspondence. I’m particularly struck by what Sophie has to say about “respect for the otherness of a child.” She calls it “the most important requirement for becoming a perfect parent.” She then adds wryly, “On my next life journey I shall be so respectful of my children’s autonomy that I will appear to be an irresponsible mother.”

Ah, yes. Sophie, you and I both know how those children will assess that blessed second chance to nail the art of motherhood. Each one of them will still think you sold them short a time or two. Nobody ever said family life was rational. Just indispensable. Can you imagine the alternative?

August: Osage County is currently touring and heads to Michigan (East Lansing and Detroit) after closing its Chicago run on Valentine’s Day (how ironically appropriate). Click here for the full schedule and grab a ticket if you’ve ever been perplexed by this conundrum called a family. Uproarious, tragic and utterly unforgettable, it’s the finest play I’ve seen in years. I bought the book so I could savour every line.

Posted by Rona

Previously posted comments:

February 09, 2010 at 5:05PM

My mom and I joke (now) that, of COURSE I was her favorite. Why wouldn’t I be? But really, when we were little, I never noticed her favoring my sister over me, or me over her, not really. Though when my sister and I talk, we both think we spotted favoritism for the other, which means that Mom probably got it just right.

We do joke, though, that my dog is jealous of “perfect sister Katy” who I lost 3 months before I got him, that he’s grown up hearing about how wonderful she was, so that he gets that sing-songy tone to his woofs, and plenty of eye-rolling whenever her name comes up. (And, after 8 years, you’d think he’d be a little more secure in the fact that I adore him, wouldn’t you?)

Rona Maynard
February 10, 2010 at 2:02 AM

That’s one perceptive dog you’ve got, Deb. I’m sorry about Katy. How you must miss her.

February 10, 2010 at 4:04AM

I know for a fact that I was NOT my mother’s favorite child, even though I got stuck taking care of her by myself during the last three months of her life! When my mother died between 45 and 50 people who had been regular customers of hers at the bank where she had been the head teller for 27 years came to the house and introduced themselves to me and they all said the same thing – They had no idea that I even existed until they read my mother’s obituary in the local newspaper. Since my sister was the only child she ever spoke of having, a lot of people assumed that she was an only child.

Two weeks before my mother died she, my aunt, and I took her car to the local mechanic who worked on her cars for years. My aunt had to introduce me to him because he had never seen me or had any idea that my mother had two children. This man worked on her cars for at least 25 years!

Rona Maynard
February 10, 2010 at 5:05 AM

Oh, Lynne! That silence about you must have really stung.

February 10, 2010 at 10:10AM

I firmly believe that being the least favourite of my mother’s five children has made me a better, stronger person. I shucked her influence at a younger age than my other sisters, so it took me rather less time to find myself, as an adult, as a parent and as a wife.

From personal experience, I have come to the conclusion that women who have a poor relationship with their husbands tend to become very attached to one of their children. While conversely, women who are less attached to their mothers have very strong, close relationships with their spouses. But I’m not sure which is the chicken and which the egg. However, this is just a personal, very likely self-serving, theory.

Rona Maynard
February 10, 2010 at 10:10 AM

Well, it’s certainly an interesting theory (says the wife of close to 40 years).

Deb Pascoe
February 10, 2010 at 3:03PM

I’ve heard the same protest from each of my children: “You love Dan/Jessica/Melissa” more!” I tell them that if they’re all saying it I must be giving them all the same amount of love.

Rona Maynard
February 10, 2010 at 4:04 PM

Great answer, Deb! And by the sound of things, it’s true.

Linda Jones
February 10, 2010 at 7:07PM

Hi Rona 🙂

I like what you said about parenthood. I always thought I was permissive compared to other parents, and didn’t put pressure on my kids to ‘be something’. And somehow, one still feels that parental success is measured by the level of professional (or other socially recognized) success of ones’ children with identifiable careers such as lawyer, doctor, professor. Anyway, I gave in to ‘failure’ as a parent becauset I loved (all) my kids so much, that I couldn’t bear for them to be anything other than who they were. Sometimes I have tried to apologize for not being a typical parent, and they usually say somthing like ‘Mom, shut up.’ 🙂 Who knows what is right or wrong – but I still feel perfect love for each one, and maybe after your comment about autonomy I can reassure myself that my path was perhaps a good one after all.
(PS Paul was definitely mom’s favourite as she wanted four boys – and told us so – and she also told me Sue was Dad’s favourite. Somehow I didnt mind though – certain kinds of love can be an impediment to freedom.)

Rona Maynard
February 11, 2010 at 1:01 AM

Linda, what a wonderful thing to say about your kids–that you “loved them so much, you couldn’t bear for them to be anything other than who they were.” Every child should be so lucky.

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