“For more than 40 years, I honestly believed my mother was my rescuer. I’d grown up hearing about my rescue from the time I was little and she was explicit and direct about what [was owed] her in return: eternal gratitude. She saw herself that way too—the noble woman willing to sacrifice and pay for the unwanted child. Other people—my friends, my teachers, even the man I married—noticed how she dismissed and undermined me and treated my older sister, her biological child, with love and care, but I was determined not to be that ungrateful and disloyal child. But when she treated my daughter as she had me, I called her out for 43 years of abuse and that was that.”
This is Dana’s story but it echoes what another reader wrote about “the spell of the grateful adoptee.” Anecdotally at least, most unloved daughters—whether they are biologically or adopted children—come to recognize maternal abuse or neglect and are able to act on it relatively late in life, most usually in their 40s or later. This slow pace of recognition is a function of many things, including normalizing or denying maternal abuse, being insecure about your own perceptions of how you’ve been treated, and fear of the consequences of confronting your mother, among other things. But there doesn’t seem to be any question that the “rescuer/grateful child” script makes it all harder.
Source: Annie Spratt/Unsplash
In my last piece on adoption (see here), I discussed how some adoptive children were made to feel less than or shunted aside as “second-class” when biological children came into the original family or through remarriage. Since our culture is so fixated on “blood ties” and insistent that they are more meaningful than other social and emotional ties we form—with the notable exception of marriage, which then, with the addition of offspring, becomes a source of blood ties, which probably accounts for the exemption—seeing the similarities and differences in dysfunctional families formed by biological or adoptive ties is, I think, revelatory.
Ironically, the consistency of the patterns reveals how little blood ties may matter. Yes, you might not love a child you gave birth to or even treat her or him well.
Playing favorites (aka PDT)
While cultural myths maintain that all parents—biological or adoptive—love their children equally, there’s a robust body of research that shows mothers and fathers do play favorites; the technical term is “Parental Differential Treatment,” and it’s even got its own acronym, PDT. The reasons for favoritism are various and sundry—sometimes it has to do with what’s called “Goodness of Fit” and how alike or unlike a parent-child pair are—but it can also result from a parent seeing the child not as he or she is but only as a reflection of that parent’s needs, wants, or expectations. Keep in mind that the frequency with which parental favoritism happens doesn’t make it any less damaging; its effects are profound.
Mary, 35, was three years older than her brother; both were adopted as babies. Her brother was the favorite, the son who could no wrong, while Mary—much to her confusion—was the one who never got it right. She remembers being a fearful child, afraid of her parents’ moods, especially her mother’s criticisms, and never feeling emotionally safe at home.
Mary did well in school, never got into trouble, and had lots of friends, but there was no praise for achievement—just criticism. And it was wide-ranging and constant, focused on her behavior, her habits, how she looked, and, most of all, her weight. Her parents put her on diets, sent her to a dietician, and her mother weighed her every Sunday. (Yes, disordered eating has been an issue.) As Mary wrote:
“It’s like she had an image of me that I wasn’t living up to, but I never knew what this image was. She never tried to get to know me, the real me, and instead made me feel bad for not being the daughter she imagined.”
Who was the daughter this mother—and so many others—imagined, and what gave her permission to chase that vision while ignoring the child in front of her? Please note that this is not limited to adoption since the gene pool is a deep place if you expect a customized-to-your-dreams child will be delivered to you. Mary lives in another country, hundreds of miles away from her adoptive family with whom she has a civil but distant relationship at the moment.
But, sometimes, the outcome is unexpected because parental favoritism is not about biological ties or adoption; it is about the parents.
Alexa, age 33, is a biological child; her parents adopted her older sister, Kim, 37, as a newborn:
“Kim is the family star, and I never stood a chance. My parents are short, nerdy, dark-haired people, as am I, and Kim is the tall, blonde girl my mom envied in high school and my father wanted to date. Did I mention she is enormously athletic and a nationally ranked skier and went to college on a full scholarship while they had to pay for me? I love Kim. She is my sister, and she is a lovely person.
But, at the same time, it’s really clear to me that my relationship to my parents, especially my mother, suffered by comparison. I am the lesser child, the less interesting one, because she is what they can’t be. I am like them which, in this context, isn’t all that appealing.”
The cost to sibling relationships (and the sense of belonging)
Parental favoritism doesn’t just damage the child and his or her sense of self but alters the dynamic between and among siblings in significant ways; again, this happens with biological siblings, adopted ones, and a family made up of biological and adoptive kids. The favored child (or children) may ape the parent’s behavior—for example, marginalizing, picking on, scapegoating, or ignoring a brother or sister—knowing that there will be no retribution.
Alice’s story, which is about two biologically unrelated adopted children just under three years apart, isnt very different from the stories I’ve heard from biological siblings where the parental model of behavior infiltrated the sibling dynamic. Her older brother took his anger out on her and, as she tells it, “If I’d tell my mother that he’d hit me, she’d say, ‘What did you do to make him hit you?'” At its worst, that is what favoritism looks like: a parent ignoring violence.
But the rifts caused in childhood sibling relationships by parental favoritism actually tend to become more pronounced in adult sibling relationships for a number of reasons. One reason is that adults will begin to try to make sense of their childhood experiences, and they may find their recollections at odds with those of their siblings. (For more, see here.) If they become parents themselves, they may see their mothers or fathers—now grandparents—repeat patterns with their children, which might bring matters to the fore.
Given the amount of research on biological sibling estrangement and my own anecdotal and unscientific research, I was happy to see that, sometimes at least, adopted siblings are able to move past the past and into the future. Alice, for example, who was bullied by her favorite brother, ended up living with him as a young adult; they became friends and are still close, all these years later: “He sees how differently I was treated by our mother. He doesn’t defend either of us, and I respect that.” Perhaps two adopted children, reaching adulthood, have investments in connections, rather than the family narratives that absorb and derail biological children and their parents? I am just guessing.
No matter how a family is configured, Parental Differential Treatment is always harmful.
Thanks to my readers on Facebook for their stories.
Copyright: Peg Streep, 2022