My childhood was marred by favouritism. I was the middle child of three: the black sheep, the difficult one, the sickly one. These aren’t labels I’ve given myself – they were said to, or about, me regularly. My elder sibling was always the most treasured by my parents. This dynamic has continued into adulthood. It has been painful at times but is something I’ve left behind, thanks to my wonderful husband and four lovely children. I am extremely careful to treat my children equally and demonstrate that I love them all.
My problem is that the favouritism is being carried out in the next generation. My parents treat my children as they did me: as second-class, less-valued people. They have my siblings’ children to stay overnight quite frequently but not mine, although I have asked. They have photographs of the others up all over the house, but not of mine, even though I send regular pictures of them. I find this nothing short of heartbreaking on my kids’ behalf.
I can cope with their disapproval of me, but the slighting of my children cuts me to the quick. I hate that my parents can’t see what they are doing. My older child asked recently why he couldn’t go and stay, like his cousins. I don’t want all the anger and bewilderment of my early life to return in this way. How can I get over this and move forward? And is there anything I can do to improve matters? L, Manchester
Sometimes slights and injustices – real or perceived – that are visited upon us as children and which we think we’ve forgotten about or made peace with, rear up again when there is a threat that the pattern may repeat itself with our own children.
I know it must hurt that your parents can’t see what they are doing, but it’s better that they do it unwittingly than on purpose, which would hint at something far darker. I’m afraid some people are just not self-aware.
The obvious thing to do is to sit down with your parents and have a proper dialogue with them about it. But it’s the hardest thing to do, isn’t it? First, there is no guarantee that they will accept what you say, least of all change. And then I fear you will be even more hurt. But part of me really wants you to do this: to stand up and be counted. Has anyone else noticed or commented on the favouritism? Your husband? Your children (beyond the comment you mentioned)? How do your siblings feel about it? The comfort to be got here is that the favouritism, if it is indeed noticed by your children, won’t sting nearly as much as it did and does you – they have you to buffer them.
I spoke to Dr Dorothy Judd, a child, adolescent and adult psychotherapist (childpsychotherapy.org.uk). She thinks you seem insightful and intelligent and have done a lot of work to redress the situation. Judd wonders if you’ve thought of talking to your parents with your husband present? Or have you always talked to them on your own? I feel it can be hard to bring your “outside self” into family situations as we can all revert, and having someone from your “other” life may help. “The favoured siblings aren’t necessarily better off,” Judd says. “It’s not straightforward, being the favourite.” I would add that the favourite child can also live in fear of doing something wrong, so the love gets taken away. And favourites can change, too, as the parents age.
“If you feel you’ve done as much talking as you can [with your parents] then maybe it’s better to turn to other satisfactions,” Judd suggests. She wonders what relations are like with your in-laws. Perhaps you could concentrate on them?
You don’t mention your children’s ages. I asked Judd if you should be honest with them if they ask direct questions or started to think it was their fault. She suggests honesty if they are older children. Perhaps something like “Actually there is a problem, but it’s not your fault. It’s a problem I have with Grandma/Pa and I hope I can work on it, but I might not be able to.”
It sounds as if you’ve got a really good life of your own that is full of love. If I were you, I would maximise the time spent with people who make you feel good and cherished.
Sadly, not everyone gets what they need from their families.
First published in the Guardian Family section, 10 May 2013.