Sunday, August 30, 2009

sibling issues at midlife

Two weeks ago my mother called me and informed me that she had bladder cancer and had already had the surgery for it. That's how she is: whenever she's had a health crisis, she doesn't tell me until it's over. I told her tartly about twenty years ago to tell me when she goes INTO the hospital, not OUT of it, but evidently that is not going to change. I told her this time that if she tells me before the fact, I'm likely to send her something, but she was dismissive. She got roses from my father, and that's enough.

My mother did say that she was waiting to get the biopsy results analyzing her growth. The results were due to come while I'd be off with the Sober Husband and children on our annual trip to rustic Camp Mather in the Sierras, cut off from cellphone and internet coverage. I thought about her test results while we were at Camp Mather, and I worried.

When we got home, I checked my email and answering machine, but there were no messages from my mother about her test results. So I called her while I was cooking dinner. The news was great, which made me happy: her cancer was caught at an early stage, and she and her doctor have decided that chemo is not necessary. Instead, they'll take a wait-and-see approach. I promised that if there does come a need, I'll make myself available to go help out. Then my mother shared with me that she and my sister have big plans to go get matching tattoos next year to commemorate her coming through this.


I'm the tattooed one. I have many tattoos. My mother and sister have none, and indeed my tattoos (expensive, carefully designed custom work with the exception of one beloved piece, which was taken from the wall art on the spur of the moment with my best friend from high school in a Middle-aged Girls Gone Wild moment) have been the source of a lot of family ridicule over the years. And my mother making special plans to do something with my sister, excluding me but telling me about it, is pretty much the theme of my whole childhood. My sister has always been the beloved child, the one to get the attention, money, resources, gifts, etc.... When I finally called my mother on that for the first time, in my twenties, she just said, "Well, I wasn't the favorite child, either."

I can't believe that I'm middle-aged and still having sibling rivalry. I told my mother how much that matching tattoo idea hurt my feelings, and she was defensive.

Decades ago I was reading some sociological work and came across the phrase "pathological favoritism." I felt comforted, that there was a phrase for the horrible thing which had been the poison seeping through my childhood. I clung to that phrase. Pathological favoritism seems to run through both sides of my family, and my mother has been pretty vocal in denouncing and discussing one instance of it, but yet still carrying it out in our own nuclear family. The favoritism is a topic I discuss with my newly acquired psychiatrist. "How did you come out of it so strong?" he muses. I shared Dr. Michael Thompson's observation with him that sometimes a child who is disliked by the parents grows up to be extremely independent and strong, with Eleanor Roosevelt a key example.

My strongest resolution as a parent has been to raise my children without a discernible favorite. This particular inherited piece of dysfunction ends with me. My husband was the favorite child in his own family, but he agrees that while it worked out well for him, he could see it damaged his brother. So far we seem to be succeeding, as both Iris and Lola accuse us on a regular basis of paying more attention to the other (my personal favorite parenting moment, sigh, is when both of them accuse us simultaneously of favoring the other).

Weeks ago, long before my mother's matching tattoo came up, I was lying on the couch playing Warcraft, and I said out loud, "I have a favorite now." Iris and Lola both froze up. They turned to me, as did the Sober Husband, in silence. "Ray Charles is my favorite cat," I said. "I have a favorite now." Iris and Lola let their breath out and relaxed.


Anonymous said...

I think it is nice your mother is getting a tattoo to commemorate surviving cancer. I have heard of others doing the same thing.

Silliyak said...

What about Frowsty? Despite godlike tendencies, there are still bound to be hurt feelings!

the Drunken Housewife said...

The idea of getting a tattoo is great, obviously (another friend of mine is planning a tattoo next year to cover surgical scars). The problem is planning something with one of your two children to commemorate this and excluding, rather than inviting, the other one ... the one who is actually associated with that activity... to join in.

Anonymous said...

Is your sister a cancer survivor too? Sometimes people go that because they have shared something together.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, clearly you are not getting the MAIN POINT OF THE STORY. The point isn't the tattoo per se, it's the fact that Drunken Housewife's mother shuts her out, chooses her sister over her, and then lets that choice be known. See if you can keep up, mmmkay?

Missy said...

I think it's just horrid that your mother even said this to you.

It's inexcusable stupidity. The only thing I can say is that this is all about her, not you. She may subconsciously feel that by picking your sister as the favored one, she's getting the control she never had as a child.

That wouldn't make me feel that much better, but it might help you move on.

My second brother refers to our oldest brother as Golden Boy. It always makes me laugh and laughing at them helps me get past the pain more than anything else.

You are doing better with your own children. That's worth more than any tattoo your mother gets.

Anonymous said...

My mom exhausted herself making sure that my sister and I were treated equally. I'm sorry that your mom doesn't get it but I'm glad that you are not carrying on the family tradition with your girls. We thrive in spite of our parents, not because of them.

Admin said...

Coming from another not-the-favourite child, you have my sympathy and a huge dose of hugs.

What your mother did was mean and unnecessary, which I'm sure you already know.

Congratulations on not perpetuating this cycle with your own children. Sometimes, being stronger in the end because you went through something is not worth it.

Anonymous said...

You twisted psychopath! Your kids (and the Sober Husband are just dying to know who your favorite is. And it is one of the cats!

How have the other cats reacted to this disturbing piece of news?

Carol Ann said...

I'm sorry to hear about your mother's cancer, although I can totally sympathize with how you're feeling right now. My sister was always my mother's favorite.

snowqueen said...

God I think that might actually be worse than being a hated only child!

I too stopped the poison with my children - I never hit them ever and I let them be their own person.