It’s hard not to be secretly pleased when your child chooses you over your spouse. I’m not talking about something big, like which one of you they’re going to live with after the divorce, I’m talking about little things, like being chosen to drive them and their friend to the movie theater. On the surface, it sounds like you’ve just won the booby prize, but it’s much more complex than that. When my daughter indicates a preference for me, the unspoken sub-text is that, in that particular case, I’m less of an embarrassment than her father. It may even be that she knows I’ll understand the emotions likely to be associated with a particular event and will be, therefore, less likely to provoke her. I know that sounds like a twist on damning with faint praise, but that in no way diminishes the impact on the chosen parent; secretly we are pleased.
In my slightly overcast worldview, all relationships have an element of competition to them. I’ve never believed that parents love all their children equally. For those of you whose hackles immediately go up, I’ll qualify that to say, I don’t believe that all parents love all their children equally. How can they? Children are people (hard as that may be to believe at times), and siblings can differ wildly from one another. I’m pretty sure that the real truth is that parents of multiple children live in a permanent catch-22; they have to say that they love all their children equally or all hell will break loose.
The interesting corollary to this is that all children are secretly convinced that their parents love them the most. Except for poor Tom Smothers who turned this rivalry on its head with the skit Mom Always Liked You Best off the Smothers Brothers album of the same name. Tom uses the accusation to make his brother, Dick, feel bad for him and is stunned when Dick finally says, “Sure, she liked me best. Want to know why?”
I know a couple of women whose husbands left in a blaze of ignominy. It was hard to drum up anything positive about them after their departures except for the fact that any man who could behave that badly was clearly better off gone. The real tragedy is that these women have children with these men, and they want the children to have good relationships with their fathers, so they sublimate their feelings and lie to the children about what really went down. Will they ever tell them the truth? Isn’t there an age at which it’s appropriate for the children to know that there was a villain in the breakup, and it was Daddy?
For the first bunch of years, we lie to children about all kinds of things. When faced with questions about death, we say, “Don’t worry honey, I’m not going to leave you.” When we don’t want to lie outright, obfuscation and redirection work well, but that gets harder and harder as they get older. It’s a relief when they’re old enough for, “We’re talking about you, not me.” And then comes the time that we find ourselves answering questions we wouldn’t have dreamed of discussing when they were younger. For most families, though, the lie that parents love all their children equally persists forever.
I only have one child. When I tell my daughter I love her best, I’m telling the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
I think perhaps the best of your blog entries, yet! For someone who has NOT been divorced and dealt with many of those complex fall-out issues of divorce which you describe, you seem to have many very real insights! Kudos.
Thank you so much!
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I still remember how crestfallen my cousin was the day he realized why my grandmother always said he was her favorite grandson…her only grandson of course.
You might only have one child, but you have so successfully divided your mind into so many others that not playing favorites is a true challenge. Good work.
Whoa – talk about hot buttons ! I was 1 of 5 and I know my mom loved me best because she told me so just before she died. Dad did too. So, it’s not wonder my older (5 yrs) brother hurt me and even tried to do me in. It took me a long time to figure THAT out. When T came along, there was no doubt I simply loved her pure and simple. When M&G (twin boys) popped out, I really had to ask myself if I could love sons as much as daughters. I could and did. My cousin, P, had 7 (2 adopted) – I once commented on how she clearly loved each and every one. She replied “They’re all just nice people, really nice people”. I kept that in mind with my three.
Super good post Judy.
Thanks Mike (should I call you Luke?). I often think the word “love” is too amorphous to be useful. Like, however, is powerful. Sure, I guess I love my husband, whatever that means, but I it means more to me (if not him) that I really like him.
It may be the most serious moral issue that parenting entails. The problem is that it is so devastating to be the child less loved. How could anyone inflict that on one of one’s children? Yet I’ve known mothers who freely admitted that they preferred one child to another. Feelings are not always totally controllable, but actions are, and I believe absolute equality must rule. But what lurks in the background is what I think of as the swimming pool test: if all your children (or grandchildren) were equally at risk of drowning at one given time, and you could try to save some, perhaps not all, which one would you save first? Fortunately most of us never have to make that choice.
Oh! That’s the test I always used to use on Andrew! I won’t tell you who I was challenging him with, but I was one of the drowning parties… I married him so I guess he got the answer right.
“Isn’t there an age at which it’s appropriate for the children to know that there was a villain in the breakup, and it was Daddy?”
–Judy, I’m not usually a big blog commentator but since I’ve been reading your blog and since I am a divorced parent I’m diving into the fray here. You might be interested to know that Mass., along with many other states, requires divorcing parents to take a class (6 hours) on ‘parenting apart’ or ‘co-parenting after divorce’ in which we learn some very basic things, such as never to bad-mouth the other parent to a child. It’s not a question of sublimating one’s feelings but a question of not putting the child in the very, very stressful position of having to take sides between the two parents. The child loves both parents. The child does not want to have to see one parent as the ‘villain.’ And, although it’s true that one person can behave very, very badly towards the other, rarely does divorce parse so neatly into ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy.’
Hope you won’t take my words the wrong way here, just that I’ve worked very hard on this one and feel compelled to comment : – )
All comments are welcome, no worries. While I agree in principle, and certainly support that approach until the children are grown, I do hope that one day, far off in the future, the Moms in question will be able to tell the unvarnished truth about the harm that was done to them. I readily acknowledge that even evil men may love their children, but as adults, those children should be given the facts so they can draw their own conclusions.
Of course I do not know the Moms in question or details of their lives so cannot presume. As adults, yes, children will most likely draw their own conclusions from a lot of data, including their mother’s stories.
Whoa again – talk about button pushing. My big D was in Mass. 18 yrs ago and there was no 6hrs of counseling then. 1 lawyer told me “If you want to know if you’re going to get screwed, just look in your pants – if you see a male thingy, you’re going to get screwed. Truer words were never spake. Karen P.’s ex may have been Evil incarnate but I sure as hell wasn’t and I can prove it. When asked “Why?”, my seriously disturbed X replied: “I I just can’t think of what else to do do with MY guilt and anger.” She had a lot to feel guilty about and I can prove THAT too. Her anger? Beats me. WTF did I have to do with THAT? Never heard. Still wonder.
Judy – “one day, far off in the future, the Moms in question will be able to tell the unvarnished truth about the harm that was done to them” – – – I never said an unkind word about my X to the kids (3) for one simple reason – She’s THEIR mother, they love her and I never doubted she loved them. Bad enough I was getting screwed, leave them out of it for 1 smpl reason – I loved THEM with all my heart. I sacrificed almost everything for THEM and I’d do it again without hesitation.
Not ALL Dads are Evil Incarnate … even the ones that are probably aren’t EVIL all the way through.
TTFN – Luke
Just for the record, it’s dumb luck that the two people I’m thinking of are women. I’m sure the same applies to lots of men. And one can be a horrible person without being evil incarnate. I rarely demonize anyone who doesn’t roundly (or is it soundly?) deserve it. Your ex sounds like a nightmare. I hope the last 18 years have been less harrowing, socially-speaking.
Luke (formerly Mike): for the record, my ex was not evil incarnate. Good for you for loving your kids more than hating your ex.
I despise lawyers’ comments like the one yours made about looking down your pants to see if you’re going to be screwed. Chances are that same comment worked for the lawyer’s women’s clients. Divorce attorneys have a lot to gain by inciting their clients’ anger and making the legal process as lengthy as possible.