Being The Least Favorite Child

One Friday morning, I woke up from a weird dream. Here are the parts I remember: In the dream, my sister and I were children again. I asked my dad to take me to a movie. Fast forward a few hours later, and my little sister had just been brought home by my dad after being taken somewhere without me. Unable to keep a secret, she tells me that she and my dad have just been to a movie. I’d been intentionally left behind. I start to cry and though I can barely squeeze the words out of my throat, I say, “I always knew I was the least favorite!” After that I awoke and sort of cried in real life.

Memories from childhood came floating to the surface of my mind as I contemplated why this particular theme might have turned up in my dreams now.

My sister is several years younger than me. From early on, we were both highly sensitive, needy, and bookish. I’d say we were like ‘special needs’ children except that nobody saw us or treated us that way because we were so intelligent otherwise, so in school we were placed with ‘gifted and talented’ kids instead.

If we ever fell out of line, it was determined to be because we were being ‘selfish’ or ‘wishy-washy’, as my dad always said, especially to me. I usually got punished the severest for being the older one; didn’t matter who started it, if she was crying, I was in for it. Along with the deepening sadness came a deepening envy of my sister.

In my earliest recollection of sensing I was ‘the least favorite’, I was around age eight. That was also when I first got depressed and began saying I wanted to die, hurray!

My parents decided to get their weird little boy some Christian counseling.

I couldn’t stand the guy and wondered what the point was, talking to him, while I craved something only my parents could give me — I was convinced they didn’t love me. Not the way they loved my little sister. So that’s what I told him.

When you’re a child claiming that your parents are doing it wrong, adults automatically rally to one another’s defense and the whole thing seems rigged against you from the get go. They act as if you’re, hahaha, just delusional (and this too shall pass!). They make you wonder if maybe you actually are. Some, like my 2nd grade teacher, may hug you and tell you that no matter what, Jesus loves you, because that’s always a safe bet.

In part, it looked like I should just keep my mouth shut because maybe by being so vocal I was creating a self-fulfilling prophecy — was it that the more unloved I proclaimed myself to be, the more unlovable I became? Is that how it worked?

So for a while I was on my best behavior, but around 4th grade my depression revved back up again. When I couldn’t hold back my feelings, I cried profusely and sobbed that nobody loved me (again), which is truly how I felt. My dad responded with an angry yell, “If you start that shit again, you’re paying for your own counseling!” Well, alrighty then.

Now I know someone out there may be thinking, “God, what a brat, if that was my child, I’d have said the same.” If that happens to be you, don’t have kids. They will not turn out Just Fine™.

Seriously though. Kids don’t just make up this ‘shit’ to piss their parents off or get more toys. I accepted toys as a peace offering sometimes but believe me when I say that did not cut it. What a child wants much, much more than toys is to be seen, heard, and appreciated for the little individual person they are, and even if they can’t explain it, they will almost always sense when they’ve been cheated out of this. Love-starved and emotionally neglected children are a lot more common than people are ready to admit.

Photo by Katherine Chase on Unsplash

I think I activated a pre-existing fear of rejection in my dad. Maybe when he realized that his only son preferred doing arts and crafts with mom — or even just playing alone — to doing sports and outdoorsy stuff with dad, it drove him mad. After all, he’d been a stay-at-home dad, and where was his reward for that? A son who didn’t even want to ride a bike with him? A son who couldn’t score a goal in a soccer game to save his life? A son who might be even be that most unspeakable of all things — gay? (Gasp!) It’s almost no surprise my dad often played with other people’s children instead.

If I said I didn’t feel loved, my dad felt attacked. It was like I’d handed him a report card that told him, “you might kinda sorta be failing as a father, maybe?”

And my dad did not take criticism lightly.

Rather than examine any of his own potential shortcomings, he fiercely protected his ego by convincing himself the problem was entirely me. Not saying I never have shortcomings, but I was also really short at the time, and wasn’t it his duty as a parent to be the bigger person or something? Dunno where I got that idea, I must have read it somewhere.

I vaguely recall a conversation from years ago, a part of old family lore that I would never ask about now. It contained something about my dad’s hesitancy to marry and concerns about fatherhood. He wasn’t quite sure he was ‘good enough’. Hmm.

My dad was ambivalent, offering and then withholding his love every other day, throwing adult temper tantrums, asking for forgiveness and receiving it as many times, a pattern on constant repeat. It confused the crap out of me and I always hoped one day I’d just be good enough that the peace would stay and never leave.

My mom often just kind of stood off to the side through all of this. She didn’t like to choose between her husband and her children, I know. My dad had already accused me of trying to destroy his marriage, so talking to my mom about how bad dad was rarely felt like an option, lest he think I was proving his point. He wasn’t abusive to her, so she wasn’t as affected by his temper tantrums, especially if she wasn’t even home when they happened. She was still always the one I trusted more to like, not hurt me, despite the fact that in some ways she still could act a bit closed off and detached. Just having her home made me feel safer from him.

But neither my mom or dad could embrace my burgeoning teenage sexuality. It’s something I tried and failed to discuss with them at various times because it just makes them too angry or uncomfortable.

I am lucky I didn’t have parents who’d literally kick me out of the house for coming out to them, but I did feel sort of kicked out of their hearts, if that makes any sense. Coulda been way worse, I know, but it was still sort of like they went, “Okay, God, we’ll keep this son, but not all of him. Just the parts we like. Deal?”

After I moved out, my relationship with my family began to improve (distance makes the heart grow fonder), but I still had to clamp down a lot of my emotions and be careful what I shared with them and definitely not have parents who I could come to them to talk about anything, whenever. So, yeah, maybe I never experienced what unconditional parental love feels like but it sure looks nice on the brochure!

Colored by our chaotic home environment, my sister and I inevitably struggled in our pursuit of healthy love, but my sister reaped far more attention and support in the end. My dad wasn’t the chillest with some of her relationships, but like, at least she could acknowledge the fact she had a boyfriend and he wouldn’t tell her to “never bring it up again.”

My mom was there to pick up the pieces when my sister’s heart was broken and cast shame on those young men who’d caused the pain, even despite my sister’s tendency to withdrawl and suffer in solitude. It was because of that very tendency that I became the middle man from time to time.

Once, I got a bit fed up at my mom, for her habit of hitting up my Facebook to scout for details on my sister’s current love affair, while neglecting to show any of the same concern for me. It was a bit too in-my-face, like “look at the normal motherly concern you too could receive if YOU were straight!”

Literally the majority of our chat conversations revolved around “It’s been a few days since I’ve heard anything from your sister and I’m worried. I know she’s been about upset about (boyfriend’s name). Did she tell you anything?”

I finally couldn’t bite my tongue or keyboard or whatever and told her with exasperation how it offends me that she can’t ever ask the same questions about me, how she can’t show interest in my relationships, and instead just uses me as a bridge to my sister. Neither one of us wanted her to say, “Because you’re gay,” so she fed me a line of B.S. about it being a mother-daughter thing and that it’s nothing personal just that mothers relate more to their daughters or something. And it just felt like, “Sorry, not sorry.” And nothing changed.

So as my tragic love life unfolded over the years, I’ve never once* been able to divulge of my loves and losses and find consolation in the emotional support system that many other people would find in their parents.

*okay, maybe there was one time when I flung myself into my mom’s arms, already a ball of tears, basically forcing her to listen to me.

I’ve basically had to be my own parent while I flailed for the unconditional love I never received, so for anyone who’s never really had parents, maybe this is where our stories kind of intersect. I know it sounds dramatic, but at so many times during my life, I wondered, “Is this how it feels to be an orphan?”

My heart just feels so cavernous and empty, yearning to be filled by somebody else who can be my favorite person in the whole wide world, my everything to replace the nothing inside. I really wish that I was somebody’s favorite person, somebody’s sunshine, their only sunshine.

When she was an adult, my sister admitted to me that my issues with Dad always seemed harder than hers. And like, wow, things with her and Dad had gotten pretty nasty in her teens with him always starting fights with her and criticising the food she ate and calling her a slut and stuff, so the fact she would admit that speaks volumes.

As a troubled child and teenager, I resented my sister for always seeming to have the competitive edge in vying for my parents affection. In addition to growing up semi-believing that I was the most selfish and wishy-washy child there ever was, I embarassed my parents in more ways than my sister by not conforming to my traditional gender role. She was my punching bag for years in place of my parents, but my perspective shifted when I was old enough to see neither one of us had it easy. Then all I wanted to do was protect her.

A childhood like mine leaves permanent scars and weird dreams that may haunt you well into your adult life. So, don’t ever try to raise a kid the same way my parents did and expect different results. Better yet, just never do it at all! Duh. With that disclaimer out of the way, I will say I’ve taken a greater appreciation than most people have for fairness and forgiveness, as a result of having to cope with my difficult childhood. I’ve had to forgive, like, a lot.

My sister is probably one of the most forgiving people I know. I took a lot of anger out on her when we were smaller, as did my father, but she forgave us both more times than I can count. She actually even looked up to me, can you believe that? She thought I was her cool, handsome older brother who she was PROUD of… even though I was too ashamed of myself to come out to her. What the fudge? When I finally did, she was and is to this day the most supportive and accepting family member I have ever had, and I will always love her for that. Our relationship might have a few nicks and scratches, but it’s probably the closest thing to unconditional love I’ll find anywhere.

If one of you reading this grew up feeling like you were the least favorite child in your family, or even just unwanted, I feel your pain. I would understand if you spent your whole life wondering why, and subsequently obsessed over trying to be somebody’s favorite person, like I’ve done and still do, just so you can know what it feels like for once.

You probably feel the same stab wound every time someone you love chooses their real family over you, or whenever your best friend chooses their boyfriend or girlfriend instead of you, or even when you are looked over for a promotion that you’ve worked for so-damn-hard because for whatever arbitrary reason your boss prefers your coworker and they can only promote one of you. If you’re saying yes to any of the above, God, do I hear you!

I’m grateful that I grew up and don’t resent my sister anymore, and instead got to keep her as an ally. Honestly, this could have turned out differently.

She could have turned into a manipulative monster, taking advantage of my parent’s apparent favoritism. She could have taken their side and shunned me on the basis of my sexuality. She could have held a permanent grudge instead of forgiving me for how rotten I was when we were kids. Fortunately, she did none of those things.

Instead, she was my witness. She saw what I saw — a family plagued with dysfunction, parents who often fell short of their duties — and validated the deep pain I’ve felt for so many long, hard years. She has had the audacity to say that things just weren’t right. She understands where I’m coming from, probably better than any therapist ever could, and that is such an incredible gift. ★

Photo by Kevin Gent on Unsplash

Henry is an avid reader, writer, composer, and consumer of documentary films. He supports dialogue about mental health, race relations, and the LGBTQ community.

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