I have three completely different children. But could I possibly admit to loving one more than the others?
A survey of 2,212 parents by the Parentdish website has found that 34 per cent of mothers and 28 per cent of fathers confess to preferring one offspring to another. I say “confess” because it seems to me extraordinary that about 70 per cent do not feel gradations of affection or fondness for individual children.
Pose the potentially explosive question to any parent, and you will spot the three-second pause before they exclaim, “No, no, no! Love them all the same.” Then they look into the distance, replaying that morning’s school run during which the “easy” child independently carried themselves and their bags to the car while the other ducked to avoid the PE kit whistling towards their head as they stumbled out with odd socks and unbrushed hair.
Despite the moral outrage that parents might have “favourites” (I’m probably in the minority in that I am prepared to risk the long-term psychological well-being of my three darlings), the topic guarantees wonderfully entertaining dinner-party conversation. A totally unscientific study of my friends revealed a universal sentiment: that the extent to which we “love” our children is a constant, and that only the shockingly unsentimental — or should that be more honest? — could contemplate pointing a preferential finger. However, the extent to which we “like” them can change on a weekly, daily or almost hourly basis.
It’s incredibly tough to be a good parent. We are culturally conditioned to believe that as mothers (and thankfully now also as fathers), we should feel an overwhelming, unconditional love for our children. But as with any relationship, we can’t avoid bringing our own prejudices and commonalities to the bond.
When my middle daughter, Kiki, was two-and-a-half, she tottered into the kitchen and asked if she could help me unstack the dishwasher. I looked across at Croyde, my then seven-year-old son, zombified in front of the television, and silently seethed. “Not once,” I cursed, “has it occurred to that boy to help his mum in the kitchen.”
I fumed at myself for letting that happen; at Mother Nature for whatever genetic role she had played and — inevitably — at my son for his lazy, inconsiderate, misogynistic world view. Then I had a word with myself.
I couldn’t punish him for his under-developed knowledge of the inequitable division of labour within a domestic sphere. They were my politics, not his. And I had read enough parenting handbooks to know that I was failing to identify or interpret his valuable “masculine” qualities. As a busy working mum, I’m less attuned to his rationality and highly developed problem-solving skills than I am to his inability to pick a wet towel off the bedroom floor.
But what in general determines which child we “prefer?” Is it all about timing — the first unplanned baby that ruins the “honeymoon period” or the second child that forces a house move or ends a career? Perhaps a child fails to fulfil its “purpose” of cementing a relationship?
We inevitably invest many hopes and dreams in our unborn children. And with such huge expectations, it’s a wonder we ever really like any of them.
A highly controversial body of evidence is emerging that appears to support a truth that mothers have known for generations: a difficult birth can trigger ambivalence towards a baby that some women may never entirely shake off. As irrational as they may be, our beliefs about our newborns are established early and can be difficult to shift: the overdue baby cast as “lazy”; the breech infant labelled “always difficult” and the ventouse delivery of a “stubborn” child.
I can’t use that excuse. My births were all straightforward except for my last one, who came out back-to-front. So far, Trixie, the youngest, demonstrates a determination to do things “her way” and I have to consciously stop myself linking this to her “tricksy” emergence into the world. But my middle one was born in the sunshine at home on Mother’s Day, and I’ve never known love like it. We still have a connection that does not feel entirely coincidental.
Doctors now accept that plentiful oxytocin (the “love” hormone) helps in kick-starting the mother-baby bond. This natural opiate requires privacy and quiet — the antithetical conditions of modern brightly lit, swing-door delivery suites.
Sarah Ockwell-Smith, a mother of four and author of Baby Calm: a Guide for Calmer Babies and Happier Parents, is unequivocal about the link between disappointing births and an absence of maternal love. Not only does she see it in her work, but she has experienced it, too.
“My most traumatic birth was my second, and it has taken me nearly nine years to properly bond with that son. I had a horrible first birth, and my second was supposed to be my nice, cathartic home birth. When it went wrong, I almost saw it as his fault. Subconsciously, I resented him, and when women feel like that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: the child plays up because it wants attention from its mother. It’s always about the mother.”
Ockwell-Smith dislikes the language of parenting surveys, saying: “Let’s be honest, it’s not parenting — it’s about mothering. It’s OK for dads to say, 'I’m not coping’ or 'I find it hard to get along with that child’. Women aren’t allowed those feelings. It isn’t culturally acceptable. But if people were honest about it, we could start to make a change. With my own son, it became apparent that I had the problem and needed to spend more time with him to fix it.”
She has been honest about it in her book, so much so that her eldest daughter suggested she discard the section about her struggle to “like” her second son. “My daughter asked, 'But what if he reads it?’ and I was able to say, 'My relationship with him now is really good. He knows mummy had a difficult birth but I hope he’d say I love him so much that I did everything I could to rectify it’.”
Those who doubt Ockwell-Smith’s theory would do well to consider what it is about the personality of the “less likable” child that rankles. Or look at it the other way round and ask: what is it about these young free spirits that we secretly envy?
This week, I was yet again failing to get my nine-year-old boy to bed on a summer’s evening when he suddenly sprinted through the kitchen and out the back door naked. As I yelled after him, he commenced a series of somersaults on the trampoline.
“But Mummy!” he grinned. “There’s nothing more fun in life than naked trampolining!” He may be challenging and strong-willed but I had to smile at his joyousness. I stopped unstacking the dishwasher and kicked off my shoes. Perhaps we just need to listen to our children a little harder: he was right about the trampolining.