Saturday 17 February 2018

I was always my parents' favourite

Tess Stimson knew from early childhood that she came first in her parents' eyes. And so did her siblings

Daddy's girl: Tess Stimson was the subject of parental favouritism.
Daddy's girl: Tess Stimson was the subject of parental favouritism.
Do You Have a Favourite Child, as featured in this paper last week

Tess Stimson

It's more reviled than smoking or drinking in pregnancy and more shocking than wishing aloud that you'd never had a child in the first place – but whether acknowledged or not, many parents secretly have a child they love more than the others.

Like all small children, I thought from birth that the world revolved around me, and when my sister Philippa arrived just before I turned two, I assumed she had been provided purely for my entertainment. As we grew up, it seemed perfectly natural to me that I took pride of place in the family, as was my right as firstborn. I had no idea that my parents' joint favouritism towards me was unfair.

I was an easy baby, who slept through the night from 10 days old, and became a hard-working, self-motivated child. Philippa, on the other hand, was a sickly infant; she contracted bronchial pneumonia 13 times before she was five and fell behind at school almost as soon as she started.

Her illnesses cut short my father's foreign posting to Greece and when we returned the family was polarised: my mother and Philippa on one side, my father and me on the other.

While they shuffled between hospital visits and doctors' surgeries, my father taught me to ride a bicycle, roller-skate and walk on stilts.

He bought me special treats, spent hours helping with my homework and told me again and again how proud he was of me.

I was always the one who got an extra cuddle or was allowed to sit in the front seat next to him. I accepted it as my due.

My brother Charles was born when Philippa and I were six and eight, and immediately leap-frogged my sister in my father's affections. The only boy, he was babied by the entire family, but never became a rival to me.

Rather, he was my acolyte, my sidekick. He knew I was the star of the family, the golden child, but rather than resent it, he looked up to me and wanted to emulate me.

It was only many years later that I realised how much my parents' favouritism towards me had undermined him. As I went on to achieve success as an undergraduate at Oxford, and later in my journalistic and writing career, he felt increasingly overshadowed.

He believed he could never live up to me, and so stopped even trying. He knew he was loved, but also felt that he was a disappointment to our parents. Worst of all, he never had the traditional father-son relationship with our father, because there was no room for anyone but me, the daddy's girl.

Philippa and I bickered as sisters do, but although she teased me for being the favourite, she never took it out on me. It was as if she'd bought into the family mythology: I was the favourite, and that was how it was meant to be. But the lack of parental approval inevitably damaged her self-esteem.

I've often wondered why my father preferred me. As a small child, I certainly did nothing to deserve it. He was a firstborn himself and his mother had cherished him and neglected his brothers; perhaps he was just repeating the pattern.

One of the truths parents rarely acknowledge is their automatic preference for their firstborn. When a second child arrives, all too often it is seen as an interloper, encroaching on the precious firstborn's territory.

Normally, those feelings soon give way to love and approval for the newcomer, whose very vulnerability can promote them in the family pecking order.

But in our case, my mother developed severe postnatal depression after Philippa was born, and I think perhaps my father never quite forgave my sister for it. They never managed to achieve that bond.

Conscientious and academic, I never put a foot wrong, delivering numerous successes that made it only too easy for my parents to approve of me.

Even when I slipped up – by marrying a twice divorced man two decades my senior, for example – my parents weighed it in the balance of all that I'd done to make them proud, and let it pass.

But Philippa could never win. Her triumphs – she was very sporty, for example, and excelled at athletics – paled into insignificance in their eyes when compared with my academic achievements. Her failures were writ large. It seemed the only way she ever got my parents' attention was for the things she did wrong.

As a child, I enjoyed my favoured status, but as an adult felt burdened by it. I was terrified of disappointing them. I was the sensible one, the one who didn't drink or smoke or run around with unsuitable men. As my mother often said, I never gave them a single sleepless night.

When my first marriage started to crumble after eight years, I couldn't bear to tell my parents. Only when we were almost divorced did I come clean.

The guilt I felt at letting them down was far worse than the guilt I felt towards my own sons, then aged four and one.

My sister, who has never been jealous of me, and has always been my most vocal supporter, was incredibly kind and sympathetic. Only later did she admit to a tiny morsel of pleasure that I had finally fallen on my face.

It's little wonder the marriage failed. My first husband, who looked like my father and was only seven years younger than him, had always disappointed me in a way I couldn't articulate.

It's only now that I can see I was searching for a man who would make me feel as cherished and beloved as my father always had. I'd been brought up to expect not just unconditional love, to which every child has a right, but unconditional hero worship, too.

Being the star of the family left me with a constant need to be the centre of attention. I always had to be the wittiest and most entertaining in a group, to dazzle and impress.

But at the same time, I was constantly trying to please everyone, to make sure no one left disappointed. My role as the hero and pleaser was so well established, I saw no way out of it. In the end, when I broke free, it was dramatic.

After my divorce, I spent two years behaving like a rebellious teenager, getting out of my system everything I'd suppressed for so long. I smoked, stayed out late, indulged in one-night stands. To my astonishment, my parents didn't judge or condemn me. I realised it was my own fear of losing my double-edged position as favourite that had weighed me down all those years, rather than any expectations of perfection on their part. Or perhaps they simply loved me so much that I truly could do no wrong.

I came to my second marriage very differently. I'd made my own share of mistakes and no longer expected to be loved simply for showing up. My second husband does indeed make me feel cherished, but marital love is very different from parental love and I've learned to recognise that.

Knowing what it's like to be the preferred child and witnessing at first hand the damage that being second best wrought on my siblings, I was terrified of repeating the pattern when I became a mother myself. Pregnant with my second child, my biggest fear, beyond the usual maternal worries about health, was that I couldn't love him as much as I did my first.

I was afraid that the parental preference for the eldest child would continue to cascade down the generations. But I've discovered, happily, that we're not condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past.

I have three children now and, yes, I do have a favourite; but it's not the offspring anyone outside looking in would expect. And I'll go to my grave rather than disclose it. When I was asked to write this article, I told my children I'd be discussing my favourite child.

"You mean me!" each of them said, with confidence. As long as they always think that, I'll know I've done something right.

Irish Independent

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