Mothers who favour one of their children over others
Anna Murphy on a startling new survey about motherhood
Ask any mother if she has a favourite child and the response will be an indignant 'No!'
When it comes to the taboos of parenting, admitting to favouritism is almost as high up the list of no-nos as saying you slap your child.
But while you won't get any mums declaring their feelings of favouritism at the local playgroup, research indicates that feelings of favouritism are commonplace.
An anonymous survey on parenting website Netmums .com reveals that one in six mothers secretly admits to having a favourite child.
One-third said they love their children in exactly the same way, while just over half said they love their children differently, but equally.
"At first, the survey got a lot of people's backs up," says Siobhan Freegard, co-founder of Netmums.
"People said it was an awful thing to ask -- to even suggest that a mother would have a favourite.
"But we really wanted to get the whole topic of favouritism out in the open because there is a sense of the taboo about it. Favouritism is something that is natural and that should be talked about.
"Yet some people can't even admit to themselves that they have a favourite."
Dr John Sharry is a family and child psychotherapist. Although a lot of the parents he deals with experience favouritism, he says they don't -- or won't -- refer to it as that.
"Although it's common, it is a very taboo topic, and people feel very guilty about it.
"Parents can be very defensive and won't admit to having a favourite. They're more inclined to say that one child is being problematic instead of saying that one child is favoured.
"But often you'll find that the problem behaviour with one child is stemming from the fact that there is another child who the parents consider perfect who is, in effect, the favourite."
Lisa is one of the few mums who will admit, reluctantly, to feeling more love for one of her sons than the other.
"Don't get me wrong, I love both my boys," says Lisa. "But my oldest who is two, it's like he's my first love; he completes me. Perhaps it is because I was ill when I was pregnant and his life was under threat, or because he was so ill when he was born or because I had five miscarriages before him.
"He is touchy and totally depends on me for security, while my second child is frighteningly independent, spirited and colicky.
"I have spent several nights in floods of tears over this issue. I do love my youngest and would do anything for him, but when I give my older one a really close hug, I feel so complete.
"How can I not love the baby as much? It's so wrong. But no matter how I try and even things up, I can't get my heart to change how it feels."
For some parents, the feelings of guilt and shame that favouritism provokes can cause serious problems.
Diane, a mother of three, says the fact that she has bonded with one child so much more than the others has left her feeling inadequate, and at times suicidal.
'I'm going to admit to being one of those people who has a favourite," says Diane.
"Yes, I know I'm the worst mum in the world and you can slate me all you like.
"I know what you're all thinking, that I'm the ultimate bad mother. But you can't make me feel any worse than I already feel.
"At my lowest point, I have even contemplated suicide because of this."
Christine Duff is a counsellor with Netmums.com and offers advice to stressed-out parents such as Diane.
She has spoken with dozens of mothers struggling with favouritism and believes a failure to bond with one or more of your children often stems from difficulties in a mother's own life.
"I have often found that those mothers who feel more love for a particular child or who struggle to love a child also report dissatisfaction and disillusionment with how their relationship with their partners has changed since they settled down, married or had children.
"More often than not, I believe that as mothers it is our 'stuff' which causes these problems but with proper and sufficient support we can work through it."
While there are infinite reasons why a parent may feel closer to one child over another, it is often the first child that a parent has the most trouble bonding with.
"Factors such as the mother's feelings of inadequacy established during the early months of motherhood can lead to subconscious resentment of the child," says Christine Duff.
"Deep down, the mother may blame the child for having destroyed her life, or her marriage, or her hopes for the future.
"Second time around, the mother is more resigned to her new life, maybe has more friends and is more confident in her own mothering abilities, so it tends to be an easier ride which often seems to foster more positive associations with subsequent children."
For some parents, it's a younger child who causes them more difficulties; maybe because the pregnancy was unplanned and disrupted a successful family dynamic or sabotaged a planned return to work.
'Whatever the cause, feeling unloved does have huge implications for a child and can cause all sorts of problems.
"If favouritism is affecting your behaviour towards your children, the best way to address this is to strive to love each of your children uniquely," says Dr John Sharry.
"Striving for absolute equality might not be a helpful goal; it's better to strive to appreciate the unique strengths and weaknesses of each of your children and your unique relationship with them.
"If you are treating one more favourably than another, it's important to rebalance that. It does take an effort. The best thing to do is to spend time one-on-one with your child, to take an interest in their interests, maybe start to take up an activity that you can do together."
Acting out your feelings of favouritism won't only damage your own relationship with your child, it can also lead to resentment between siblings and can end up making life more difficult for the favoured child.
"A lot of behavioural problems in children stem from them feeling that their parents are comparing them to their siblings," says Dr Sharry.
"So it's important to address your behaviour if that is happening.
"It's important never to interfere when there's a dispute between your children. Often a parent will take the side of the favoured child, but by doing this you are actually damaging their relationship with their sibling."
Siobhan Freegard believes that favouritism doesn't always have to spell trouble and urges parents not to worry unnecessarily.
"It is very common to have feelings of favouritism -- to feel more love for one child than another.
"You shouldn't beat yourself up about feelings like that. The important thing is that favouritism is not something your children should be aware of, and that you are loving towards all of them."