Mary McDonnell* has a secret, one that she’s carried with her since her four-year-old fraternal twin boys, Adam and Brian, were just babies. Is she a CIA operative? A federal air marshal? No. McDonnell is simply a mom who feels more connected to her twin son Brian.
“I feel closer to Brian and I’m having a hard time coming to terms with this,” she explains. McDonnell realized that she had different feelings towards her twins early on when her boys were just babies. It was their opposite temperaments—Brian is mellow, Adam is intense—that had an effect on her bond. “When someone came over to help out, I would always hand Adam off first. Just saying it makes me feel so horrible! But it’s true.”
Although she’s talked to other parents about having one child that’s more difficult than the other, she’s never confided to anyone that she likes one of her twins better. “I feel guilty, like I must be a bad person,” she says. “It’s as though there’s an important good parent gene missing from my genetic make-up.”
So is McDonnell a terrible mom? Not at all, says Dr. Ellen Weber Libby, a psychotherapist in private practice in Washington D.C. and the author of The Favorite Child. According to Dr. Libby, having a favorite child is normal and nothing to be ashamed of. Furthermore, favoring one child more than the other doesn’t mean you don’t love them equally. Love and favoritism, Libby says, are completely different.
“There’s a lot of confusion between love and favoritism,” she says. “People know a lot less about favoritism which is a reflection of an attitude and varies by time and children.” Loving parents are committed to all their children’s overall well being safety, and health, and in return their children feel secure within the family. Favoritism, on the other hand, depends on how well the child makes the parent feel. That’s why easy-going children are usually favored over difficult siblings, for instance.
How Does Favoring One Twin Begin?
In families with multiples, favoring one twin or triplet over the others can often feel glaring, at least to the parent who feels the pull. After all, they were born on the same day, reaching developmental milestones at nearly the same time. So why don’t you feel the same bond with each child?
“Even with identical twins there are no identical experiences,” Libby explains. “Everybody has his own place in the womb from the very beginning and somebody does come out first. Each twin is born with his own personality and with his own character traits that will affect how a parent resonates with one or the other.” In other words, it’s normal to have different relationships with each of your children.
But from the moment of birth, a mother’s bonding experience with her twins is different from that of a mother of a singleton, especially if one of her twins needs to stay in the hospital longer than the other.
For instance, when Arlene Norbert’s boy-girl twins were born two years ago, her daughter required a 22-day stay in the NICU while her son could go home right away. “I was able to spend more time with our son than our daughter when they were infants,” she says. “I felt a much stronger bond with him.”
So was it that three-week head start in mother-child bonding that helped cement Norbert’s stronger attachment to her son? Probably so, experts say. In fact, research has shown that mothers often develop a stronger affection to the twin that left the hospital first. And the longer one twin remains hospitalized the less favorably the mothers in the study felt towards that baby prompting some in the twin community to call for a reevaluation of when infant twins should be released from the hospital, preferably at the same time. Or, at the very least, hospitals should consider offering counseling to those families whose newborn twins require a long stay in the NICU.
In Norbert’s situation, she had uninterrupted one-on-one bonding with her son each day as she fed, bathed and rocked him. Furthermore, she had to travel nearly an hour to the NICU—not the most intimate of environments—to visit her daughter.
Yet for other parents, like Allison Neiman, it’s her twins’ opposite personalities that made the difference. “When my daughter began talking and really started to express herself, I saw more of my personality in her and we just clash in that sense,” explains Neiman, the mother to three-year-old boy-girl twins. While her son is more laid-back and loves to snuggle, her daughter is like a tornado constantly on the go. “I feel awful about it,” she says of favoring her son. “I’ve seen how favoritism has affected my husband as his mom blatantly prefers her daughter to him, and I don’t want that for my kids.”
The Consequences of Twin Favoritism
When a parent showers one child with more attention and/or privileges than the other children in the family, it can negatively affect everyone. For instance, Dr. Libby points to the brother who is the star athlete, living out his father’s dream while the rest of the family is expected to schedule their lives around his practices and games. Other examples of unhealthy favoritism is when a parent brags repeatedly about one child and little about another, disproportionately agrees to the requests of one child, or rarely holds a favored child responsible for his actions.
Recent research has shown that less-favored children can battle feelings of low self-esteem, anxiety, and even depression. Their relationships with the favored child suffer, too, causing a lifetime of resentment and sibling rivalry. It isn’t all positive for the favored child either as he may develop a feeling of entitlement throughout his life. Furthermore, the favored child may live with tremendous guilt from his preferential treatment as well as battle anxiety as he tries to live up to parental expectations or lose his favored status within the family.
But the way Dr. Libby sees it, admitting to having a favorite child isn’t one of the biggest taboos in parenting, not admitting having a favorite is. Kids are smart sensing when one child is strongly favored over the others. “When kids will say, ‘Tommy’s the favorite.’ Parents are quick to respond, ‘Oh, no. I treat all my children equally,’” explains Dr. Libby. It’s that defensive response that simply doesn’t ring true. “The only way favoritism can be destructive is if you’re defensive about it,” she says. “What’s really important is that parents are open to what’s being talked about, and that parents listen to children’s perceptions.”
Breaking the Cycle of Favoritism
Although a mother’s love lasts a lifetime, favoritism may or may not. In healthy families, however, everyone at some time gets to be Mom’s or Dad’s favorite. As your family grows and life evolves over the years, so too will your favorite. In some families favoritism changes developmentally, some preferring the sweetness of toddlerhood while others are drawn to the challenges of the teenage years. In other families, the favorite is tied by interest—sport, hobbies, even books.
“Once you know that favoritism is normal, then you can be open to people who say, ‘I know you have a special bond with Tommy but the privileges you give him are a little excessive, and the other children are feeling a little neglected,’” explains Dr. Libby. “Then you can look back and reflect and admit to that being true.” Without the defensiveness, a parent can then figure out the best strategy to even the playing field among all her children.
One way is to spend quality time with the less-favored child doing what she likes to do. “If you’re going to spend time with your less-favorite child you have to be thoughtful about the activity that has meaning to this child even if it doesn’t have meaning to you,” says Dr. Libby. If you love sports but your less-favored child likes to play with Barbie, it will be meaningless for her to take her on an outing to the park.
Allison Neiman agrees and is working hard at connecting more with her daughter. “I’ve been trying to spend more one-on-one time with her,” she says. “I think it’s important for us to have that time to really build a relationship with each other and embrace our likeness.”
It’s her openness and willingness to change her relationship with her daughter that will make all the difference. She’s on the right road.
(* To protect privacy, all names have been changed.)