The Second Child
From an early age I felt that there was something wrong with me. Actually, many things. I was skinny, gap-toothed and wore thick cat-eye glasses with pink, blue or lime green frames, as if to deliberately draw attention to my being as optically challenged as a bat. In childhood pictures my sister, a year older, smiles in her polka dot dress or purple jumper while my head is down, as if to hide my crossed eyes and my pumpkin grin. Unlike my sister, who oozes confidence with head tilt and an open-mouthed laugh, I try—and fail—to blend into the background in checked pants and a paisley shirt. In some photos I am hiding behind my glamorous mother, who had obviously prepared for the shoot: jet black hair twisted into a complex up do, hourglass figure accented by a belted dress, feet in Go-Go boots propped at flattering angles, tinted lips frozen in a striking smirk.
Based on the stories about my sister that were told and retold, she was exceptional, walking, talking and charming the adults around her while other children her age appeared to use all of their energy converting oxygen to carbon dioxide. She threw balls, counted her fingers and happily ate whatever was placed before her. One would think she had exited our mother’s womb tap dancing while singing an aria, whereas I had snuck out and immediately hidden under the sheets. Our family photos, which feature my mother and sister in color-coded outfits and camera-ready poses, reveal one thing clearly: my sister was our mother’s daughter. Who was I? A changeling, an impostor, a peculiarity. According to legend, when my mother brought me home from the hospital to meet my year-old sister, she greeted me with a slap on the head. From her young perspective I had invaded the territory that she and her mother had exclusively occupied; little did she know that since she was an exact replica of our parent and I was more like a frightened rabbit or a receding ghost, she had little to fear.
As we grew I continued to hide and my sister continued to sing and dance her way into the hearts of aunts, neighbors, strangers at the grocery store. When we were four and five years old our mother cut our hair into a pixie-style with bangs, and we looked alike but for my flamboyant glasses. Our mother often pushed me to join my sister in the center of the living room where she did the Twist and sang the Beatles song “Eight Days a Week.” I refused, instead clinging to her skirt until she shoved me away in frustration. She never understood that, despite her demands, I would never be like my sister, and in this way I would always feel like a disappointment to her.
When my sister and I entered middle school with little in common but the battle for our mother’s love and attention—a battle I was impossibly equipped to win—we grew apart. She made friends with the athletes who played softball and volleyball, and I became friends with the geeks whose hearts were set on A papers and perfect exam scores. Though tall and thin, I could not sink a basketball or run a mile, but I effortlessly won science fair prizes and topped honor roll lists. My sister, who grew more muscular and popular with time, struggled in her classes but easily spiked balls and scored runs. I’ll never know why our mother hadn’t done the obvious: convince us to employ our complementary talents to help one another. Instead she focused on my sister’s sporting events, attending every game and cheering herself hoarse or jumping from the bleachers to argue with a coach while maintaining a curious absence from my spelling bees and academic awards ceremonies.
By the time were in high school, my mother had given up trying to mold me into my sister’s image, instead cutting me loose to make my own way. The teachers who challenged me, told me that I was exceptional, encouraged me with ceaseless A’s and classroom praise, became the adults whose attention I craved. My needs at school were met, but at home I grew sullen and resentful for reasons I did not fully understand. As a teenager I broke curfew, dated boys of whom my mother did not approve, picked arguments with her that I was smart enough to win. In many ways I became a cliché: I wore black clothes, channeled my fury into bad poetry, pondered why I was enraged all the time. As the gulf between my mother and me grew, I threw myself into investments that would pay off: research papers and Honors French, school newspaper and Advanced Algebra. Still, though lauded by adults for working hard and outpacing my peers, something still felt wrong. Though I had finally accepted the person I was—shy, watchful, awkward, brainy—I was always adrift, a puzzle in search of a missing piece.
Though a gifted student, after high school graduation my mother discouraged me from attending college, recommending that I instead find a job so that I could start paying rent. But I had grown to love school, the only place I felt valued and confident, so I navigated the scholarship process alone, winning a full ride to a local university, where I was allowed to spread the credits over part-time attendance in order to work full-time to support myself. I was hurt when my mother did not attend my college graduation ceremony, when she later begged off the launch party for my first book. I told myself that it didn’t matter, suppressing the knowledge that the approval of a parent is a potent, perpetual thing. Even as a bright, successful adult, I persistently felt unworthy, often crying myself to sleep while reliving the many instances when I’d felt shortchanged. Sometimes I would recall myself as a little girl and envision how I would have cared for her: allowing her to choose less showy glasses and matching outfits, reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn alongside her, screaming myself hoarse when she reached out her hand to accept a ribbon, a medal, a diploma.
Even after meeting the man I would marry and finally feeling loved and respected, carved into my psyche was the deep-rooted belief in my worthlessness. I carried it around like a boulder in my gut, used it as an unconscious lens through which to view all of my interactions, doggedly tried but failed to outrun it. Then, when I was pregnant with my daughter, I had a heart-clutching epiphany: her life would be shaped by my bitterness, depression and low self-esteem. If I did not pluck out the toxic thorns that continued to wound me, they would remain to poison my child. For the sake of her mental health I knew that I would have to radically alter my vision of myself, reconstruct the image of who I was, extinguish the power that my mother’s behavior continued to exert over me.
The first step was listening to the people who said that this is not uncommon, that most parents have favorite children, that some even have no qualms about revealing it. The next step was believing them, not just in my mind but in my gut. Then there was the step I wish that I had skipped, and that was confronting my mother, who called me insane before engaging in a lengthy tirade that likely continued long after I walked away. Foreseeing no progress on that front, the final and most difficult step was excising the hope for an emotionally healthy relationship with my mother. She never apologized for her behaviors—she never even admitted to them—but this was irrelevant as I finally understood that I was the one who had to change, to accept that she was simply unable to alter the vision of herself as a loving, impartial parent. Once I internalized this fact, I no longer felt unworthy or “less” than my older sibling regardless of what our mother felt.
I have a loving, healthy relationship with my daughter, an only child. Though my husband and I had agreed that we would have two children, I did not conclude until many years and hours of therapy later that I was unable to confer the heavy weight of second birth status on another child.