“Don’t you want me too, Mommy?” my son asked. He wriggled in the middle of our bed, outside the two lines formed by my daughter’s body and my own.
His vulnerable question transported me back three decades in time. I was once again a young girl, sitting with my mother on the edge of her bed, confronting her for the first time about her obvious favoritism for my one and only sibling.
Amber, Amber, Amber!
“You like Amber better than me!” I whined.
It was a scene straight out of “The Brady Bunch,” with me cast as the oft-ignored Jan. But there was no laugh track in that bedroom with the coffee-bean colored hardwood floors, no warm-hearted denouement within 28 minutes whereby Mike and Carol dipped their heads into my room to assure me I was an equal.
“No I don’t,” Mommy answered, and turned her head down and to the left, but not far enough to hide the smirk on her face.
My mother’s preference for my big sister was apparent long before she admitted it. Amber was the baby she had wanted forever, the one that eluded my parents for the first seven childless years of their union. She was the wunderkind who appeared just as they agreed to adopt, as if to say, “Hold it! I’m the headlining star of this show!”
All adoption plans were canceled at the arrival of the little yellow-skinned, hooked-nosed infant – my father’s clone. Mommy had everything she thought would cure her “empty marriage.”
Is That All There Is?
I don’t know exactly what made the blooms fall off the baby’s breath blossom of new motherhood for Mommy – maybe one too many nights spent alone with said babe – but by the time I arrived two years later, there was no popping of the bubbly.
“You were a surprise,” Mommy always told me, which I always heard as, “You were an accident.”
Right or wrong, I carried these perceived slights into adolescence. Amber was a blessing; I was a mistake. Unwanted. A bothersome blob that slipped in under the scalpel. My self-deprecating thoughts were not mere childlike hyperbole. I grew weary playing the peacemaking, good daughter forced to listen to the smile in my mother’s voice as she related Amber’s latest antics to others.
The Second Child
“But she’s my firstborn!” Mommy always said in her own defense, as if that fact alone should have salved my suffering. But after some years, my mom realized she did me wrong. And when I boomeranged back home after college, she tried to make it up to me. After paying for my bus ticket and collecting me from the Greyhound station, my elder clone and I walked together in the misty night into a fresh friendship.
A few Christmases later, Mommy charged an embarrassing amount of gifts and presented them to me – one of which was a small diamond and sapphire ring that I kept even after a stone fell out.
These presents were wonderful, but obviously not enough to reverse a childhood spent shivering in the shadow of someone else’s light. I’m starting to believe Dr. Phil’s adage that it takes a thousand “you go girls!” to replace one “you suck.”
This realization dawned as I sat in the glowing room of a funeral home, right behind Amber as she spoke at the podium a few feet away from Mommy’s casket. “My mother always made me feel like the prettiest, most special girl in the world,” she said, and I distinctly remember saying to myself, She didn’t make me feel that way.
Pretty? Yes. Loved? Sure. But cherished? EhhhÃ¢Â?Â¦.
It’s Not Over
I thought I was over all of this. I’ve done the mental gymnastics: Mommy probably disliked me because we were just alike and I represented everything she hated about herself. But all this head knowledge didn’t stop me from hugging my waist and sobbing like a colicky baby when “brain writing” this essay in the tub.
Who will cry for the little girl? I guess the adult me, who now resurrects the waif who used to fold her lips inside, to cover a string of teeth splayed out as if strung on a necklace. The same self-conscious shy thing that rears her sad head now and again, when as a 36-year-old woman I avoid looking folks in the eye.
She. Must. Go. That is why I force myself to show no preference for my son nor my daughter, but am focusing on my own mental health.
My inner child is my new favorite child – and all the junk that went unsaid behind that clamped hand over my prepubescent mouth will be excised, healed with each word written, to unearth the whole woman and better mother underneath. The kind that makes her kids feel like they are all favored children.
“Yes, of course I want you,” I said to my son, reaching over and rubbing his head.
Paula Neal Mooney is the editor-in-chief of Real Moms magazine.