love them equally," insists every parent of two
or more children. But can you? Should you?
By Anthony Brandt
my brother and I were kids Mom would make it plain every Christmas
morning while we sat around the tree tearing the wrappings off our
gifts that she and Dad had spent the same amount of money on each
of us, "to the penny," she said. I believe it, too. She
had a kind of grim determination that could be awesome in practice
and I can see her sitting down with pencil and paper, adding up what
everything had cost, down to the last piece of candy in our stockings,
making sure it came out even. It was a powerful lesson. No way would
she play favorites.
No way would I, either, when I had kids. But it isnt that easy.
I had two kids, too, a girl and a boy; and you find out right away
that you have a different relationship with each one, and you cant
help it. They themselves are different, first of all, not just because
one may be a girl and the other a boy but because, from Day One, theyre
different people. One is tough, say, the other tender; one may be
ambitious, the other as laid-back as a turtle dove; one is dark and
moody, the other all light and air. Theyre born, furthermore,
into different circumstances. When Kate, my daughter, was born, I
was a grad student and my wife, a nurse, was working shifts at St.
Lukes Hospital in New York, so we traded child care duties every
day. She went to work and Kate was mine for eight hours. I changed
diapers, fed her, bathed her, took her for walks, played with her.
I was total Dad and it had nothing to do with the womens movement.
We had no money, couldnt afford child care, these were the circumstances.
Deal with it, Dad. So I did.
Four years later we had Evan and by then we were living on an old
country road surrounded by woods and meadows, I was commuting to my
job in New York every day and my wife had taken a year off to be full-time
mother. I didnt spend the same amount of time with him, seldom
had to change his diapers, seldom bathed and fed him. And Evan was
very different from Kate. Evan was an easy-going, happy kid loaded
with charm. Kate was never easy-going. She was smart, tough, demanding.
She could be sweet, she could be cranky, but she was always a handful.
And this is only part of the equation; theres my wife to consider
as well. She had never been entirely comfortable with Kate, who was
not the pliable nice child she had hoped for. My wife
thought of herself as a kind of Lady Midwest, upbeat and cheerful.
So when she decided to be a full-time Mom what did she get? A child
who was easy to care for, in every sense of the word. Who was upbeat
and cheerful. Can you see it coming?
It took a few years but inevitably and maybe unavoidably, Evan became
"hers"her favorite. And Kate, who was, in the rapidly
developing family mythology, more like me, supposedly became "mine."
Meanwhile there I was, trying to live by my own mothers precepts.
Play no favorites. Give them each the same amount of attention, the
same amount of love. Make sure they understand that neither is in
any way "better" than the other, "special," more
satisfying to you as a parent. Try doing that when one of them is
more satisfying. To the other parent. Mom, where were you when I needed
My kids are grown now and when people ask me how they are I always
say theyre happily married and gainfully employed, and it gives
me a great deal of pleasure to say it because it wasnt always
so. I am no longer married to their mother. One of the reasons I left
my wife was for just this reason, that she did play favorites, couldnt
help herself in fact, and it made for big trouble. Not least for me.
I resented the family myth, resented it deeply, because I had to try
to compensate for it. I had to be harder on my son than she was and
at the same time try to get close to him, to let him know I loved
him as much as she did. I also had to be a strong father to my daughter,
who had a painful rebellious adolescence triggered, I still believe,
by that same favoritism that made her, in the family myth, the "problem"
I failed to find the right balance with her, failed big time. I was
less than a great father. My children spent a season in hell. You
live with the guilt for a long, long time. Raising kids is not a horse
race; play favorites and you lose every time. They lose even more.
Resentment becomes a way of life for the one or two outside the inner
circle. The favorite gets emotionally spoiled and comes to feel emotionally
entitled. Family myths develop and the true nature of each childs
personality gets distorted.
All in all my wife was a good mother and I was hardly infallible as
a fatherquite the contrary. But I didnt have a favorite
and I would have done everything in my power not to show it if I had.
Because Mom taught me well.
I discovered when I was an adult that my parents hadnt wanted
me. They didnt think they could afford to raise me. My mother
tried to abort me every way short of illegal, which abortion was in
those days. But she never let on and never treated us differently.
We were and still are enormously different. My brother is a Republican,
Im a Democrat. He has spent his life in our home town; I dont
have a single friend left from high school. Mom was fully aware of
the differences; she used to talk about them with me when I came to
see her and complain about my brother that she couldnt talk
about things like that with him. Thats another difference. My
brother is more closed off emotionally than I am.
But we grew up equally loved and we learned the same lesson. My brother
has six kids and Ive never seen him show a single sign that
he favors one over the rest. Each child is different and you grow
different relationships with each one; thats a given. But your
love for each is the same, its one of lifes absolutes,
and God forbid you should contaminate it with partiality.
Do that and believe me youll pay for it, and so will they. Ive
seen it happen, up close and personal.
is a writer who lives on Long Island.
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