"Elsa," a woman of my acquaintance, now in her 50s, grew up with a (biological) mother who wanted the father’s love all to herself. The mother blamed the daughter for coming between her and the father. She mocked the daughter repeatedly for being “daddy’s little girl” and on one occasion called her “prostitute.” Elsa was barely 10 years old at the time of that incident. She acquired a habit of making herself look homely and unalluring so that the mother could shine.
Such open and unapologetic tendency to treat a child as a rival – in this case, a sexual rival – is likely rare. Most people would, if they detected in themselves the sorts of thoughts and feelings this mother had, be ashamed and attempt to conceal the way they feel. But parental envy and jealousy are probably more common than we think.
Why do some parents get envious and jealous of their children?
Parents who experience sexual or romantic jealousy may believe that somehow, the small child is seducing the person they love. Freud and Jung suggested, in this connection, that children may go through a phase during which they sexually desire – unconsciously – the opposite-sex parent. I don’t know of any evidence that supports the existence of such desires. But maybe, some parents believe children have them.
More likely, however, the parents in question do not think their children desire the person they love; rather, they react in the way possessive lovers do: they fear the other parent may begin favoring the child over them. This leads to pain and resentment, and as other jealous lovers, they choose to direct the resentment toward the alleged rival in order to avoid targeting the object of their love. It is just that in this case, the perceived rival is their own child.
Note, though, that this explanation does not tell us what is going on in the majority of cases. For the phenomenon I have in mind has a very broad scope. A parent who sees a child as a rival need not see said child as a sexual rival, and if the competitive sentiment is of a sexual nature, it need not involve the other parent. A father may envy a son’s popularity among women — not the mother’s love — and a mother may begrudge a daughter her handsome young boyfriend, not the father’s affection. A mother may also be envious of a son’s easygoing nature or his ability to play the piano while a father who wanted to make it as a tennis pro but failed may secretly resent his daughter’s tennis tournament victory.
Perhaps the question of why parents envy their children is the wrong one to ask. It is likely possible for humans to envy anyone and everyone for anything and everything desirable. Consequently, maybe our default expectation should be that parents can envy their children. What stands in need of explanation, in this view, is not why such cases exist but why they are relatively rare.
There is something to that hypothesis. It is true that anyone can, in principle, envy anyone else. But we can say more here, and the answer can actually help explain both why some parents envy their children and why this phenomenon is not more widespread.
The role of identification
While in principle, we can envy anyone for anything, in practice, envy arises most often when we compare ourselves to others we identify with. A run-of-the-mill scientist may envy Einstein, but that envy is likely to be weak and toothless compared to what the same person might feel toward a colleague who, though not Einstein, is nonetheless slightly better than the envier. This tells us something about why parents may envy their children: Parents identify with their own children. Children are seen as what the parents could have been or should have been, much as the slightly better colleague (but not someone vastly superior) may be seen.
But if so, then why aren’t feelings of envy and jealousy more common among parents than they seem to be? The answer is, I think, that the particular way in which a parent identifies with a child is different from the way in which an envier identifies with the envied in general. Usually, the envied is seen as merely similar to us. Children, by contrast, are seen as a younger version of us or as part of us.
Since parents see their children as a younger version of themselves, most come to view a child’s achievements as, in an important way, their own. This is why we sometimes speak of living or succeeding vicariously through our children. That is what envious parents don’t do: They don't see themselves as living in their children.
To be sure, even envious parents often see their children’s achievements as, to some extent, their own. There is frequently emotional ambiguity in these sorts of cases. Pure rivalry and jealousy on a parent’s part are likely uncommon. Even an envious parent is aware of the fact that in the eyes of the world, a child's good qualities and achievements reflect well on the parent. It is just that the pride in some cases is mixed with envy and chagrin, and those may be the dominant sentiments, not the pride.
Our silence about parental envy
We are reluctant to talk about envious parents. Why?
The main reason, I think, is that we see the sorts of feelings and patterns of behavior I focused on here as “unnatural.” We can accept many kinds of badness – even extreme badness – but we are wary of accepting the existence of “unnatural” badness. Thus, we readily acknowledge that a stepparent may see a stepchild as a rival. (Envious stepparents are a deeply ingrained cultural trope, so much so that we may be failing to do justice to the many wonderful stepparents out there.) But we have a wishful belief that human biology will work its magic and that biological parents would exhibit no such tendencies.
For the most part, our wishful belief is not false. Most parents rejoice in their children’s good qualities and achievements with the kind of proud joy only a parent is likely to experience. (One of the worst things about losing good parents may be that in them, we lose the people who can be truly delighted by our successes.) Most, yes, but not all. And I suspect that our collective silence on the matter is deafening to those whose parents don't want to see them succeed, or at least not more than the parents themselves did.
The question of forgiveness
Elsa's mother made an attempt to apologize to her daughter years later. The father had passed away, she was alone, and being estranged from her daughter was weighing on her.
Elsa related the conversation to me. From what she told me, even in asking for forgiveness, the mother’s concern was with her own pain, not with the trauma she had caused to her daughter. The mother insisted that suffering for her past mistakes had been punishment enough. She was already judging herself harshly, she said. There was no need for the daughter to judge her too. She wanted absolution.
I don’t know what would have happened had the mother, for once, shown a non-selfish concern for her child, but this much, I think, is certain: It is difficult to forgive a parent who envied you. It may be impossible to forgive one whose very contrition is that of an egoist, one who never ceases to regard you as a source of their own misery – first by seeing you as a rival and then, as a punisher. It is probably true that the mother whose story I tell suffered. It is, however, not by merely suffering that we earn forgiveness but by overcoming the weaknesses of our characters.
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