While some differential treatment of children is normal even in loving families, the unloved daughter feels it keenly all of the time. Scapegoating is a variation on the theme but it is aggressive, out in the open, andeven worseoften articulated and justified by the mother and, sometimes, the father. The scapegoated child is a magnet for blame which is expressed openly and vehemently. When the daughter reaches adulthood, shes likely to be treated as the black sheep of the family, the one who is justly and rightly excluded especially if she protests her treatment.
While the pattern is at its most toxic when there are three or more children in the familyand everyone lines up to bully the daughter in turnit can play out in smaller families of two children and even in one with only child, although it takes different forms.
The scapegoated only child is wrongly blamed for something that has gone wrong in her mothers life. It could be the thwarting of her ambitions or success (If I hadnt had you, I would have had a brilliant career in dance), choices she made (Id have finished college if it werent for you), the state of her health or looks (I never was able to lose the weight I gained when I was pregnant with you) or the failure of her marriage. The latter is the one most frequently mentioned, especially if the daughter looks like her father, reminds her mother of him, or is sufficiently disloyal to want a relationship with him and his relatives.
My dad left when I was six and remarried days after the divorce became final. My mother blamed me for his leaving. She said that if I hadnt needed so much of her attention, he wouldnt have felt neglected and cheated, Marcia, 35, emailed. I believed her for years and years and felt guilty and terrible.
Its understandably very difficult for the scapegoated only child not to feel responsible unless someone, inside or outside the family, takes an active role in defending her and setting the record straight. Even then, shes often burdened with not just loss but shame.
The dynamic with two children is often a scenario featuring one child who can do no wrong and the other who can do no right, with the golden child sometimes, but not always, joining in on the criticism. These daughters either go into high gear trying to pleasegetting good grades, racking up achievementsbut to no avail. Others simply give up, and may derail completely, proving their mothers right by flunking out of school, hanging with a bad crowd, or engaging in dangerous and self-destructive activities. Regardless of the path the daughter takes, she internalizes the message that shes to blame for whatever it is that is pinned on her in the moment, and may indulge in so much people-pleasing that shes constantly on the short end of every adult relationship, whether its with a colleague, a friend, or a lover. Insecure and fearfulalthough that may be masked by bravado for the outside worldshe may still believe her mother was right.
In the larger family, scapegoating becomes a team sport as her siblings are motivated to stay on their mothers good side and continue to enjoy her favoritism. They may earn points by picking on their sister in many ways, pointing out her flaws, singling her out, and making her the butt of jokes and derision. It is hard enough not to assume youre to blame for being unlovable in your mothers eyes to begin with; it is even harder when theres a chorus of people repeating the same message.
Among the typical patterns of familial behavior that accompany scapegoating are:
1.Making the daughter responsible for Moms anger
Many families adopt their own mythology to explain the childs treatment, and the storyline is usually strictly adhered to. The treatment is justified by the childs supposed incorrigibility or refusal to abide by the familys rules or some other variation on the theme of infraction. The mother resists any open discussion and actively denies maltreatment or verbal abuse. When the daughter protests, the mother and the children close ranks, as they continue to in adulthood.
2. Making the daughter the universal fall guy
No matter what goes wronga dish gets broken, something is lostits always the daughter whos to blame. The logic is usually tortured and circuitous but the pattern is always the same. Shes at fault because her brother is late. She made him late by taking a shower first and one that was too long. And if he hadnt been late, the family would have left on time so its her fault that Mom and Dad are angry. Small children and even older ones easily buckle under the constant criticism, especially when no one offers a corrective. One daughter, 36, tells of being blamed for winning trophies at summer camp while her two brothers didnt: My parents berated me for making my brothers feel bad. I cried and then threw the trophies out. It makes no sense now but, trust me, it hurt plenty then.
3.Exaggerating or making up stories and circulating them
Scapegoating ends up being much more public than the usual treatment of an unloved daughter which is usually secret and kept in the family. Because the treatment is rationalized, the reasons are often broadcast. Additionally, mothers often manipulate their daughters into believing their liestelling them how their teachers had nothing but bad things to say about them, or denigrating an achievement by saying it must have been easy to win or that the competition must have been a bunch of losers. Siblings and other relatives are fed the same party line stories which, for the most part, they tend to believe.
4.Rupture and going no contact are often the only answers
Many scapegoated daughters report that its virtually impossible to repair relationships in adulthood, as Maryellen, 45, told me in a message: I was always labeled the troublemaker in the family even though I was the highest achiever. My mother couldnt stand the fact that I outshone my brothers and she still cant. Im an attorney, married to another attorney, but I am still the loser in their eyes. I finally cut bait on my mother, my father, and all of them. Pamela, 38, is the middle sister and says, Every time I pushed back against being the familys punching bag, they would get vicious. My older sister would make stuff up about how I insulted her in some way and tell it to my younger sister who would then tell my mother. Then I would get a call from Mom, telling me what an ugly person I was and how she wanted nothing to do with me. That she was tired of my drama. My drama? Umm, no. Scapegoating is one of the ugliest variations on family dysfunction and lack of maternal love.
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