The help desk: My mother blatantly favours my younger brother - what can I do?

  • @louisa_saunders

Q. My mother has always blatantly favoured my younger brother. He's good-looking and charming but immature. As a teenager, he was often in trouble and didn't get on well at school. I was closer to her, but she treated him like royalty. He wanted to be an actor but that didn't work out and he has mostly lived on hand-outs from her as far as I can see.

I've always been academically successful – and paid my own way – and recently landed a brilliant job, but she just jokes that she doesn't understand what I do (I'm a financial analyst; it's not rocket science).

Now he's moved back in with her (he's 27) and whenever I go round, she seems to be waiting on him. She's also told me she's funding a new band he's in, on top of paying for his huge drinking habit. The injustice makes me so furious it eats me up, and I hate seeing her humiliated like this. What can I do?

A. It is said that, as a parent, you can only ever be as happy as your unhappiest child. Despite appearances, your mother's least happy child is your brother. Charm is not the same as contentment, and in fact is often about neediness. However golden his life might appear to be at times, with his hand-outs and live-in laundry service, he's actually making quite a hash of it. He's an unemployed 27-year-old with a drink problem who lives with his mum.

You, meanwhile, are her confidant and close friend, sane, solvent and successful. And do I detect a little pride – on both sides – that you do something she claims not to understand? But if you hoped that being the good sibling would get you more attention, you're barking up the wrong tree.

When my parents died, alongside the grief, I was guiltily aware of a creeping sense of liberation: that it no longer mattered what they thought of me – of my friends, my achievements or choices. It was a few years before it dawned on me how keenly my own children strive for my approval. To me, they are, of course, brilliant and beguiling without doing or achieving anything at all. But I have the uncomfortable sense that every time I have lavished praise upon one of them, I was inadvertently setting the bar just a little higher for next time – or for the other child.

This is how families work. Why do so many of us still strive for parental endorsement in adulthood? As long as we do, we will find ourselves in direct competition with our siblings. But the competition is artificial and your brother's victory is a pyrrhic one. Attention is not the same as love or approval. I doubt your mother really prefers him – he just sucks up more of her energy and exercises her protective instincts. And she probably feels the need to big up his achievements so that he compares a little less unfavourably with you.

Be proud of yourself and your achievements and understand that this is one contest you wouldn't necessarily want to win. Then see if you can help stop your poor mother being taken for a ride in her autumn years.

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