Parents Who Envy Their Children

“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 the last 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 thought and feelings this mother had, be ashamed and attempt to conceal they way the feel. But parental envy and jealousy exist, and the children who are their targets, over time, begin to suffer, though they may not understand why until years later.

Why do some parents get envious and jealous of their children?

Itati Tapia/Pexels

Young girl alone

Source: Itati Tapia/Pexels

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, but they react in the way possessive lovers do: they fear the other parent may begin favoring the child over them. This causes pain and resentment, and as most jealous lovers, they direct the resentment toward the alleged rival in order to avoid targeting the object of love. 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, and a mother may begrudge a daughter her handsome young boyfriend. 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 grand slam tournament victory.

Perhaps the question of why parents envy their children is the wrong one. 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, on this view, is not why cases such exist but why they are 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 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 helps explain why some parents 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 better) 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 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 one’s children.
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 often emotional ambiguity in these sorts of cases. Pure rivalry and jealousy on a parent’s part are probably 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.

Our silence about parental envy

We are reluctant to talk about envious parents. Why?

The answer, 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 acknowledging 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 are happy about their children’s good qualities and achievements with the kind of proud joy that only a parent can experience. (One of the worst things about losing good parents may be that in them, we lose the people who can fully rejoice in 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 not more than the parents themselves.

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. She insisted on 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 selfish, 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. Sometimes selfishness runs so deep that it hinders our very ability to ask for forgiveness. In such cases, I think, we are punished not so much
our flaws as
them. For we can find peace in making ourselves worthy of forgiveness even if forgiveness never comes. A selfish penitent is not at peace because she doesn’t make herself worthy of forgiveness. She seeks reprieve that, in her own estimation, she does not deserve.

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