Family Triangulation Part Three: Crossing Lines

In the previous entry, I discussed the confusing tangle of alliances that formed between my father, his siblings, and their parents.  This entry will delve deeper into the dynamics centered around my grandmother.

Motherhood is spelled “Me”

My grandmother gave birth to her first child at age 16, and her twelfth pregnancy occurred when she was 46. Eleven resulted in live births, with seven children surviving past age four. The deaths of those four is its own tale of confusion, with causes of death left unverified by medical records; the childhoods of the surviving seven involve verified cases of falsified illnesses, and cases of possibly induced illnesses.

My grandmother encouraged her children to depend on her physically. In my father’s case, she tried to keep him in her control by telling him a doctor said he could not run and play. This never occurred, nor did the illness she insisted he had, as was verified by a medical doctor. Similar experiences are reported by each of her other children, yet without any apparent resentment.

Succumbing to “Mother” and being ill came with rewards.

The child who stayed physically and emotionally close to her was given treats, open affection, reprieve from punishments or chores, and earned the coveted title of “my baby”.  Until the birth of my mentally disabled uncle, who was in no position to exist in any other state than dependence upon her, my grandmother transferred her care and attention from one to another of her children at seeming random.  The competition to be “Mother’s favorite” exacerbated existing sibling rivalries. Then, a few years after the birth of her own last child, her oldest two children reproduced.Etching of small child in bed, seemingly ill




My father insisted that my infant sister be left in his mother’s care. His concern was free babysitting while he and my mother worked odd shifts at their respective jobs. He also pointed out that he had siblings aged 12, 10 and 8 in the house who could help watch my sister (and our cousin of the same age).

My grandmother had “babies” again.

New triangles formed of grandmother-child-grandchild. As my grandmother was described as “addicted to babies”, the “odd one out” was  her adult child. When she formed a triangle with her two oldest grandchildren, the dynamic reverted to competition to earn the coveted status of “my baby”.

Spider web

Those producing grandchildren, as my father and his older brother had, were elevated to “favorite” status relative to their other siblings. This included those three siblings still living in the grandparents’ home at that time, only ages 8, 10 and 12.

As her other children reproduced, my grandmother’s focus and affection skipped from one to another and back again. Older grandchildren were drawn into triangles against their own parents, particularly the relevant child-in-law.

For example, I have memories of my paternal grandmother saying, “Your mother trapped your father into marriage”, “Your mother can’t cook this way for you”, and “Your father’s other girlfriends were nicer than your mother”. Agreement earned treats like cookies or ice cream; silence earned comments (in my case) such as “You’re just like your mother”. Once, I openly defended my mother by saying, “I love Mom.” My grandmother turned her back on me, burst into loud tears and began yelling, “Why don’t you love me?” I retreated into silence. My older sister, the firstborn grandchild, always agreed, and would repeat those statements to me at home.

I was not alone in this, as several of my cousins mentioned identical interactions with our grandmother.  Typically, we had older siblings who agreed with our grandmother, sparking more rivalry in already troubled relationships. Our older siblings were favored, as one would expect.

The next entry will trace the behavior my father exhibited toward his children, and its similarities to his mother’s.

Images courtesy of the Wellcome Trust and Chen-Pan Liao.


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