In 1979, author William Styron gave us the novel “Sophie’s Choice”. In 1982, director Alan Pakula gave us the film by the same name. The story centers around Sophie, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz who, in the film’s signature scene, is forced by a Nazi doctor to choose between her son and daughter. She can keep one child. The other she must surrender to die immediately in the gas chamber. If she won’t choose, then both will die.
She sacrifices her seven-year-old daughter. She saves the life of her son.
The film was a huge hit, nominated for several academy awards. I was in graduate school at the time. Within a few short years, the industry of clinical counseling practice had adopted “Sophie’s Choice” as a clinical colloquialism. This many years later, the words “Sophie’s Choice” still pop into my head when I hear a patient tell the too familiar tale of how parents sometimes manage and mismanage respective affinities for their children.
Affinity? Yes. If you are a competent father or a mother of two or more children, you will notice that, while love for all your children is a constant, affinity is not. Yes, yes – most parents will protest that they don’t love one child more than another. Okay, then. But this is not the same as saying, “I love all my children the same.” Because you don’t. Over time, love will shape itself differently in each unique relationship.
An affinity is spontaneous. It is a natural, easy flow. The affection is organic. If you are the parent of two or more children, you will regularly notice an affinity for one child that you don’t have for the other(s). This does not mean (necessarily) that you dislike the other child. It just means that one relationship has a more natural, easy flow than the other. The other requires more intention and effort. Sometimes deliberate strategies and interventions.
Over the years, the affinities can change. I have three sons. I love them each. But in the 28 years since I became a father, I can identify times when I had a special affinity in one relationship not duplicated in the other two. Just an easier, closer, warmer time.
This observation is utterly human. It is no cause for guilt or self-recrimination.
But sometimes affinities are mismanaged. In some cases, affinities can mutate to unhealthy attachments with one child requiring tragic subordinations or even rejections of another child. In my profession, we call these a “Sophie’s choice.”
Sometimes, for example, a household will identify “the family star.” The child could be a gifted athlete, or a gifted academic, or a gifted artist, or perhaps extraordinarily handsome or beautiful. Suddenly the family’s energy and resources become focused comprehensively on The Star. It’s like a mating pair of birds who hatch three chicks, but concentrate on feeding the one while others waste away.
If you grew up with a sibling who was The Star, you often show up in my office examining “Sophie’s choice.”
And some households do just the opposite. The unhealthy affinity centers on the most derelict child. The bozo. The one who quits school is unemployed, inert and entitled. “Now, your brother has problems,” the parents will coo to the more competent children.
If you grew up with a sibling whose bozo-ness thus attached to the parents, you often show up in my office examining “Sophie’s choice.”
Then there is The Black Sheep. The Scapegoat. The child that is almost expected to fail. To violate rules. To become distanced or even shunned. The child whose role is to be invisible.
In healthy families, there is an abiding respect for distinct, separate identities. Once respected, there is a willingness to include everyone in the circle of love, care, attention and nurture. Each child is different. The parents’ affinity for individual children might wax and wane. But respect and inclusion are the constants.
Each child is chosen.
(You may drop Steven Kalas a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. StevenKalas is a therapist, author and Episcopal priest. He is the author of the book “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing.”)