Are You a Replacement Child?
A conversation about improving self-worth and overcoming guilt with Author Barbara Jaffe, Ed.D.
Many of us grow up with the circumstances of our births being part of family lore — comments such as, “We didn’t even think we could have any more children,” or “We were so sure we’d have a boy that we didn’t even pick out a girl’s name!”
Mostly, these family tales are funny, happy memories that young children relish. But by age 10, Barbara Jaffe understood that if her brother, Jeffery, hadn’t died, she would never have been born. Barbara’s parents had conceived her only months after their beloved boy, still just a toddler, died; they’d done so at the urging of doctors as a way of handling their grief, and thus not ever giving themselves a proper, healthy period of mourning.
Little Barbara grew up feeling less than—she was never quite enough, unable to measure up, always a disappointment, and rarely seen for who she was, only who she was not.
She was a Replacement Child—a term given to a child born soon after a sibling’s death, or one who is conceived to replace the dead sibling.
Jaffe shares her reflections on being a Replacement Child in her new memoir, When will I be good enough? A Replacement Child’s Journey to Healing (published by Lisa Hagan Books, $16.99). In it, she recounts a life in which she deeply craved her mother’s love and rarely felt it. Her survivor’s guilt over living while Jeffery couldn’t led to a severe lack of self-worth that manifested into a lifelong struggle with her weight and disordered eating, as well as a constant battle to assert her own value.
Burnt Toast Syndrome
I recently read Jaffe’s book, and was personally affected by her comments about a trait we women frequently share called “burnt toast syndrome,” an idea that refers to mothers’ tendency to willingly accept rejects. “Literally, when making toast for the family and a piece was burned, I was taught that the mother was supposed to take the burned piece, herself, and give the ‘perfect’ pieces to everyone else,” Jaffe writes. “To take the golden, rather than the blackened, was selfish, but it really wasn’t. It’s taking care of oneself first.”
I may not have been a Replacement Child, by its strictest definition, but I’ve definitely struggled with the burnt toast syndrome, which led me to wonder what other traits Replacement Children have in common, and what other circumstances might qualify someone as a Replacement Child.
When I was presented with a wonderful opportunity to speak with Jaffe, she shared that many women in their 50s wrestle with these issues, and that they may be holding us back from achieving what we want in this chapter of our lives.
In Our 50s and 60s – It’s Our Turn to Become Captains of Our Own Ships
(Jessica Santina) In your experience, how does this subject of replacement children connect to the Me-At Last! audience? Do you find that many women in this particular group are replacement children or that this subject resonates with them?
(Barbara Jaffe) A lot of people don’t even realize they’re replacement children, that they literally are children born after their siblings passed away. But some of the issues we have with Replacement Child Syndrome are characteristic of a lot of people, especially women who are not feeling good enough in their lives. They have issues affecting self-confidence, self-worth, putting themselves first, feeling selfish and having guilt about being selfish … so while a lot of people may not be Replacement Children, a lot of people have these issues. Especially those with siblings who maybe required special attention, or those in blended families or adopted families. A lot of people can feel less than.
What I have found is that people are reading my book and then are coming forward to say to me that they connect with the book thematically, even if they are not technically Replacement Children themselves. I think especially, speaking for myself, it’s taken me a while to come into my own. I never gave myself permission to do things for myself; I put myself low down on the priority list. I didn’t realize I didn’t have to do that.
(JS) Do you think these issues are at all generational, having to do with a particular age group?
(BJ) Not necessarily. I mean, I have a niece who’s 40 and she deals with some of the same issues. But she also seems to have learned earlier than I. But I think it’s especially prevalent today when women come into their own in the workplace; they are working and yet still have most of the responsibilities at home. Some of it could be generational, but in a universal sense, I think women still struggle with these issues, regardless of age … There’s so much self-imposed guilt. “Am I spending too much time with my children, or not enough?” It’s constant.
(JS) Do you find many people discover that they suffer from these Replacement Child traits later in life?
(BJ) Yes, I think there’s a certain freedom that comes with age. You begin looking inward. You have more years behind than in front of you, and you realize that if you don’t do what you want to do now, you might not ever. More kids do what they want to do now than I did, and I think, “Good for you, take care of yourself.” There’s a sense of liberation; one shouldn’t have to wait until they get older. Maybe women 20 years from now won’t have this as a reality. But women are finding they’ve walked a tightrope and are ready in their 50s to start moving past it.
(JS) What are some of the primary traits of Replacement Children, and how do you find this plays out when they are in middle age, especially?
(BJ) Usually, survivor guilt is inherent. I remember my mom said, if Jeffery had lived, I wouldn’t have been born, and I thought, “What did I do to make him die?” I felt at fault. Another quality is needing to be perfect, perfectionism, and nothing good can come of that. For me, I understand that came from not wanting to cause problems so I wouldn’t upset my mother any more than she was. And with that comes low self-esteem and anxiety. Those are the key areas that played out in my life—issues of self-worth and self-confidence. I don’t think people on the outside realized what I was going through, but it was so hard to get through the day sometimes. There was all that anxiety of desperately wanting to please and not make waves, to be the best in everything. That’s where my eating disorder started to show as an area of control. My mom was so in control of so many areas of my life.
(JS) How does the discovery that one is a Replacement Child affect a person, and what would one do about that?
(BJ) I think, first, I’d say to be aware and don’t see yourself as a victim, but as someone who can live a fulfilling, beautiful life. I’ve worked hard at it. I first became aware, then had to accept reality. Life may not be fair, but make the best of it. I’ve found healing and introspection in writing and reading self-help and memoirs about journeys people have taken to heal. In my book, I explain that I realize not many people may be Replacement Children, but whatever particular challenge you may be facing, our problems don’t have to define us. I list in the book some resources I’ve found helpful. And finally, I’d say it’s important not to sweep it under the rug; you need to deal with it. I’ve always been the kind of person to seek clarity; if something’s off, I try to fix it as best I can.
(JS) In your book, you write, “While you may not have been born specifically to take the place of another who died, there are many reasons why we may view ourselves as less than, put ourselves last, feel as if we don’t deserve what we truly want.” Do you have to have been born after the death of a sibling to be considered a replacement child? What else would “count” in your opinion, and how could it be holding them back?
(BJ) I had someone talk to me about how she knew she was not a Replacement Child but how she grew up with a brother who needed a lot of attention, to the point where her parents actually said to her, “You’re on your own. We trust you, you’re a good kid, so you’ll have to look out for yourself because our hands are full with your brother.” So in a case like that, you’re punished for being okay. So the message is, you have to screw up to get the attention you want, because otherwise you’re on your own. Or if you have an ill sibling—it may be that nothing in the family caused that, necessarily, but the parents need to focus on the ill child, while the remaining children have to deal with that too and come to terms.
In families, it’s only natural in some respects for parents to compare siblings. One’s better at sports, one’s better at writing, etc. For many people, the way they set up those relationships with that kind of language can make us feel less than, too.
(JS) For our readers who may identify with some of these issues, what would you suggest?
(BJ) It’s just important to remember to be gentle with ourselves and treat ourselves like we would our best friends. We’re so hard on ourselves and we often say bad things about ourselves, but when friends share their feelings about us, it’s so supportive and wonderful. We need to do that for ourselves. Even with my wonderful husband of over 40 years, I don’t wait for him to give me what I want. I used to wonder why he didn’t, but I finally realized he’s not responsible for giving me what I want.
I have to ask for what I want and need, and when I decided to change that dynamic, everything changed for me. I became the captain of my ship and became so much happier, and that’s what I needed. Someone once said, if you wait for someone to give you power, you’ll always be waiting. You have to take it. No one else knows what we need but us.
To read more about Barbara Jaffe’s book or about Replacement Children, visit Barbaraannjaffe.com.
Jessica Santina is a freelance writer, editor, college writing instructor and mother of a 7-year-old girl who lives in the Reno, Nevada area. She is a frequent contributor to numerous publications, including edible Reno-Tahoe magazine, the Reno News & Review, and the Reno Moms Blog. Read more about her at www.JessicaSantina.com