Her brother, Matthew Martin, 32, acknowledges the role their upbringing has played in these dynamics. “She was the only protector that I had,” he recalls. “My mother was a hard-core addict from very early on.” Throughout his childhood and early teens, he says he relied on Kiesel for the emotional support his mother couldn’t provide.
“We’ve had our fair share of arguments about [my addictions] and it’s hard, because she wants me to have some longevity. She wants me to be around for her the way that she was for me.”
* * *
From the age of eight until she left home at 15, Rene, who asked to be identified by only her first name because she was concerned about upsetting her family, says she would pick up her three younger siblings from day care, bring them home, feed and bathe them, read them stories, and put them to bed. “Basically, I played the role of mother,” said the 50-year-old Oregon resident. She remembers standing on a chair as a child and cooking dinner for her entire family. In spite of the enormous burden of responsibility, she recalls it as a role she cherished. “I have really fond memories, particularly of reading them stories in bed at night.”
But Rene’s home life was far from peaceful. She says her mother’s alcoholism prevented her from properly caring for her five children, placing the task of child-rearing on the shoulders of Rene and her older brother. (Rene’s mother is no longer living.) But just as Rene took care of her younger siblings, she and her older brother relied on each other for emotional support.
“I think that it’s important to recognize that a lot of parentification is codependent,” she said, “Perhaps one sibling is the one who does the dishes and cleans the house, and takes care of the mom who is sick or drunk.” She explains that the other sibling might be the one who provides more emotional support, either by listening to problems or comforting.
Just as Wendy assumed the role of “mother” for the Lost Boys in Peter Pan, parentified siblings often forge symbiotic relationships, where they meet each others’ needs for guardians in a lot of different ways.
“We know that siblings can buffer each other from the impacts of stressful relationships with parents,” said Amy K. Nuttall, an assistant professor in human development and family studies at Michigan State University. This may account for why some parentified siblings who come from abusive homes end up maintaining close, albeit complex, bonds into adulthood, with some “continuing to attempt to fill parental needs at the expense of their own.”
Still, Nuttall adds, others may distance themselves from their families altogether in order to escape the role.
Rene found herself homeless after she was kicked out of her mother’s house when she was 15 years old. She says her siblings still blame her for leaving them behind. “When you think about it, if you’re parentified and you leave your younger siblings, it’s like having a parent abandon them,” said Rene. For years after, she was plagued by feelings of guilt—a common experience among people who have been parentified.