Yesterday, I texted my sister to see who was sorting the Bloom and Wild letterbox flowers that we usually send to my mum on Mother’s Day. It was, as per usual, her — she bought, paid and told me not to rush paying her back as she knew it was the day before my payday, even though I know full well that she’s skint right now too. This is because she is the eldest, and that’s what eldest sisters do.
Unfortunately, it also means that she carries a rather cumbersome amount of responsibility within our family unit — and all the stress that comes with it. No one pays her to project manage presents, Easter plans or remembering to call our aunts. She just does it, because she has to.
This is eldest daughter syndrome: the unofficial, unpaid role of managing the family dynamic, foisted upon women from a young age because they have the emotional intelligence and age advantage — or rather, disadvantage. It’s also all TikTok can talk about right now, with many women discovering their symptoms of elder daughter syndrome via viral videos from the app. They’re not hard to find: The hashtag #EldestDaughterSyndrome has amassed 7.8 million views.
Now, let’s compare the flower arranging example to a male eldest sibling: my boyfriend, for instance, is the eldest son in his family dynamic. I’m pretty sure he will forget that it’s Mother’s Day, and I’m certain he’s not going to be reminding his younger brother to buy a card anytime soon. So what’s the difference?
“In some families, women are expected to be more responsible, more compliant, more biddable”, says psychotherapist Sally Baker. “There is a lot of expectation placed on young girls, on their behaviour.” Baker cites the example of adult female children often being expected to care for their elderly parents, or young girls typically having more chores than their brothers — which, according to Unicef, amounts to a 30 per cent disparity, with young girls spending a grand total of 40 million more hours completing chores than young boys. No wonder my sister is better at remembering to buy flowers than my boyfriend, then — she’s spent 30 per cent more time in her life training that brain pathway.
As well as pressure to care for others, eldest daughters can often feel a sense of “first pancake” treatment as a result of suffering through the teething process of new parenting techniques. “I had a client recently who said she felt like her parents’ lab rat,” Baker says, “because she was the eldest daughter and she thought her parents were pretty rubbish at being parents.” This often leads to a process of “parentification”, Baker says, which is where the child switches roles and starts to care for their parents.
This may explain why the eldest daughters you know are so good at organising things: they’ve been parents already. Perhaps you have a friend who always sorts the dinner reservations, keeps a spreadsheet for her birthday party guestlist and will send you a good luck message *without fail* on the day you start your new job. Does she happen to be an eldest daughter?
They may also go in the opposite direction and attempt to escape: it’s a lot easier to stop being your family’s PA when you’re off island-hopping in Thailand, for instance. Some of Baker’s eldest daughter clients “were making a big bid for freedom from about the age of 12,” she divulges. “Quite often they want extra liberation and more independence and the parents tend to push against that.”
A strong willed 12-year-old is unlikely to reverse her own Eldest Daughter Syndrome, though — it often takes until adulthood for women to even realise they have it. “You can’t ease it when you’re a child, because that’s the thing about children who are in uncomfortable and unhelpful family structures — they’re powerless,” Baker explains.
But don’t lose all hope, it can be fixed later in life. “You can certainly talk about it in therapy when you’ve left [the family home],” Baker advises. “You can unlearn the patterns and you’ll probably need to impose really firm boundaries if you continue to have any contact with you family, because it will be uncomfortable,” she warns.
As for now, younger sibling hive, let’s set a reminder on our phones to give mum a call this Sunday — so our older sisters don’t have to do it for us.