Voices: We really need to talk about ‘eldest daughter syndrome’
“I’m the strong one, I’m not nervous, I’m as tough as the crust of the Earth is. I move mountains, I move churches; and I glow, ’cause I know what my worth is.” The lyrics to “Surface Pressure” from the film Encanto blast out in the kitchen as I cook a meal with my eldest daughter.
“This is you, mummy!” I pause for a moment and think “my god, even she can see it”.
The latest Tik Tok sensation to take the world by storm is “eldest daughter syndrome”, a name created by women on social media to address a feeling that has always existed, and that I can relate to all too well.
It is the feeling from a young age that one has the responsibility to care for their younger siblings, navigate complex family dynamics, and essentially act as the family’s third-in-command behind mum and dad. If there is a crisis or a disagreement, the eldest sibling is drafted in to make peace.
Upon entering young adulthood, many women exhibit symptoms of anxiety, depression and PTSD as they come to terms with the mental load they have had to carry through childhood. These struggles carry on into their adult lives, where they never really stop fulfilling the same role they did as children. When they have children of their own, the cycle starts anew.
As more and more families experience mounting pressures, with escalating fuel bills and unaffordable childcare, I think of the eldest children, many of whom helped out during the Covid crisis with home-schooling while mum and dad were on video calls or were trying to teach their little brother fractions.
They are the teenage children who babysit for their parents after a long day at school. The eldest children are carers who are relied upon every day to assist families stretched to the limit.
Daughters are more likely than sons to be called upon for this kind of help. They are taking on the stress and anxiety of their parents unconsciously without question, because of the assumed roles assigned to them by their gender.
The psychologist Alfred Adler developed the family order theory, which says that the order in which a child is born shapes their development and personality. The oldest child is seen as the leader, and the child who may experience a stricter upbringing compared to their other siblings. The middle child is known as the peacekeeper and negotiator, and the younger sibling benefits from freedoms that the older siblings didn’t have, giving them more freedom to rebel and be creative.
The eldest child is the guinea pig. The test run.
There is an inherited pressure that the eldest daughter in any family carries with her. For most people it manifests as stress and anxiety, and in extreme cases it can become as powerful as post-traumatic stress disorder.
The extreme version of this is called parentification, when children become what is known as “little parents” by taking on many of the roles and responsibilities that their exhausted parents are unable to fulfil.
Domestic and caring roles are always a bone of contention in any household. In order to find out where the cascade of pressures comes from we have to take notice of the structural aspects of our society that facilitate this pressure. We have to look beyond the dishwasher.
As women, we feel like we have been told to fit into an impossible jigsaw puzzle that has parts of it missing. These pieces of the puzzle get lost in our childhood and warped in our womanhood until there is no trace of them left. The pressure on our eldest daughters and sons to set an example and aim for perfection is damaging.
As a mother and eldest daughter myself, learning about “eldest daughter sydrome” has made me consider the expectations I put on my own children as they grow. There is the side of me that believes chores are good for teaching responsibility; but on the other hand, why don’t I expect more from my younger children who happen to be boys? At the moment they are only little, and far too young to take on that level of responsibility; but will that attitude change as they grow?
As a parent, it is my job to be mindful and aware of the pressures I put on my children. It can create mental health complications, and patterns of behaviour such as anxiety and obsessive, damaging perfectionism.
I absolutely can relate to feeling like I am in a pressure cooker of expectation, not only as an eldest daughter, but more recently as a mother, and even more generally as a woman. The expectation that comes with being the eldest daughter is a delicate issue and it has never fully gone away, but it is made worse by the more general pressures that come with living in an increasingly fraught and challenging society.
The pressure to be the role model, the nurturer and the family manager when the parents are out of the room will never go away. It is part of who I am. I don’t expect the structures of society to change overnight in order to facilitate my inner peace; but talking about them would be a good start.