The pressures and strengths of oldest daughters

Written by Andrea Nwabuike

In a “pregnancy announcement gone wrong” video on TikTok, a little girl opens a present from her parents with mixed excitement and suspicion. But as she peels back layers of tissue paper and discovers the contents of the bag, her smile quickly gives way to sobs. The colouring book, mug, and baby onesie inside announce she will soon be a big sister.

It is a gift she does not want. She cannot hide her panic and disbelief. “Will you still love me?” she wails. “Every video I watch, they don’t love the oldest child! I don’t like this at all!”

The grief over this sudden life change has been echoed by many eldest daughters. In an article for The Atlantic titled “The Plight of the Eldest Daughter,” Sarah Sloat summarizes these laments. “Being the eldest daughter means frequently feeling like you’re not doing enough, like you’re struggling to maintain a veneer of control, like the entire household relies on your diligence.”

The weight placed on eldest daughters can be especially taxing in immigrant families from cultures that embrace traditional gender roles and age-based hierarchies. In such cultures, domestic responsibilities assumed in childhood can be seen as training for the responsibilities of being a wife and mother.

Temi Ajayi, a graduate student at the University of Toronto, immigrated to Canada from Nigeria with her family when she was five. With both her parents working outside the home, much of the domestic labour and care for her three younger siblings fell to her.

“Especially when I was [living] at home everything was my responsibility,” Ajayi says. “Cooking, doing dishes, bathing younger siblings, cleaning anything that needs to be cleaned, driving whoever needs a ride, babysitting. Then there’s also church and school responsibilities.”

Moving away for her postsecondary education alleviated most of Ajayi’s household responsibilities, but she remembers the toll her role had on her well-being as a teenager. “I just worked and didn’t have any freedom and didn’t have any social life.”

Beyond the unequal division of labour, Ajayi’s reflections expose a common struggle among eldest daughters: loneliness. They are often expected to be the strong ones, to handle things on their own. They don’t have an older sibling to turn to for advice and, not wanting to add to their parents’ burdens, they may not turn to them for support either.

The emotional and psychological impact of the eldest daughter role has been referred to as eldest daughter syndrome. While not a diagnosable mental health condition, many women have found the term useful in understanding their experiences.

According to Kati Morton, a licensed marriage and family therapist in California, the signs of eldest daughter syndrome include intense feelings of responsibility, being an overachiever, frequent worrying, people pleasing, porous boundaries, resentment of parents and/or siblings, guilt, and difficulty in adult relationships.

Some eldest daughters have sought to move the conversation towards practical support. One such resource is Home Girls Unite, a network of eldest daughters offering community, coping tools, and safe spaces to share stories.

“Your birth order doesn’t matter,” declares their Instagram bio. This is true in the sense that birth order doesn’t determine value or worth. It doesn’t define who we are. Human culture has assigned disordered definitions and meanings to birth order, often giving absolute power and privilege to firstborn sons and devaluing eldest daughters.

Human culture has assigned disordered definitions and meanings to birth order, often giving absolute power and privilege to firstborn sons and devaluing eldest daughters.

But God doesn’t do away with family structure or hierarchy. Instead, He subverts and reorders cultural conventions, giving power to the disenfranchised and raising up those the world overlooks. He makes lastborn sons into national rulers and brings bold women to the forefront of the gospel story.

My middle name is Adanma. It is an Igbo name given to the first daughters, and it means daughter of beauty or beautiful first daughter. While my parents named me, I believe God gave me this title long before I was born. He gifted me with the organizational skills and responsibility I would need to care for my family well.

He also created Ajayi with the academic astuteness and gentleness needed to support her siblings in their education. God determines the members of the eldest daughter club. And our membership is a good gift.

Eldest daughters can find freedom, healing, and empowerment in accepting God’s invitation to reorder and correct the meaning of our roles. When it feels like we need to ignore our needs and serve our families at the cost of our well-being, Jesus shows us how to serve others within the limits of compassionate boundaries.

When anxiety tries to convince us that we need to do more or try harder, our Father invites us to stop our striving and to rest in His gracious love. When exhaustion tells us our labour is in vain, God sees our services and tells us, “Well done.”

Andrea Nwabuike is a Nigerian-Canadian mental health counsellor and writer living in Toronto. Read more from “Church of many cultures.”