We produced the following article as part of our annual Therapy for Black Girls campaign in honor of Minority Mental Health Month. This year Therapy for Black Girls focuses on “Hanging Up Our Capes.” Join us as we release ourselves from the externally and internally imposed pressures of showing up as “superwoman” in order to prioritize our well-being and foster healthier, more authentic relationships with ourselves and those we love.
What do Charlie from Queen Sugar, Laura from Family Matters or Taina all have in common? Yes, they are some of our favorite TV stars, but they are also all eldest daughters! We watched them encounter novel experiences while navigating family expectations of being the firstborn. Naturally, eldest daughters experience the most pressure as their parents are trying to figure out parenting through trial and error for the first time. In this article, you will learn or deeply resonate with the pros and cons of being an eldest daughter. Sometimes these early childhood experiences can create unwanted expectations that impact our mental health later in life. Today, we will discuss these experiences and identify ways to hang up those capes that were once placed on us because of our birth order.
Disclaimer: As I write this article, I recognize the spectrum of eldest daughter experiences. I may not touch on your experience but that does not mean yours is invalid. I am speaking from my perspective and what I have learned as an eldest daughter and from other first-borns in my life and in my work as a licensed therapist. I acknowledge there is no monolithic experience of being a first-born daughter.
The eldest daughter
What are some characteristics that come to mind when you think of the eldest daughter in your life? Responsible, high-achieving, nurturing, obedient? Yes, that sounds about right!
Being the firstborn can come with a lot of responsibility and a lot of praise. It can create mixed emotions as it combines experiences you had to do with experiences you wanted to do. First-borns are expected to provide care to younger siblings and are ascribed a higher status than the others (Wu et al., 2018). If parents are not careful, they can create early expectations of being a mini superwoman too early. The superwoman phenomenon is the expectation that the woman can do it all. In my clinical work with Black women, I have seen this passed down in family generations (unintentionally).
The pros and cons of the eldest daughter
Did you ever hear this phrase growing up: “you are the oldest and you should know better”?
Whew, girl! There is so much pressure behind this statement. The earlier you hear this, the harder it is to unpack as an adult. You were expected (and maybe still are) to be the example to others. This can create an intense fear of failure. There may also be a unique experience of being a eldest daughter of color due to various cultural traditions and expectations. For example, it is common in African and Caribbean immigrant households to support siblings and assist with managing the households.
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While as a kid it can sometimes be fun to be left in charge or deemed the boss, it can create an unhealthy expectation for the child to be seen as a parent. This child is known as the parentified child. I remember hearing this term in graduate school and feeling understood- at last! Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy (one of the founding fathers of family therapy) coined the term parentification describing what happens when parent and child roles are reserved (Teng et al., 2021). The role reversal disrupts the natural process of maturing or can increase the process prematurely. Family structures such as single-parent homes, parents with a substance use disorder or parents who are disabled or diagnosed with a serious medical condition naturally invite the eldest child into this role.
Being parentified can also produce positive outcomes for the child or teen. They learn independence and autonomy skills early on. The child learns how to take risks and embark on new beginnings independently. They also can develop character traits such as being reliable, conscientious, cautious, and achieving. Because of these traits, they are prepared for high-ranking roles or careers in leadership. The eldest may be the first to go to college or become successful in the family. Sometimes being “the example” can turn out to be a benefit for the eldest!
How do we hang up our capes?
Ultimately, I want to help you redefine what the expectations of being an eldest daughter are by hanging up unwanted superwoman capes. I invite you to ask yourself some questions to further examine what your birth order means to you. Let’s talk about how to hang up our capes.
We first hang up our capes as eldest daughters by first identifying who we really are. Have you stopped to ask yourself who YOU are, sis? Who are you away from the family? Yes, being an eldest daughter is a part of who you are but there is more! What do you like to do? What are you looking forward to doing? What are the goals you set aside for yourself today? Make a commitment to get to know (*insert your name*) this summer.
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Next, set up your own set of expectations that align with how you want to show up in the world. You are allowed to recreate the rules. What expectation would you create for the woman you are today? What expectation that you learned in childhood would you change today? Write down a few expectations that you want to maintain as it aligns with your core values.
Lastly, make sure that your contributions are those you feel good about. Life will continue to happen, and it will call you to act. Family and friends may look to you to have the answers. However, you can support your mental health by contributing to your self-care. Sometimes that looks like saying: no, not right now or I don’t know. At the end of the day, you can redefine these expectations and ensure that they serve the person you are today.
Teng, J. C. C., Hilario, A. D. F., Sauler, L. M. A., De Los Reyes, M. C. M., & Arcinas, M. (2021). Parentification Experiences of Filipino Young Professional Daughters During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences Studies, 3(4), 19-32.
Wu, K., Kim, J., Nagata, D. K., & Kim, S. I. (2018). Perceptions of Sibling Relationships and Birth Order among Asian American and European American Emerging Adults. Journal of family issues, 39(13), 3641–3663. https://doi.org/10.1177/0192513X18783465