Friday, January 11, 2013

The Oldest Daughter

In my cleaning blitz last weekend I discovered a stash of photos from when my daughter was a toddler.  And I discovered a stash of her artwork and homework from Kindergarten and First Grade.  We shared a bunch of giggles about how much some of her facial expressions look just like her little brother and how funny some of the drawings and stories she wrote are - mostly because of their total transparency and innocent interpretations.  She laughed at some of the things she had kept because, at 9, all of the sudden she is reaching the age of being OK with letting some of the "little kid" things go.
Later, Daddy came home and we shared our favorite finds with him.  Daddy was a bit more emotional than we had been as he reflected on how much she has grown and matured and changed in a thousand ways.  And she has changed - there is no denying it.  

But then again, she is the same in a thousand ways as well.  She has so many natural God-given gifts - her ability to see beauty and purpose in everything, her empathy towards others, her heart for animals and babies, her nurturing side, her natural curiosity and love of learning, her strength and independence, her love of the "magic" of things like Santa and fairies, the way she always thinks ahead to the next question beyond what most kids her age are concerned with, her tendency to lean toward the girly/frilly/sparkly, the way she gets totally absorbed into books, and her sense of adventure and pushing the limits of what is expected of her.
She is the oldest daughter.  Through a long family line of strong oldest daughters.  And she carries those traits that oldest daughters so often do.  Sometimes I am thankful for those gifts.  Other days I struggle with the burdens that I know she carries as that oldest daughter.  

We do tend to have expectations of leadership - how many times is the oldest told "You have to set a good example for your siblings."  Which comes naturally but also can come at the price of people assuming that a specific suggestion is a bid to "control" or "take over" the situation rather than from a place of trying to be helpful and get things done.
Often the oldest is asked to help with the job of raising the younger ones or tasks to help mom and dad with the household.  It is easy to forget how much we ask sometimes when oldest daughters tend to have natural empathy and nurturing, helpful spirits.  The Princess willingly helps her brother with getting out the door in the morning and many other small things.  So I find myself saying sometimes a little too often "see if your sister can help you" and some days that is just too much for her.  And then I feel regretful for pushing that on her, even as I know she doesn't resent it.  

Because I know how much responsibility I felt at a young age taking care of my brother as my mom worked two jobs to support us.  My dad had his own set of priorities and goals.  After a series of horrible babysitter experiences, at age 8 I was walking my brother (he was in kindergarten) home a quarter mile from our tiny schoolhouse, getting snacks, doing my homework, helping my brother do his homework (no easy task as we later discovered he was dyslexic), and often starting dinner.  
Oldest daughters tend to be strong, independent and self-sufficient.  They tend to be do-ers and they rarely sit still for long.  This can sometimes lead parents to forget that they "need" us too.  I have heard many mothers tell their grown daughters "you just never needed me like they did" when discussing what many siblings view as favoritism.  My daughter has never been a snuggler even as a baby.  She has always been loving, but always too busy to cuddle unless you were reading her books.  Only when her brother came along did she become a snuggler with him.  That nurturing side kicked in and she truly enjoys cuddling him like she never did with us.  But the other day she felt the need to snuggle her dad too and reminded us that she does need us too - even though she may not always be willing to ask for what she needs.

I think oldest daughters sometimes become partners in a way with their mothers in the mothering process.  When I look at the positions myself, my mother and my grandmother in our families, we all had big roles in taking care of the family as children.  Especially where all were working mothers and large age gaps (18 years) existed between the eldest and the youngest, the motherly and household responsibilities were shared with the eldest daughter.  It was a necessity of survival and advancement of the family, but it results in somewhat of a shared "possession" of ownership and authority.  
Sometimes this seems to lead to conflicts between siblings because the oldest can feel that they have the same authority as the parents while the younger siblings can resent the older.  (Yeah, that whole "you're not the boss of me!" thing...)  Sometimes parents intentionally or unintentionally delegate supervision to the oldest child.  Supervision without authority is useless so the oldest child is put in the position of issuing discipline to the younger sibling which can cause a long lasting "rub" between siblings.  It can cause younger siblings to think, even later on in life, that any suggestions on how to do things in their life is an attempt of the older sibling to insert their authority when the older sibling is really just trying to do what they think is being helpful.  Even as the younger sibling may often ask for advice from their older sibling, there may be conflicting feelings about actually getting that advice.

This can happen too in big families where there is a large age gap between the oldest and the youngest.  My husband's family has 12 children and, while all are grown adults and have been for a long time, many times there are misunderstandings that are really due to the roles in the family as they grew.  In such families, many times the oldest generally sort of think of the youngest as a sort of "first child".  They have often had a significant role in raising the youngest child and think of themselves as a parental figure.  They may have a hard time realizing how the younger sibling has aged and matured.  While I try very hard to treat my youngest brother like the mature young man he is, in my mind's eye I still have those images of that little 2-year-old in my wedding pictures who people thought was my son and the buzz-cut 7-year-old he was when my daughter was born.  It can be hard for the oldest child to get past that sort of thing and treat grown younger siblings like the equals that they are.
Don't get me wrong - I don't think these are bad things and I'm not slamming parents with similar family dynamics.  I see a lot of years wasted between parents and oldest daughters who might feel like they had to take on responsibilities they should have had to.  I see a lot of years wasted between siblings where blame and assumptions continue to fester.  Many of these conflicts are based on things that happened in childhood where age differences lead to different perceptions of how things happened.  Years down the road specific incidents may be discussed from the different perspectives and siblings realize that there were hurts that they weren't aware of or things older siblings were told to do by parents that younger siblings assumed were the older sibling asserting authority or discipline that they shouldn't have.

What do you think?  Are you an oldest or youngest?  Do you see these things happen in your family or with your own children?  How do you deal with it or try to prevent it?  I'd love to hear from you!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

How sweet! I know you are very proud of her!