My dad’s humor usually makes me want to roll my eyes at best and stage a riot at worst, but he certainly knows what he thinks is funny. When he sent me a Facebook message last year that tickets to the upcoming show of one of his favorite comedians would be just the perfect Christmas gift, I cringed but clicked.
Done, I thought, always grateful to have the mental load of holiday gifting slightly reduced.But when I went to purchase the tickets I saw that they were already sold out. Well, shit. A little more research and I was able to find another performance the same comedian was doing with a few tickets left. I selected seats and went to check out. How is this dude making this kind of money, I wondered, though I really needn’t wonder too hard.
I texted my two younger brothers to see if they wanted to get in on this gift. I knew the price might be a deterrent, which is why when I reached out I told them we could go in together, but to contribute what they could afford. I’d cover the rest. I reasoned that if it wasn’t these tickets, I’d be coordinating a different group gift from my siblings and me and be back to the drawing board. With seemingly hundreds of other presents yet to buy this season, checking this off my list was worth the cost.
My brothers gladly agreed to go in on the tickets and I secured them. I satisfactorily added the gift to my CHRISTMAS 2023 GIFTS spreadsheet, and when I was out next I found a cute card in which to present the faux paper tickets I’d had made. Check.
If I was more creative with video, I might have turned this scene into one of those TikTok skits that eldest daughters around the world have been making for the past year. They’re the ones that take a situation like gift giving, making a holiday meal, or getting ready to go on a family trip and capture the stereotyped actions of the oldest, middle, and youngest sibling. Even if you haven’t seen them, you know the gist. The oldest scurries around neurotically ensuring everyone is tended to, the middle child is checked out or maybe even a little angsty, and the youngest is spinning in a self-involved circle. My brothers and I send them to each other all the time. Actually, scratch that. Now that I think about it, I’m the one sending them. Oops.
These videos are often hashtagged #eldestdaughtersyndrome, a non-official condition that many women who exist as the oldest daughter or oldest child have embraced to describe their special and often resented experience. They depict feeling overlooked, unappreciated, and weighed down with too many expectations. They might not explicitly connect their mental health conditions to their eldest daughter status, but they certainly imply it. “I just want to make sure everyone is having a good time,” an eldest daughter creator says in one, “Because if you’re not, it’s probably somehow my fault.”
Most eldest daughters I know, and I’m realizing that my friends may disproportionately fall into this category, find these representations hilarious in that OMG this is so funny, yes exactly that’s what it’s like, god this is unfair, shit why I am filled with rage and crying kind of way. The #eldestdaugthersyndrome trend strikes a nerve, which is perhaps interesting since we’ve been talking about birth order and it’s purported impact on personality for more than a century.
When we talk about how our role in our families defines or predicts who we become, we’re usually drawing on the work of Alfred Adler, the psychologist who first talked widely about birth order effects in the early 1900s. Adler had a fairly deep and nuanced perspective on this, though unsurprisingly it’s gotten watered down in the ensuing century. While social scientists continue to study whether birth order effects are valid, what we can say with some certainty is that there may be some cognitive advantages for first borns and that pretty much all other traits – like extraversion, emotional stability, and conscientiousness – aren’t predicted only by birth order. There are just too many other variables in a family – like spacing of kids, economic circumstances, parental involvement, and more – for birth order to be used as a predictor with any reliability.
With that disclaimer about birth order more generally out of the way, there does seem to be something particularly noteworthy about the eldest daughter experience. Ask almost any eldest daughter and she’ll tell you about it. Of course she will. She loves to be right.
The holidays tend to put a spotlight on the eldest daughter phenomenon, and I know I certainly think about my own role as eldest daughter more around that time. When a friend asked me this year whether I liked hosting Christmas for my family, I paused. I hadn’t really ever thought about whether I liked it. I just did it. It made sense.
I mentally scrolled through the reasons it made sense. I liked being in control of how the day went. I have the grandchildren in my family. I have the most space and most resources. Everyone else was more than happy for me to do it. It wasn’t just that I was the oldest daughter in my family; my hosting did seem to make the most sense. But, I wondered, are all of those things somehow connected?
Is it a coincidence that as the oldest daughter I am the one who is a parent, while my brothers are not? Is it a coincidence I took my education the farthest and put stability over some of the amazing experiences my brothers have had? Is it a coincidence that I cared the most about the details of the day and what we would all be eating?
To be clear, I’m not suggesting here that I am somehow better or more worthy than my siblings. On the contrary, I look at these dynamics and I see how I’ve always followed predictable and socially sanctioned successful path, while they have forged their own. I’m envious of their music festivals and kid-free Sunday mornings and how my brother leads hikes for people to get to know our city’s parks.
I’m also envious of a life, of a mind, not constantly consumed with the mental load of a family. Because the foundation of eldest daughter syndrome, if such a syndrome exists, is to me the weight of invisible labor.
I talk a lot about invisible labor and the mental load and about how our culture sets us up as women to take on these burdens in marital and parenting life. But in thinking about eldest daughters recently, I realized that I’ve never traced those patterns back. Before we were partners and moms carrying the mental load, I started to recognize, we were sisters and daughters doing the same.
Every December while I was growing up, all of the women in my family would take the day off of work or school to gather and bake holiday cookies. We’d make hundreds of treats on that day, and at the end of it we’d finish by organizing the various types on pretty trays for our friends and neighbors. We’d lost track of the tradition in the last few years, but this past December I decided it was time to bring it back. My own daughter had never gotten to experience Cookie Day, and I was excited for her first time participating.
I considered whether I should keep my three boys, her older brothers, home from school that day to join us as well. I ended up deciding that they’d probably take part in the cookie making for less than an hour and then be holed up playing video games, and so I sent them to school instead. As I’ve been reflecting on how eldest daughter syndrome develops, I realized that including only my daughter is probably a prime example of one of the pathways.
It’s not, in this case, that I burdened my daughter with the making of cookies for family and friends. She was delighted to be covered in flour and eat her weight in chocolate chips. It’s that I gave her – and only her – the opportunity to be part of this sacred tradition. She sat atop the counter as her mother and grandmother and great-grandmother and great-aunt swirled around in the kitchen and she had the chance to see herself in us. She identified with us, not just because she has the same chromosomal make-up, but because she was included in this work. To be fair, I’d not given my boys the chance to see themselves in the loveliness of baking for others that day.
If that pathway is about identification, we might call another pathway for the development of these entrenched daughter roles substitution. This is the idea that when mothers themselves have less and less time or are otherwise unavailable for domestic tasks, eldest daughters are often the ones to step in and substitute for the mom’s absence. The degree to which this is explicitly expected versus subconsciously evolves is probably highly dependent on things like family and cultural norms. But whether eldest daughters are forced into this substitute role or “naturally” choose it, it happens all the time.
It might be easiest to see this in action in situations where it’s most extreme. There are economically suppressed cities and countries around the world where mothers routinely migrate to areas with more opportunity for them to earn an income. Perhaps ironically, these women are often migrating to other countries to serve as domestic workers for other families. Their absence in their own homes leaves a gap in these same tasks, and that gap is more often than not filled by, you guessed it, their eldest daughters.
Perhaps less extreme but interestingly mirroring this exact pattern, when moms started to more frequently work outside the home in the U.S., domestic tasks they had historically done began to fall most often not to their partners or distributed equally among their children of all genders, but to, you guessed it, their eldest daughters.
So what we find is that as mothers strive for greater gender equality in the working world, and thus more financial independence and opportunity, the gap that creates is filled not by society or by partners, but by girls. Daughters have long covered the cost of women’s efforts toward true equality. Maybe it’s not eldest daughter syndrome after all. Maybe it could better be described as the eldest daughter tax.
I’m not an economist, even when I like to dabble there; I am a psychologist, and so I spend most of my time thinking about how these external systems shape our internal narratives. So when I learn about the fact that girls around the globe are doing 40 million hours more housework than boys each day, it makes me interested in what that does to our sense of ourselves and our expectations from the world.
Whether or not we consciously subscribe to the idea that daughters should be expected to carry more of the mental and domestic load, we exist in a system that indoctrinates us with this idea. For eldest daughters in particular, the core of our “syndrome” emerges from the idea that our responsibility lies – indeed our very value lies – in how much we can carry emotionally and logistically.
We have this cadre of children as eldest daughters – and perhaps daughters more broadly – who grow into adult eldest daughters and walk around the world seeking to fill their own sense of self and value with how well they can carry the needs of others. And then, perhaps predictably, we feel burnt out, resentful, and like running away to a beach in Mexico. But we don’t run away, not usually, because if we did there would be no one to pick up the slack. Unless perhaps if we have a daughter of our own.
I don’t have all of the solutions for this, and as an eldest daughter myself, I’m giving myself grace to not take on sole responsibility for solving it. But I can tell you a few things that I’ve done and will be doing to shed the syndrome.
First, I’m recognizing that this is a phenomenon that is so much bigger than me. Maybe it doesn’t eradicate the issue, but watching my hilarious eldest daughter TikToks reassures me that I’m in good company and am not making this shit up. I am most definitely not the only one obsessed with making sure everyone’s glass is full at dinner. Hence the beauty of comedy, seeing myself played back in parody brings some needed levity and dissonance.
Second, I’m working to actively notice when these acculturated expectations arise as shoulds in me. When I can notice them, I can pause long enough to consider if I am actually the only one capable of hosting a holiday or coordinating a gift. (The answer is always no, even if I am the one who can do it “best.”)
And finally, I’m involving my boys in Cookie Day next year. I’m teaching them to notice things that need to be done and being mindful of where my internalized gender norms can make my expectations for my different-gendered kids subtly vary. They’ll love being covered in flour and eating chocolate chips. And when we’re done they can do the dishes.