Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The eldest daughter

I see her in almost every large family that happens to have a daughter as their first-born child. She is mature and well-spoken for her age. She is kind and responsible, efficient and organized. She takes on the task of being her mother's helper, folding laundry, washing dishes and watching over younger siblings. 

She feels the importance of her position in the family, and enjoys the near-adult status this gives her, very early on. At the age of 12, she knows perfectly well how to clean a house, iron a shirt, diaper a baby and bake an excellent challah. 

This girl is a blessing to her parents, and doubtless she is acquiring many important skills that will help her in her future home. However, there is also a risk - a risk that the mother, especially the mother of an extra-large family with all its burdens and chores, will come to rely on the eldest daughter too much and too early. 

Now, I think it's excellent training for adulthood to give children age-appropriate responsibilities. My daughters know they are in charge of tidying up their room. They know they are responsible for keeping important art work stashed in appropriate files. They realize that if they take a book to read or look at, they have to return it to its proper place later. 

So what do I mean, exactly, when I talk of relying on the eldest daughter too much? How early is too early? Often the answer isn't clear-cut. But I believe it is undesirable when:

- an eldest daughter has very limited time for age-appropriate activities, such as playing, reading for pleasure, pursuing hobbies, or even simply quiet time for reflection and dreaming, because household chores and childcare are being heaped upon her. 

- household chores and taking care of younger siblings are hampering a girl's academic success (as in, an important math assignment goes undone because the young girl has to cook dinner for the family).

- a pattern is created when the eldest girl is expected to always act more mature and responsible than her siblings, even taking age difference into account. As in, when she was 10 she was expected to do the dishes every night, but when her younger sister reaches 10 years, no such responsibility is given her. 

- the eldest daughter is expected to take up the slack when her siblings shift away from responsibility  - as in, she picks up after her siblings, sorts their laundry, etc, even when they are developmentally capable of doing these things for themselves. 

A child is a child, and needs time to be a child, even if she is the eldest of numerous children. This is so very, very important to remember, even though it's incredibly tempting to allow a girl who is kind, obedient, and responsible to take up the lion's share of household chores. 

Note: I am specifically talking about girls, because it happens more often that a daughter becomes a mother's helper. However, I'm not saying it can't happen that an older boy is given a disproportionate number of chores compared to his older siblings. 

Naturally, the older children will pitch in and help more often and more efficiently than younger children. But in a well-functioning family, everyone does their share. Otherwise it's an unfair and unhealthy pattern. It is unfair to the child who gets heaped up with too many chores, and it's unfair to the other children, who grow up thinking it's OK to let others work for them. 

I have decided to write about it after observing several families who have (without even noticing it, I am sure) fallen into such a pattern, of heaping up too much responsibility on the eldest daughter (or daughters), as well as talking to several women who were elder daughters in large families, and report feeling overwhelmed, burdened, even taken advantage of, as they were growing up. This, later on, made them delay marriage and limit their number of children - that is, after growing up in a large family, they didn't want a large family for themselves.

In my own home, I feel I have the budding personality of just such a girl - mature, eager to help, responsible. That's fantastic, but when Shira (age 7) offers to pick up after her younger sister, or mop up somebody else's spills, I say no. No, because it isn't fair or just to have her do it, when everyone should do what they reasonably can to pitch in and keep the home running smoothly. 


Princess Lea said...

I feel the same way, as does my mother - and I'm the youngest!

I had a post with a story along the same vein:

I'm an aunt, not yet a parent, but if I am babysitting and I need an older niece's help, I make a point to overflowingly request their assistance, not demand it as a given. They did not create these younger children; they are not their responsibility.

K~ said...

Well said Anna! And, I think a very wise decision on your part.

Mrs. Anna T said...

Lea, thanks for sharing your post. Indeed this is just what I meant.

Anonymous said...

This explains what I had seen when I was a young woman.. a friend who had been responsible and able to live an adult life as a mother ( because she had been functioning in that role for many years ) turn and leave her children behind, walking away , I heard she never visited ..However her brothers , had been well parented by her. Probably an extreme example, I remember her saying to me she could not take the sound of a crying child one minute more. Karen in Michigan

Anonymous said...

You are a wise woman, dear...and already a good mother, obviously!! I would have loved to have made our 3 children do things more equitably...but I did not have support for that from my husband. So therefore I simply did nearly all, the best I could, which was not good enough. Now in retirement he helps me a lot. I do wish he had allowed the older 2 to help me more. But they learned enough I guess..they are 40 and 37 now...running their own homes. I sacrificed a great deal, in many ways...and let them have play time with is him they are drawn to even yet...not me. Servants are rarely appreciated. A friend my age group, wrote me today saying that women must spend some on themselves because they are not valued by their husbands for being too sparing...tis true.

Another thing that often happens to the oldest child, in my case I had 3 younger brothers. This same thing happened to one of my dear friends who was the oldest of 5...later in life our siblings became nasty to us...resenting us for being another parent of sorts. I was not a parent with any authority...but I was expected to treat my brothers as if they were my children, minus discipline...and even when they married, my mom would come to my house, see the fabrics I bought for myself and children etc. to make things...and ask for it to take to my of course, I gave it to her...what else could I do? But my parents now being gone many years...there is no thankfulness from my brothers or their wives for the many things I have done...NONE!! It is strange...and it was strange to my dear friend with her siblings too. Our parents did appreciate our help...but for some reason it makes siblings resentful towards us. A thankless position. Seems to me your solution will be the best one. And hopefully one that will enable your children to be good friends into their adult lives as well.

Mrs. Anna T said...

Anon, I'm so sorry for your bitter experience. I feel that such unfair patterns are products of early circumstances: that is, perhaps at first the older daughter was the only one developmentally capable of helping the mother - and so it became a matter of course that she's the one who helps, even when the younger siblings grow up.

Lady Anne said...

When The Squire and I got married, we blended three daughters - a twelve year old, and two eight year olds. The downstairs was divided into the bathroom, the living room, and the dining room. (I make too much mess in the kitchen to expect the kids to follow along behind me!) Each girl was assigned one room to keep clean. Once a week, the room was handed off to the next sister - and it had better be in "a state of grace"! Vacuumed, dusted, etc.
They were also expected to keep their own rooms tidy, although we left that definition up to the girl who lived there. If you wanted to dig through a pile of clothing to find a clean blouse, more power to you. Eventually, they figured out the while cleanliness might not be close to G-dliness, it was easier to navigate.
We don't (still don't) have a washing machine, and the girls helped sort the laundry, put it in the washers, and then get it into he dryers and hung up. (Each one had their own colour hangers.)
The Squire was a tremendous help; he had had custody of his daughter, and knew what it was to be a "working mother". Behind in your work before you even get out of bed. "Whose books are those? Did your mother leave that coat on the chair? Do boots belong in the middle of the floor?"
At any rate, they all three grew up to be much better housekeepers than I am, so we must have done something right.

Anonymous said...

As females in a Haredi community have no real options but to marry young and reproduce, does this really matter?

Mrs. Anna T said...

Anon, I'm not sure whether your comment is in earnest, but I'll try to reply anyway.

First off, we're not Haredi.

Second, I believe that marrying young and starting a family is not just "an option", but what is generally best for most people (though life is complex and there is an Almighty G-d watching over us).

What I meant to convey in my post is essentially this: there are young women who are reluctant to enter marriage because they have experienced premature motherhood-burn-out as overburdened elder daughters of large families. Here the responsibility falls on the parents not to allow such a situation.