We Need To Remember It's Hard Being The Oldest Child

We Need To Remember It’s Hard Being The Oldest Child

Elizabeth Broadbent

It had to be his brother’s Lego Millennium Falcon that was destroyed. The four-year-old decided it looked interesting, or shiny, or adult or whatever four-year-olds decide when they decide they want to mess with something. He peeled off one piece. Then another. Then another and another. Then he carried all those pieces to various parts of the house and dumped them.

When eight-year-old Blaise found it, he cried in rage and frustration and grief, because it’s the Lego Millennium Falcon — that took three days and Daddy’s help to assemble. It was his. It was longer than his arm. And his little brother had toddled over and screwed it up.

I held him while he cried. His father quietly found the pieces and reassembled it, because once you assemble a Millennium Falcon, its structure sort of burns into your brain. We were quiet, gentle; lots of murmured I know and Daddy will fix it and I know you’re mad.

Because he was mad. And we have to remember: it’s hard being the oldest.

We have to remember: we expect so much from someone so small. 

I remember. I was the oldest, though only by sixteen months, and even that was difficult. My sister always wanted to copy me. My son complains that his brothers want to do whatever he wants to do too. If he plays Legos, they’re suddenly into Legos. This has resulted in us buying our four-year-old junior Lego sets, but he still begs Blaise to put it together for him, because it’s somehow better if Blaise assembles it than if I do. Blaise is an indulgent sibling, and goes along with his little brother’s requests, but with all the lisping advice and critiques, it gets old. Quickly.

Both Blaise’s younger brothers want to play his games. They love to play what they call mini-guy battle: a Revolutionary-War-pirate-skeleton-plastic-soldier game with popsicle-stick barriers and Lincoln Log breastplates. The rules are intricate and incomprehensible to anyone over the age of ten.

But inevitably, something will go wrong, and one of his brothers will burst into tears and run from the room weeping. It’s the six-year-old as often as the four-year-old who’s crying. They beg to play and then, according to the laws of plastic blue soldiers, they cheat. He’s left with an empty field of mini-guys and scattered Lincoln Logs and the knowledge that he, alone, has to clean it up.

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Because being the oldest means being the chief cleaner. When we get fed up with all the lightsabers in the living room, swords on the bathroom floor, blocks lined down the hallway and piles of stuff in their bedroom, and we yell some variation on “YOU WILL CLEAN THIS UP OR I WILL, AND I WILL BRING A TRASH BAG,” the cleaning falls mostly on Blaise’s shoulders.

We don’t mean for that to happen, of course, but his brothers are younger. They begin with good intentions, but devolve into playing with the toys instead of putting them away. So Blaise cleans, and they squeal and play and never do anything unless we stand over them like parental drill sergeants.

“I don’t like August and Simon very much when we have to clean up,” Blaise says. No shit. I wouldn’t like them either.  

The same thing happened to me as a child. My father blamed me for a shared messy room for years. I protested that my sister was to blame. Over and over. The yelling continued. My sister smiled angelically behind him. When I moved to the attic bedroom, the room stayed messy and mine stayed clean. He actually apologized.

When you’re the oldest, extra obligations and responsibilities fall to you, but without the benefits of being small. Blaise sees his brothers get extra cuddles — they’re both small for their ages, and I pick them up regularly. I tote them around. I hold their hands when they cross the parking lot, but he’s expected to follow behind, or hold a brother’s hand. Blaise doesn’t get to ride in the cart. Blaise doesn’t get books read to him much anymore, now that he can read himself.

Oh, Blaise gets cuddles and love aplenty, but it’s different. He doesn’t crawl into our bed at night. But he’s a physical kid, and I know he misses the physical contact of his younger years. He talked about being babywrapped the other day: “I don’t remember what it felt like,” he said wistfully, “but it felt good.” My heart snapped into several thousand pieces.

We try to make it up to him. We include him in more adult activities. I tried to have him help me train my German Shepherd, but he didn’t have the patience. So now that he wants to learn to sew, we are making a patchwork quilt together, square by square. I buy him big-kid books without pictures his brothers will not steal and mangle. We give him video games his brothers will find boring. We let him watch TV shows that the younger ones totally hate. We try to give him little gifts from the adult world, small things to make up for his hardships.

We work hard to give him little extras. Because it’s hard, being the oldest. And if we’re to fully appreciate and love on our oldest children, to fully know them, we need to remember that. To remember their struggles. To see them and know them and love them through it. It’s a big part of who they are. It’s a big part of who they’ll become. We wouldn’t change it — wouldn’t change him — for anything, and part of him is where he is in his birth order. But while we lament about the middle child missing out and the baby getting babied, the oldest one gets lost in the shuffle.

But this was the child who made me a mother. This was the child who, after days of labor, shot out suddenly into his OB’s hands with a surprised cry. I loved him as soon as I saw him, this child, my oldest, my life-changer. And it’s hard to be where he is. I try to honor that, as I honored that first cry, that first cuddle. Being the oldest sometimes sucks. And we, as parents, especially as parents who may have been oldest children ourselves, need to remember that.  

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