In watching her, I’ve come to realize that being the oldest child sucks. Of course my older sister would likely disagree. Sure, it has its perks, later bedtime, bossing around younger siblings, getting to always experience things first, but it is fraught with inconsistencies and ambiguity. Being the guinea pig for every parenting style and technique, being held to a higher standard than the younger siblings, having to forge a path through unknown territory with parents who likely don’t have a clue what they are doing. I thank my lucky stars that I was the youngest, especially now that I’m a parent and firsthand observer and enforcer of all that the eldest endures.
Case in point, my daughter, who grapples with her role as the big sister and what it entails. In those Old West duel-like moments as we face off, our nostrils flaring, I see it so clearly. As she yells, “What does it mean to be a big sister? If I can’t tell them what to do, what’s the point?” I hear it. And yet my response, repeated for what feels like the hundredth time, is hardly her ticket to enlightenment: “You’re not the mother.” As tears fill her eyes, I am engulfed in empathy for her as she tries to navigate these tricky waters. One moment she is a teacher and a role model to her brothers, the next she is an equal, a friend, and sometimes a formidable foe. The struggle is real.
It’s not all horrible. There are those empowering moments throughout the day when she is given free rein to boss them around, to have them do her every bidding, to have her own (mostly willing) minions. And let’s be honest, who among us wouldn’t want that? But reality creeps back in at some point, and when it does, it is difficult to separate being the boss at playtime to being the boss all the time. To add to the confusion, there is the dichotomy that exists between our expectations of the eldest and her opportunity to just be a carefree kid. There are expectations that we, as parents, so flippantly bestow on her at school drop-off or an evening with the babysitter as we call out, “Take care of your brothers!” — thus further blurring the lines of authority and responsibility.
The thing is, I so desperately want her to be a kid. Yes, some responsibility is important to help her grow into an independent, self-sufficient adult who is not living in our basement at the age of 30, but I also want her to enjoy these fleeting childhood years as a child. There is so much time ahead of her to bear the responsibility of the world on her shoulders. To carry the burden of worry. To make choices and decisions that she will pray are right, or at the very least, not too wrong. To parent.
As she watches me in both my best and worst moments, there are so many things I hope she will do differently. Worry less, yell less, enjoy the moment more. Breathe deeply before opening her mouth or biting her tongue before the biting words tumble out. Let go of the need for perfection. There are also things I hope she does the same. Embrace the joy and the laughter. Find the humor when she’s reached the end of her patience and sanity. Revel in the music and have impromptu dance parties in the living room.
She is the proverbial 8-year-old going on 18-year-old. She pushes so hard to grow up, and I push just as hard to slow the passage of time. She wants an iPhone; I want her to want Barbie dolls. Being a firstborn brings with it a host of great characteristics: strong leadership skills; maturity; being responsible, conscientious and organized (although my daughter seems to have missed out on this particular trait). All qualities that will help her to be a confident, successful adult, and if she chooses, mother. But for right now, all I want is for her to be a kid.