From an early age, I believed that I was in charge of everyone. In therapy at 5, I was given a puzzle and asked to describe what I saw. I arranged all of the pieces so that they circled one central piece — each connecting to the single one in various ways. I explained to the therapist that the piece in the middle was me and that my parents and brothers were those around me, all relying on me to stay connected and whole. And while some people might label that narcissism, I am certain it was my anxiety. The kind that is deeply ingrained at an early age, as the firstborn family test subject who then feels a responsibility for her younger counterparts.
I have never had any chill. Often being told to relax, my brain is hardwired for details. Decisions are black and white, accountability is preferred, and order is necessary. I am a control freak with exposed nerve endings — always fully aware of my surroundings, never laid-back. I am bossy and controlling. In my family, I take control of communication, planning, and gifting. I make quick decisions while others are passive. I worry about everything — from benign rashes on my toddler’s thigh to potential car accidents on the freeway. Anytime I feel like I am in charge which is to say, is always. I feel increased anxiety to make sure everything is safe, and everything is executed perfectly. It is exhausting.
I look around at my friends, examining their birth order, and notice similar traits. My fellow firstborns seem to share a similar intensity. That type-A whack-a-mole energy all the time. My girlfriends further down in birth order seem a little more comfortable in mess and chaos. While I am popping CBD gummies after a quick change of plans, they seem more able to roll with the inevitable shifts of life. Maybe it’s because they have never lived in a world where they were the only focus. They are used to sharing time, space, and energy. They were not always setting the example, but rather had someone paving the way, softening the ground before them.
My close friends with firstborn daughters share similar stories. They are ones of overly protective, often nervous big sisters. Some are too anxious to engage in higher-stress group activities like sports or performances, and others are easily rattled by typical family stresses. Many share that their daughters seem to feel a responsibility for those around them, often getting wrapped up in the safety and well-being of others. Little family and societal police officers — attempt to make sure that everyone falls in line.
My firstborn was a boy, and he carries different energy. He is wildly confident and content. He does not carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. He is often just along for the ride. He has some big opinions but nothing earth-shattering, and he rarely requires order and control. My husband, also a firstborn, is much like my son. In my experience, the girls hit differently, and it feels hard-wired. Perhaps there is a biological, instinctual, or maternal pull at play — a combination of gender and birth order that creates a uniquely different but often predictable personality path. But who knows? I’m not a scientist, after all.
What I do know is that my own two daughters, the third and fourth born, are wildly different from myself. They are fearless, confident, and social. They are not wound-tight and are rarely searching for reassurance. And there seems to be an ease and calmness about how they view the world — like they are not in charge of everything.
Either way, I do believe that my personal experience as a first-born daughter has greatly shaped me. It’s a whole vibe. And although we can be completely frustrating and difficult at times, the world would be lost without us. So here’s to us — the powerful, neurotic, and incredible.
Samm D. is an ex-lawyer and mom of four who swears a lot.