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Miss Americana and the oldest daughter complex

I live in a house with three other oldest daughters, and it shows.

Our house is always clean. We’ve mastered the art of domestic coziness, provide our younger friends a candlelit respite from their dorms and if someone is making a breakfast more elaborate than cereal or toast, they always cook for everyone.

Rarely is one of us upset for more than 20 minutes before the others notice and sit them down to talk about their feelings or offer to bake them cookies. We are all currently, or have previously been, leaders of student organizations. Our families like to communicate their issues with each other through us. 

We are all stressed.

We’re all products of a society that pressures oldest siblings, but specifically oldest daughters, to be more empathetic, independent and caring than everyone else.

Taylor Swift is an oldest daughter. At the start of director Lana Wilson’s new Netflix documentary on Swift, “Miss Americana,” the film’s subject says she built her image on being the “good girl.” 

“My entire moral code, as a kid and now, is a need to be thought of as good,” Swift says. “... And, obviously, I’m not a perfect person by any stretch, but overall the main thing that I always tried to be was … like, a good girl.”

Women in our society, oldest daughters or not, are conditioned to be the “good girl” — to be empathetic but not overbearing, to be independent but not bossy, to be smart but not too smart, lest we rob a man the opportunity of explaining something to us.

And studies have indicated that eldest children are typically leaders, more independent than their younger siblings, caring, hardworking and even more likely to behave cautiously.

Oldest daughters have the misfortune of bearing both of these immense societal pressures simultaneously, which has produced generation after generation of responsible and profoundly anxious young women.

Last summer, being an oldest daughter even became a niche meme on Twitter, which supported these claims. My personal favorite tweets were “oldest daughters need to unionize” and “Parents be like ‘that’s my emotional support eldest daughter.’” 

This is not to say that younger siblings do not have to shoulder any of these burdens; not every family has daughters, and in lots of families, younger siblings take on as much or more responsibility than their older sisters or brothers.

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But I feel confident in saying, as an oldest daughter who knows many other oldest daughters, that we face a unique, constant pressure to be the “good girl.” We’re not supposed to cause trouble, ever; we’re supposed to help others navigate through it or prevent it entirely.

This isn’t always bad. My role in my family has taught me how to listen to and help solve other people’s problems. It has instilled in me senses of responsibility, accountability and several other resume-ready qualities.

But it has also made me profoundly anxious; I worry constantly about my own wellbeing as well as the wellbeing of everyone around me. I never lost the feeling that everything I do is being closely monitored and judged, even though it’s been a long time since my parents worried that my D+ in pre-algebra doomed my brother and sister to the same fate.

I grew so used to taking care of other people, whether it was my friends or my siblings or the kids I babysat, that I’ve struggled in college to buy into the idea that “self-care” is equally important.

Every time I screw something up, I still feel like I’m disappointing everyone I’ve ever met.

But those tweets, and Swift’s words in “Miss Americana,” and my shared experiences with my housemates, help; other oldest daughters, you’re not alone.

Also, we have to laugh about these things so we don’t cry.

daviskn3@miamioh.edu

@kirbdavis

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