To the Eldest Daughters of Immigrant Families

For the children of immigrant or the first generation of children to be born in another country, there’s a constant struggle of finding where you fit. The process of immigration itself is an uncertain experience, so our parents adopt mentalities with emphasis on security, leading to the birth of a generation of doctors, lawyers, engineers, and businessmen and women. While security brings comfort, our generation also sees beyond the need for a constant income. When you watch your parents live what seems to be a meticulously planned life – education, career, marriage, kids, otherwise known as domestic bliss, a part of us wants to experience the exact opposite; the excitement of spontaneous and chaotic experience, freedom from all expectations, and the opportunity to simply mess up. 

Sandwiched between these two worlds lies the eldest child. Your parents instilled from a young age the importance of financial stability and professional success, making you ambitious with extraordinarily high expectations. But that same part of you that wants to live a full and meaningful professional life also wants that richness in your personal life. You want to experiment; perhaps travel without any plans, meet people from all walks of life, experience passionate and intense romance, or maybe even dabble in some substances. There’s a constant tug of war between these two sides of you. To this, eldest daughters have an additional set of hurdles to overcome, particularly those that come from traditionally conservative cultures. There’s a constant feeling of running out of time; you’re pressured to complete your education as fast as possible so you can move onto a stable and established career and start a family. 

That being said, there’s also a constant unsettling feeling that you’re trapped in an unfulfilling life. The pressure felt by the eldest daughter is something I can attest to as you try to bridge the gap between two very different cultures and generations. Here are a few reminders I tell myself that you may need to hear when navigating life as the eldest daughter:

  1. 1. It is not your job to be the mediator in family disputes 

    With such high expectations, eldest daughters are given little room to be a kid and are forced to grow up very quickly. As a “wise” or “experienced” presence, you’re often dragged into mediating conflicts that may have nothing to do with you. While your tendencies push you to fix the problem, the pressures of conflicts beyond your control can be taxing. I’ve learned to understand that the actions and reactions of others are beyond your control, and the more control you try to take, the more pressure you’re placing on yourself. 

  2. 2. Your parents are not perfect – distance and understanding are key 

    You grow to be resentful and bitter when you see people your own age leading seemingly memorable and fulfilling lives while you crumble under the pressure of looming failure. It’s important to remember that our parents often teach us from their own experiences in a world uncertainty. I don’t suggest blindly accepting our parent’s conditions, but instead that understanding their perspectives can be a healing experience from a world of bitterness. 

  3. 3. Your professional success does not define your lineage 

    Many of us are raised with stories of both struggle and success. The narrative of defying the odds and reaching new heights are often what brought our parents to North America. Our inner dialogue often tells us that if our parents were able to succeed in the endeavour that is immigration, we should be able to reach heights even further. It seems like our success defines whether immigrating here was even worth it, as if your existence in North America is something to be proved and earned. This mentality adds validity to a narrative that’s simply not true and only hurts you in the long run. 

  4. 4. Take it easy when you parent your younger siblings 

    As eldest daughters, a combination of protective maternal instinct and personal experience makes you want to ensure that your younger siblings don’t struggle the same way you did. You may find yourself covering and fighting for them to experience things that you could only dream of. And while your heart is in the right place, this is another source of pressure in a continually growing list.  

  5. 5. You were not made to be a trophy to attest for your parent’s success 

    Coming from other cultures, the mold of success is ridged and very well defined. Particularly in family and reputation-oriented cultures, one wrong move can sully the family name. Pride and shame are associated with every choice you make which is a crippling feeling. Learning to separate yourself from this mold brings relief that we all need.

  6. 6. Put yourself first – it’s okay take a break (you don’t always have to keep it together)

    I’m willing to bet that you are overworked, dehydrated, and sleep deprived. 

  7. 7. Being excessively independent is hurting you – learn to trust other people

    Being sandwiched between two juxtaposing worlds makes it hard to identify with either. You learn to depend on yourself, since others just won’t get it. That hyper independence is suffocating and taxing. Opening yourself to new people and experiences gives you perspectives you did not know you needed. 

  8. 8. You are allowed to be upset at the differences between how you’re treated versus your siblings

    Our parents came from a society with very different expectations of us than the society we are in. You are raised with the concept of “protect your daughters” which, while understandable, can be frustrating and suffocating. As the eldest, your parents’ grip is extra tight with the anxiety of being new parents. This translates to substantial differences between how you and your younger siblings, particularly brothers, are treated. Our frustration is almost tangible, labeling us “overdramatic” and “moody”, but you are 100% allowed to be upset.

This list could have gone on to make a novel. But, if there’s one thing you take away from this, it’s that you need a break more than you care to admit.