On Being the Eldest Child

[Photo by Jenn Richardson]

Unsurprisingly, I think a lot about what our little baby will be like, and what his life might be like. I am boundlessly curious about the future, and an endless planner (even when I know there can be no such thing as planning for the future, not really). If we are lucky, he will be the eldest brother to a sibling or two, which is something I’ve been also thinking about a lot. I recently listened to the Dear Sugar episode on sibling rivalry, and a few comments they made really gave me pause for thought. 

I have always thought of myself as the quintessential eldest child; I have a brother who is younger than me by 2 years and a sister who is younger by 7. I don’t know if it is scientifically proven, but myth suggests that birth order can shape your personality, with eldest children tending to be high achieving, perfectionist Type As who have trouble admitting when they’re wrong or accepting criticism. Um… so far, so very, very me. 

With great power comes great responsibility, of course, because as the eldest child you are also cast into a surrogate parenting role. I’ve felt that very strongly in more recent years; with my family no longer the tidy unit it once was, I do feel more of a responsibility towards my siblings, to look after and look out for them (not that they really need it so much, they are adults after all). I remember speaking with a friend who is another eldest child about this very idea; when it comes to family trouble, it can sometimes feel as though your worry is doubled as the eldest, as not only are you struggling with the situation yourself, but also perhaps shouldering a greater part of the burden. I remember quite clearly not crying at my grandmother’s funeral; not because I wasn’t incredibly sad, but because I had one sibling sobbing on each shoulder and *someone* in that situation has to be the non-cryer. 

This is quite literally the latest photo I have with my siblings (and our hangers on) and it’s maybe 3 years old?! Note to self: take more photos. 

It is interesting how much stock we put into friendships and romantic relationships in comparison to those we have with our siblings (I’m sure the breadth of articles on the Internet about the former two would eclipse the latter by far) when in fact our sibling relationships are likely to be the longest relationships of our lives, if we have them. Our relationships with our siblings are a template for the relationships we have with others for the rest of our lives; through them we learn to negotiate, to compromise and what our ‘place’ in the world is. I know not everyone is as lucky as I am; I actually like and love my siblings despite, as well as because of, the fact that we share our genetics, and whilst I wouldn’t characterise our relationship as particularly close, they are still a central part of my life and I consider them often in the decisions I make. I don’t doubt that I am often replicating the role I take with my siblings in my other relationships, and I would be interested in whether my siblings do the same. 

One of the most interesting things they mentioned on the Dear Sugar podcast was that you don’t grow up in the same family as your siblings; whilst it sounds absurd, it is, of course, true. We have individual relationships even within our family, and the same scenario that seems wildly unfair to one sibling is likely to feel just or natural to another. It’s interesting to step outside of your own experience (in my case as the eldest child) to think about what those defining years of childhood might have felt like for the people sharing your home, but not your exact same view. Again, I am lucky that I don’t *think* that my parents favoured any of us in particular (my Mum always says that we are all her favourite children) and actively, in my eyes, discouraged sibling rivalry. My siblings and I are all quite different in personality, skills and interests, which certainly helps in that regard. 

Either way, it’ll be interesting to see how that dynamic plays out in my little family now – once baby arrives, and maybe when we add siblings to the mix. Are you a quintessential eldest/middle/younger/only child? I’d love to hear your stories, too!  

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  • I’m most definitely a typical oldest child as well, all those things you wrote are very accurate descriptions of me. Another thing you didn’t mention though is that I think it automatically puts you in a more motherly frame of mind, especially when you’re an oldest girl. I was the oldest out of 6 cousins, so I was always the one changing nappies, holding the baby etc. and I have found that I’m naturally more motherly than my younger sister, and definitely more broody!

    Sibling dynamics are always so interesting to read about!

    Rachel x

    The Inelegant Wench

    • I have found that, too, for sure. I don’t remember ever really being tasked to look after the other babies in my family, but I think it might just be something I absorbed my osmosis! A lot of my friends who are youngest children, especially when they are also the youngest cousins, too, say they’re not so sure about having kids because they’ve never really been around babies – which isn’t something you can avoid when you’re the eldest child! x