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The burden of being a firstborn

Being a firstborn often comes with responsibilities, expectations and demands (Photo: iStock)

Firstborns are a privileged lot. It is from raising a firstborn that parents start their parental journey.

First-time parents are often excited when they learn they are pregnant. It is a thrilling experience. A fulfilled dream, for many.

They ensure they research everything about child care and buy the best clothes, cribs and gadgets for their little one.

Once their baby is here, every cry, smile, burp, and even fart is met with much excitement and attention. At this stage, the firstborn is the family’s ‘darling’.

However, this magical time does not last long for the firstborn, especially if the parents get more children.

Being the eldest child in the family often comes with responsibilities, expectations, and demands.

Parents expect their firstborn to be the one to carry on the family name and legacy. Firstborns are expected to not only perform well in school but also at home.

They are often expected to be nothing short of excellent in all they do, and on top of that, they are expected to be responsible.

Some are forced to take care of their siblings, even when they can barely take care of themselves.

These expectations are often drilled into them constantly from a young age. They are the ‘role model’, the ‘pacemaker’ or the ‘example’, for their siblings. The expectations become the burdens they carry with them all their lives, even after their parents are long gone.

You have to give direction to your younger siblings (Photo: iStock)

Chebet Mutai, 38, is the first born in a family of five - three boys and two girls. The family also lived with four cousins.

“As a first born, I am authoritative, driven and ambitious. I feel the pressure to achieve more in life. I am also nurturing and caring, and most of my decisions are driven by my need to help others,” she says.

Chebet was raised by her mother, and she also spent many years with her grandmother.

“My grandmother was a teacher. She was tough; she raised me to be strong and responsible. She was strict, and this made me grow up fast. I learnt how to take care of myself and also those around me. I still feel the burden,” she says.

“Today, I find myself taking more responsibility than I should and I can be quite domineering with my siblings. I took a parental role and this led to resentment - I had to learn to control that to have peace. We now all get along, but I am closest with my sister since we share a lot in common.”

Chebet, is a mother of two, but plays the role of parent to her cousin.

“I have two children, but I also take care of my cousin. She is 17, and my children are 13 and 14. I thought I had finished with having children after my two daughters, but God had another plan,” she says.

Chebet says that being a firstborn, one must draw boundaries otherwise, resentment sets in.

“People should stop saying that firstborns are strong; we are not. We feel more pressure to have things work out in the family because we were born first. As a firstborn, allow yourself time for rest and accept that you cannot save everyone, and do only what you can,” she says.

“The need to nurture and to take care of everyone is inborn in most firstborns, but you can find yourself giving so much of yourself and having expectations. When those expectations are not met, you can become resentful. Before taking up any projects, discuss with your loved ones and express your needs.”

She says that firstborns should learn to take a back seat, and not take more than they can handle. Further, one should also ask for help when they feel overwhelmed.

“I have had to unlearn that I must take care of everyone. Two years ago, I fought stress and anxiety because of all the pressure I was putting on myself. I still strive to excel and help family and friends, but I have also learnt to do things in moderation. Today, when I need help, I ask for it,” she says.

Minnie Wairimu is the first born in a family of two girls and one boy.

She grew up in Kiambu and states that being a firstborn meant that she grew up faster than her peers.

When she was eight, she was able to comfortably run the family shop from 6 am to 8 pm while her mother was at home taking care of her younger siblings, and her father was at work.

Being a firstborn means you have to be more mature than your peers (Photo: iStock)

“As a first born, you never get the chance to be just a child. You have all this weight of responsibility placed on you. From a young age, it is drilled into you that you are the pace setter of the family. You are expected to excel in all you do because your siblings are looking up to you. I must, however, admit that this has made me very hardworking,” says the 32-year-old.

Minnie says that when her father died when she was only 22, the responsibility of taking care of her mother and brother, then 15 and sister 14, fell on her shoulders.

“My mother was the last born in a polygamous family; my father loved my mother and treated her like a treasure. The death of my father was hard on her because he took care of everything, and after he died, my mother was lost and helpless. Someone had to fill my father’s shoes and that had to be me,” she says.

“My years after campus were spent working, and I never enjoyed___ my money like my peers. All the money I made went into taking care of my family, even as my peers spent theirs partying,  travelling and buying things for themselves.”

Minnie says she became bitter.

She did not understand why she had to bear the weight of so much responsibility.

Eventually, she was able to reconcile her feelings and find healing through her relationship with God.

“Taking my siblings through school was tough, but it made me responsible. I became disciplined, and hardworking, and I could efficiently budget my money. I also developed an ingrained sense of empathy, and this strengthened my relationship with God. These qualities are an advantage now that I am married with two children. Although I have given much as a firstborn, I have also received so much.”

Minnie says that most firstborns tend to neglect themselves, and for this reason, drawing boundaries is healthy and necessary.

“I learnt that although it is good to give, you should not give everything that you end up with nothing. You have to find a balance,” she says.

“I do not resent the fact that I am the firstborn. Some blessings and provisions come with my giving. My sister just completed university and since she has not landed a job, I pay her rent. My younger brother does menial jobs and I help him from time to time. I also take care of my mother. God has always provided; I love my family and we are all in a good place now.”

According to Reson Sindiyo, a Counselling Psychologist and founder of Resilience Psychology Counselling, being a firstborn is a privilege.

“Being the firstborn comes with many privileges and perks, but it also comes with its share of burdens - just like everything else that is good and worth having,” she says.

Sindiyo says that firstborns are often successful, independent, confident, empathic, reliable, structured, natural-born leaders, nurturers and givers.

However, she also notes that firstborns may struggle with delegating and are often domineering, especially with their siblings. They may also struggle with people-pleasing, perfectionism, and fear of failure; are often inflexible, and take on more responsibility than they should.

“Children with the firstborn syndrome often show dominance and act as second parents to siblings and that is not necessarily a bad thing. But if it leads to emptying themselves to the point where they have nothing for themselves, then that is never good. Other times, it can lead to people-pleasing and anxiety because of too many responsibilities and the never-ending pressure to not only excel but to be perfect at all times,” says Sindiyo.

The psychologist says that pressure to always perform and excel and take care of everyone can come at a heavy cost.

“As a firstborn, it is important to know that you are human and imperfect. Do what you can and extend yourself some grace. It is okay to help others and to give where you can, but do not let it come at the cost of your wellbeing,” she says.