Being an Eldest Daughter

I have always thought that being the eldest daughter with two younger brothers meant looking after them and taking care of their safety and general well being. After all, is that not what big sisters are for? We can step in to assist our parents harvesting their increased attention and recognition for our valuable contributions, our abilities to be self-dependent and reliable, and being seen as more mature that our age. Only, all this often comes with a heavy price and for me it felt that I missed out on the playtime of childhood needing to always be on duty. I would have loved to go out playing with the other kids rather than devotedly study so that I could go to university and get a PhD – a promise I made to my father when I was six and he was completing his own doctoral dissertation.

Somehow, I secretly knew that this narrative was of my own making and needed to be challenged so that I could rewrite my childhood. “It’s never to late to have a happy childhood”, I was told by a spiritual retreat companion when walking through the beech woods of Cluny Hill. Interestingly, I can’t remember the circumstances of the invitation, nevertheless I suddenly found myself signed up for a four-day retreat for Eldest daughters in Findhorn. Synchronicity?

This retreat had been set up by Lisette Schuitemaker and Wies Enthoven, two eldest daughters themselves, who have written a book, The Eldest Daughter Effect, inquiring into the impact of birth order and the five qualities that depict eldest daughters: responsible, dutiful, hands-on, thoughtful, and caring. We are also bossy, over serious, work too hard and are often riddled with self-doubt and self-sabotage mechanisms. The programme was an obvious place for me to look into the narrative of being an eldest daughter and to transform the beliefs that were holding me back.

That is how I found myself sitting in a circle with 15 other eldest daughters over the spring equinox weekend. I must admit that I was quite intimidated by some of my companions, powerful and successful career women in positions often occupied by men. I kept seeing formidable women projecting onto them my preconceptions about Dutch women being big and strong. I was constantly checking my thoughts against reality and smiling at the tricks of my mind wanting external validation of my internalised belief system. All this helped me get in contact with the times when I intimidate others and come over as being too much and too large (i.e. the Red Ferrari syndrome, for those who know me).

Needless to say that, after the first intimidating encounter and the first round of sharing with waves of emotions rising and hankies being passed around, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I was finally able to totally relax in being an eldest daughter. It was definitely playtime and with the help of the angel of Humour everything was about having a great time, pampering ourselves and letting go of whatever burden (self-imposed or imposed) we were carrying. We explored the myth of being an eldest daughter and the threads of the narratives both individual and collective. We tuned into our vision of the world as eldest daughters and what our contributions could be, the changes we were prepared to make. We threw into a bonfire what serves us no longer and paid tribute to our lineages honouring the women who are or have been our role models. We looked at the patterns in our relational spaces, both in the family and at work, noticing how the five qualities show up and might also generate stuck-ness and imbalance. We treated ourselves to a wonderful pampering session picking up some valuable insights about conscious beauty (Thank you Jayn and Jo from Weleda). We explored new ways of giving feedback that did not activate fears of being rejected or of not belonging. Eldest daughters are often perfectionists and struggle with any form of feedback that might challenge their excellence. Or maybe that is just me; no wonder I ended up as an academic coursing after recognition and struggling with peer-reviews, both giving and receiving them.

We completed our work with a beautiful integration practice facilitated by Wies who introduced us to proprioceptive writing, a heart-based, soul-based approach to writing – Harttall. With this we were ready to go back into our worlds transformed or in transformation, nourished and nurtured by our shared time and experiences, supported through a unique circle of sisterhood that heals and sooths the edginess and soreness of the eldest daughter effect, taking with us insights and qualities from the intuitive solution cards.

Many of our conversations evolved around the weight of responsibility that so often gets in the way of playing around in life preventing us from stepping off the line of duty we have willingly or unwillingly found ourselves on. During the retreat, picking up on what one of us had suggested, Lisette had written the following sentence on a paperboard, “If we transform responsibility into wisdom we will become powerful beyond belief”. We were exploring what it means to transform the overbearing sense of responsibility and the sense of being alone that matches this. How does this morph into shared and collective wisdom? We played around with the words ‘leadership’ and ‘eldership’ that are almost composed of the same letters. We allowed ourselves to consider a broader understanding of the word ‘responsibility’, i.e. ‘the ability to respond’, which feels so much more empowering for me. I could sense how the expression ‘taking responsibility’ equates a default cultural pattern, a way of being in collective settings and fitting in as eldest daughters. We could sense emerging on the horizon a space where the wisdom and experiences of eldest daughters land and lead humanity into new forms of leadership. At the end of the programme, our collective work prompted us to modify the above sentence and to be more assertive and present about our abilities and contributions.

When we transform responsibility into wisdom we become powerful beyond belief.

And may this be true not only of eldest daughters.

Just before entering the programme I had read the latest Brené Brown book (an eldest daughter too), Braving the Wilderness. The quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone. Her voice was with me guiding and prompting me to stand in my own truth regardless of what is going on. I left the retreat with this intention – to stand in my own truth – acknowledging that it implies valuing my unique way of expressing myself and taking risks when stepping off the line of duty. Yggdrasil’s new website and this blog are all manifestations of this on-going experience. I hope you enjoy them and join me in my explorations of living wholeness.

With love, Nicky