A recent comment by the star of AMC’s Breaking Bad struck me as being significant for oldest daughters.
Bryan Cranston told CBS’ Lee Cowan that before this current hit series, he had been offered many opportunities to play another role like Hal in Malcolm in the Middle. But he had declined all of them, explaining he didn’t want to just do the “safe” thing.
The safe thing…
This past spring my husband I made the decision that since our children had grown and left the nest and our parents had passed on, it was time to sell our home of 32 years, significantly downsize, and move from the midwest where we had both grown up to head West. The move also included leaving life-long friends, siblings and colleagues. While it felt so right to us from the get-go, our decision from others’ perspectives obviously did not fall under the heading of “safe”:
“You are so brave. I could never do what you’re doing.”
“I knew you’d always talked about doing something like this. I just never
thought you’d actually do it.”
“How can you leave family and friends behind?”
The comments were all made by long-time, caring and supportive friends. What was unexpected was the sense of awe that came through. What was more surprising was that each comment was made by an oldest daughter. Surprising because studies and stats repeatedly describe oldest daughters — especially if oldest children — as trailblazers, leaders, and risk-takers.
It had never occurred to me that there might be a time limit on those traits.
However, it has often occurred to me that nurturing, the other recognized characteristic of oldest daughters, does not expire either. And as we oldest daughters go further into adulthood, those two attributes can find themselves in a tug of war. I’ve felt them and spent months weighing and wrestling with them.
Which brings me back to Bryan Cranston’s comment. Comes a point when each of us, even oldest daughters, has to decide what is most important at whatever juncture of life we find ourselves. Leaving behind a safe, comfortable life is not for everyone. But for my husband and me now, the choice lay between what was known and safe and what was unknown, adventuresome and — just possibly — the opportunity to discover/re-discover self.
Two months into this new life, I find myself repeating the lines poet Gerard Manley Hopkins penned more than a century ago in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,”
What I do is me; for that I came.
Lindy Boggs — wife, mother, grandmother and public servant — died last Saturday at the age of 97. The widow of Majority Leader Hale Boggs who in her own right became a nine-term congresswoman from Louisiana and later U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, Lindy Boggs was known for her ability to rise to whatever challenge life presented and to respond to those challenges with ingrained graciousness.
Her oldest child is Cokie Roberts – sister, wife, mother, grandmother, acclaimed journalist and author of (among others) We Are Our Mothers’ Daughters. Her admiration for and emulation of her mother are widely documented. It is Cokie who is especially in my thoughts and prayers today, and to whom I send my deepest condolences. No doubt that’s because of the affinity I feel as an oldest daughter who lost my own mother a few years ago.
A niece by marriage recently pointed out that since my mother has passed, I am now the matriarch of the family. I was somewhat taken aback by what she said. “Matriarch” is a title I never aspired to or — truth be known – found particularly appealing. Maybe that’s because the word “matriarch” has such a, well, such an “old” sound to it. A kind of wrinkled Queen Victoria image. Or maybe it’s because I’ve always intuitively known that it can be lonely at the top.
Whatever the case, I decided to follow the advice I give my Comp I students. Check the dictionary. See for yourself if the word means what you think it means.
According to online definitions, a matriarch can be either a female who is head of a family or tribe or “an older woman who is powerful within a family or organization.” Hmmm. Some would say becoming the family matriarch is a natural progression for oldest daughters. Growing up — especially if we’re also oldest children — we often unwittingly set the barre for behavior and achievements in our families. We are probably also observed as we lead the way into the higher (I prefer that to “later”) age and life brackets that our culture goes to great lengths to run away from.
And though from my personal perspective, it’s far too soon to actually be one, I’m willing to consider someday using “matriarch” as a descriptor. For the time being, I’m hoping I can live up to an unattributed quote on a guest towel a next-generation, politically active friend gave me:
Here’s to good women. May we know them, May we be them, May we raise them.
And when matriarchs, may we use our “power” wisely.
Recently a previously undiagnosed condition in my husband resulted first in our trip to the emergency room and subsequently to his admission to the hospital.
About two hours after our arrival at the E.R., I looked up to see my youngest sister walking toward me. She is a physician, but it’s not her professional position (though her explanations of what was being done and why were invaluable) that created the sense of total well-being when I saw her. It was her family position: my sister was there with and for me.
That sense was then repeated a few hours later, when — after my husband was admitted to the hospital for stabilization and further testing — I saw a second of my three sisters and her husband approaching. What made this startling was the fact that she had just had serious back surgery the week before. When I told her how great it was to see her, but questioned what on earth she was doing, making the 45-minute drive it took to get there, she said “There was never any question about what we’d do. We’re here for both of you.”
Moments later it was a third sister’s turn (the one with a definite dislike of hospitals) to appear and wrap her arms around me.
The support of all three of them remained constant throughout the several days required to provide my husband with, thankfully, a thumbs-up resolution.
I’ve been an oldest daughter since I was four years old. Even as a little girl, I felt like the “protector” for my four younger siblings. Except for one occasion a few years ago when my much larger brother enveloped me in a sudden, virtual bear hug — allowing myself to feel like “the protected” is a turned-around experience for me. I’m cherishing it.
When oldest daughters get together, we often talk about situations in which we are expected — or expect of ourselves — to take care of our birth family’s needs. My husband’s recent hospitalization has created a shift in my assumptions.
Have you experienced any incident that created a change in your relationship as oldest daughter with your own siblings?
Maybe you’ve seen the auto-insurance commercial about a younger fellow with long hair and a stocking cap who has just rear-ended an older, business-suited man’s car. In exchanging insurance information, the two discover that they share not only the same company, but the same agent. “It’s like we’re connected,” observes the younger man with zen-like pleasure. “No, we’re not,” protests the other, obviously not liking that idea at all. But as the younger man’s facial expression points out, there’s no denying it.
In somewhat the same way, the “accident” of being born the first female in our families is a connector that’s not always or immediately apparent.
It’s been surprising to me to realize the number of oldest daughters in my life.
- My first housemates after college were all oldest daughters. So were the four of us who subsequently shared an apartment.
That common characteristic was not realized, I’m fairly sure, at the time. But it’s continued to be a fact in the people with whom I find myself associating.
- Four out of the five women in my writer’s group are first-born females.
- Six out of the eight women in the movie group my husband I belong to are oldest daughters.
- The majority of my close friends, business associates and colleagues in education fall in the same category.
In none of these situations has our family position been identified or discussed beforehand. But our similar experiences, expectations, resulting feelings and personality traits have come to light in the course of conversations.
It’s those common connections that led me several years ago to begin researching this topic. As one person I interviewed told me, “It’s like at some level we simply recognize each other.”
How do you see it?
You may be familiar with “Some Days You Gotta Dance,” a hit recording by James Taylor and the Dixie Chicks. The lyrics, written by Troy Johnson and Marshall Morgan, explain “you gotta dance when the world doesn’t make sense…you gotta loosen up those chains and dance.”
One of those “some days” is February 14, 2013. That’s the day when the organization One Billion Rising is inviting one billion women and those who love us to “walk out, dance, rise up” in protest of the violence against women.
According to the stats, one in three women will be raped and/or beaten in her lifetime.
Two months ago, people around the world were horrified by the because-they-could, repeated rape/murder by six men of 23 year old “Damini” on a public bus in New Delhi, India. Then last month a second second, similar rape took place on public transportation. The audacity of these rapes made headlines. The commonplaceness of rape does not.
Now you are invited, encouraged, urged to help put an end to this violence. To come together on February 14 in planned flash mobs/dances to show “our collective strength, our numbers, our solidarity across borders” in demanding an end to the violence against women.
For those of us who are oldest daughters, it’s something we’ve traditionally been asked to do — to protect, nurture, be responsible for those not (or not yet) capable of caring for themselves.
For more information about the event, the organization and where and how you can participate, go to onebillionrising.org .
See you on the 14th. I’ll be at the event taking place at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas. Wherever you are, I hope you’ll be dancing too.
Today is a proud day for all Americans. As frequently noted, Inauguration Day celebrates the peaceful transition/continuation of power that is a hallmark of American freedom. Today is also a proud day for us as oldest daughters. As I was watching the coverage of the ceremony on television, I couldn’t help noticing the number of notable women who are the first-born females in their families. Here’s a partial listing –
First Lady Michelle Obama
Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden
Former First Lady Rosalind Carter
Secretary of State and former First Lady Hillary Clinton
Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius
Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor
Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan
And the above is just a partial listing. The number of oldest daughters taking part in the highest echelons of our nation’s leadership is a phenomenon worth scrutinizing and maximizing.
What do you make of it? Do you notice a pull toward leadership in your own life? In your family, job, career, or community?
In both real time and reel time, three royal ladies currently reign supreme in commanding attention on both sides of the Atlantic: Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland; the Duchess of Cambridge, formerly known as Kate Middleton; and Lady Mary Crawley of PBS’s Downton Abbey.
The House of Windsor and PBS conferred their royal titles according to English law and tradition. However, it could be said a higher power bestowed another title on each* of them first, one that is literally a birthright — that of Oldest Daughter.
Leave it to the fiction writers, not the historians, to spell out what that means. From the PBS Masterpiece Theatre website: Mary is “a highly capable woman of deep compassion. But make no mistake about it. Mary remains the eldest daughter, with all attendant privileges and pressures.”
Mary will inherit Downton according to the English law of primogeniture–the right of the first born to inherit the ancestor’s estate. So far the fictional family has accepted this as the way things are. But I can’t help wondering if Mary’s younger sibs, Lady Ethel or Lady Sybil, will ever challenge her privileges. Or will Mary’s changing circumstances result in feelings that her siblings should be sharing the various pressures affecting the family? For those answers, we’ll have to stay tuned.
Meanwhile, back on this side of the pond, primogeniture is not the law. But how many of us feel we’ve had more privileges and opportunities just because we are oldest daughters? Or how many of us have complained that as adults we’ve inherited more than our reasonable share of family responsibilities? I can’t help wondering also how our real-life siblings would answer those questions.
* Queen Elizabeth had one younger sister, Princess Margaret, who died in 2002; the Duchess of Cambridge is older sister to Pippa Middleton; and Lady Mary has two fictional younger sisters.