“What’s in a name?” — a familiar query and an underlying question in All Our Names by Ethiopian-American author, Dinaw Mengestu.
The title refers to the primary given names of the book’s two narrators and also to the titles used to describe them at different times: the Professor, the poet, the writer…student, case worker, revolutionary, friend, lover, outsider, daughter…
As you might imagine, reading this novel led me to consider “oldest daughter” and the labels or tags often associated with what is actually, when taken at face value, simply a description of birth order. “O.D.” is not an honorary title, like the doctorates given to keynote speakers at college graduations. Nor is it a title earned for some accomplishment. Nope, “oldest daughter” just comes with being the first-born female in a family. No choice here.
But as we grow up, lots of options exist for how we describe ourselves or are depicted as a result of our birth-order position. Among them are the M words: (little) Mother, Model, Mentor, Matriarch. And of course the B word (not the rhyming one): Bossy.
We may be thought of or called any of these names, depending on the particular period and circumstances we find ourselves in. But unlike “oldest daughter,” the label we voluntarily put on ourselves reflects what is most important to us.
As an adult, do I want to be for my siblings a substitute mom, a controller, a model, a leader, a mentor? Or would I be more comfortable as a peer, a first-born among equals? What’s my personal preference? While we don’t control how others regard us, we do have a say in how we see ourselves.
So, what’s YOUR name? As a song in Sound of Music puts it, what’s the name you call yourself?
Oh, and about that B word. The Girl Scouts of the USA and CEO Anna Maria Chavez have joined Facebook COO and oldest daughter (!) Sheryl Sandberg along with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to launch a “Ban Bossy” campaign. Learn more about it at www.girlscouts.usa .
Last week Noreen, a long-time friend who is also an oldest daughter, told me about an incident that happened while she was volunteering at a local hospice center.
She had walked into a patient’s room and was about to touch the woman’s arm to indicate caring and compassion. But that’s when it occurred to her that the frail woman might not be comfortable with such a personal gesture. So instead of doing what comes naturally to her, my friend asked, “Would it be all right with you if I hold your hand?” The patient nodded and seemed to appreciate the question. A little later Noreen, who is also a former nurse, decided she’d try again. “Does anything on your lunch tray look good? Would you like some help eating?” The woman responded affirmatively to both. Later, the patient was overheard telling the nurse in charge she hoped “that volunteer” would come back again.
As I listened to this story, I realized my friend had given this person who is in the last stages of life a gift not usually thought of: the gift of control. Over how/if she would allow someone to touch her. Over whether/what she wanted to eat. Control. It’s something obviously important to us from the time we protest at age two, “I do it myself.” But a sense of control becomes even more important — and often scarce — for those among us who are emotionally, physically, or financially vulnerable.
We, as our families’ first-born females, are certainly familiar with the concept. Growing up we were often charged with being in control of younger siblings. As adults, we’ve often found ourselves being asked to take — or simply taking– control as caregivers or leaders in various activities. Sometimes (horrors!) we’ve even heard ourselves or oldest daughters, in general, described by colleagues and spouses as controllers. Another word for bossy.
So what my friend did struck me as something we might take a lesson from. Suppose we thoughtfully and voluntarily gave more control to those with whom we share our lives — instead of automatically assuming we know what’s best for them or the best way to do whatever. Might there be both unexpected benefits and beneficiaries?
If I ever thought I was the only oldest daughter out there trying to get a handle on who my true self really is, Fannie Flagg has let me know I’m anything but that. In her latest novel, The All Girls Filling Station’s Last Reunion, issues of self- and family-identity are front and center–interlaced with humor.
Flagg never comes right out and calls her principal characters “oldest daughters,” but as readers learn, each of them is the oldest child and first-born female in her family.
- The primary protagonist, Sookie (Mrs. Earle) Poole, has one younger brother. The expectations of Sookie were set early and often–to be a leader in society. A traumatic revelation leads Sookie to challenge herself and what she’s always considered her fate: the obligation to live up to family expectations.
- Fritzi Jurdabralinski, the heroine of Flagg’s story within a story, is the oldest of five children. From early on, there’s no question that the leadership trait exists full-blown in her, as do the nurturing, protecting genes.
- Lenore, the matriarch of the family is the oldest of the first-born females in this novel. The mother of Sookie, she personifies the traits that many consider stereotypical of oldest daughters: take charge/bossy.
I find it difficult to believe that a masterful writer like Flagg would create characters without carefully considering what attributes and personalities she’s giving them. So why did she make each of three leading characters the oldest child/first-born female??? I googled Fannie Flagg to see if perhaps she, herself, is an oldest daughter. No such information.
So I’m left to wonder: Was it just happenstance that these characters in Flagg’s latest novel are oldest daughters?
Or did Flagg know that readers would find her characters believable as leaders and risk-takers because they are oldest daughters?
Whatever — Have you read anything else in which the main character (heroine or villain) acts as she does because she’s an oldest daughter?
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?