Eldest daughter syndrome: Growing up in a South Asian household 

9 Mins read

It’s 8:47 PM, and I come storming through the door, stumbling over my cat and her sombre meows as I make a beeline for the bathroom. Out of the kitchen, I hear my mother’s voice, tense and accusing: “Where’s the cat? Did you let her out?!” 

“No, Mum!” I call back, my voice strained.

In the bathroom, I find myself face down in the toilet, vomiting up the three cups of green tea I had earlier. The laxatives have kicked in with vengeance. I hear faint footsteps approaching, and I sit up, waiting for whatever is about to happen. It’s always something, with my mother. 

Stomp, stomp, stomp. Knock, knock. 

“Why didn’t you hoover before leaving the house? Get to it once you’re out.” 

I ignore her commands like the devious daughter I am, clean myself up, and hobble to my bed. 

“I wonder if she’s noticed that it’s back. I wonder if she’ll care,” I think to myself, holding my stomach as it rumbles from the laxatives. I hear more footsteps, and the knots in my stomach tighten. 

“Why are you laying down?” My mother demands, her stoic face staring back at me. 

“I don’t feel good… I threw up,” I say weakly. 

She walks away without responding. 

“Please, can you just come here and cuddle? Or just sit?” I plead. 

But she doesn’t respond. Instead, she snaps back: “FUCK OFF! FUCK YOU! THERE’S ALWAYS FUCKING SOMETHING WITH YOU!” 

Silence fills the air again as I sink deeper into my bed. My eyes don’t tear up anymore. 

It’s clear to me now that my mother has noticed. She just doesn’t care. 

I wonder why it is that daughters are cursed with bearing the brunt of parenting. The thought brings to mind the last time my brother was home. I remember how happy it made my mother, how she took his shoes off after he came back from hanging out with his friends. She warmed up his food and sat with him, making little bites on his plate and feeding him with her hands.  

She listened to him ramble about how inspired he was by Andrew Tate, with a big smile on her face. She had no idea who Andrew Tate was, but she loved listening to him talk. 

I wonder what it’s like to have your inner child protected by someone, to be loved by your mum unconditionally. 

As I sink deeper into my bed, it feels like I’m at the bottom of a swimming pool, hearing distorted sounds and seeing blurry faces through the water. I close my eyes and try to run. I think about how I’ll be a nicer mother to my daughter. 

I would tell her that I love her enough for the entire world, just like my mother told my brother. 

But even as I imagine these sweeter things, my flaming rage doesn’t settle down. 

Described above is one of the many day-to-day experiences of the child that has been assigned the role of ‘Eldest daughter’ in a South Asian household.

The term, ‘Eldest daughter syndrome’ has become a widespread term on the internet, in contemporary society and is popular amongst women from many different minority ethnic backgrounds but seems to especially resonate with the South Asian diaspora in the UK and US. 

The term refers to the experience of the eldest daughter who is, very early on, involuntarily assigned to duties which are supposed to be the responsibility of the parents.

Many eldest daughters in South Asian households are introduced to their duties around the primary school age (7-to-11 years old), and these duties include doing household chores such as cooking, cleaning and looking after the younger siblings.

Though such tasks are seemingly normal for a child to teach the importance of discipline and responsibility, in a household dynamic where the eldest daughter is assigned her role as, ‘the oldest,’ it is more complex. 

The complexities occur when the household chores are solely placed on one child (usually the eldest daughter) and are expected to take precedent over everything else, including school and homework.

“Since I was 13, until I moved out, my after-school routine was coming home, cleaning the entire house, making dinner for everyone, or helping with dinner, and then doing my homework or revision. My parents didn’t prioritise my education,” 26 year-old Sameen told me.   

I reflect on my own experiences as the eldest daughter and trace back to the time I learnt how to make dinner for four people – I was eight years old.

I wonder if this was a normal thing to have learnt at that age, and I send out a journo-request on Twitter and asked: “Eldest daughters in South Asian households, at what age were you expected to cook and what was the first dish you learnt to make? Drop me a DM! – names can be anonymized upon request 😊 #JournoRequest.” 

Within the first 30 minutes, my direct messages inbox is filled with 18 different responses from South Asian girls who had grown up in various parts of the world including India, Australia, Canada and United Kingdom.  

Of the 18 respondents, 12 of them had learnt to cook between the ages of 9 and 13 years old.  

“I was nine years old when I first learnt to cook. I’d have to make packed lunch and dinner for my siblings who were four and seven at the time, because my parents were always working. Even on the days when my mom would be at home, I was still expected to help out. The first dish I learnt to make was lentils and rice,” Maha, 26, tells me.  

Another respondent brought to my attention that although it was common for South Asian girls to learn skills such as cooking at a very young age, it was not normal, nor was it common compared to their white counterparts.

“I knew how to make three full meals by 13, and by 18, I was a pro! But when I moved into university halls, I quickly realised none of my flat mates knew how to make a meal. All of them were white British and told me it was normal in their culture to learn how to cook at university,” Aisha* said in her message.   

Reflecting on the answers of the women who had reached out to me through Twitter, it was clear that the burden of household chores was a shared sentiment among South Asian women.

In reviewing these answers, I wondered whether the same amount of responsibility was placed on brothers and sons in South Asian households and in an attempt to find some form of answer, I asked the same question, this time directed towards South Asian men. The response was not shocking, nor surprising.  

Zaki, 21, from Bangladesh got in touch with me via Instagram direct messages and explained: “I don’t know how to cook, and I don’t I’ll learn. My mum and sister always take care of all that stuff and in the future I’ll have my wife to look after all the house keeping stuff, so it’s not necessary.”  

Another respondant, Ali, 23, from Pakistan responded: “I’m too busy chasing my bag, I don’t have time to cook and do them things, that’s why mumzy takes care of me innit.” 

The more I engaged in conversations with the men who responded to my question, a thought I already had, turned into a fact – the expectation and treatment of young South Asian girls and boys in a household are worlds apart, where the women are expected to carry the load of their male family members. 

As I delved deeper into researching the ‘eldest daughter syndrome,’ I learnt that the responsibilities placed upon eldest daughters extended beyond just helping around the house – they also include taking on emotional burdens of their parents and siblings.  

Eldest daughters in South Asian households are often taught and expected to be emotional caretakers for their families. Humah Amir, 22, explains: “As the eldest daughter, I have been conditioned to think that I must mediate every single argument between my family and it’s my responsibility to fix them. I’m also the first person my mother turns to when she is stressed.” 

The pressure of being constantly emotionally available for your family is a common expectation from the eldest daughter in a South Asian household – especially in the relationship between a mother and the eldest daughter.

South Asian mothers often seek solace and safety in their eldest daughters from a very young age. In this dynamic, a young child or teenager is not only exposed to serious conversations including abuse and infidelity, but also expected to advise the adult with possible solutions.  

This emotional responsibility is often placed on one single child in a family of multiple children; therefore, it is not a shared experience among siblings which can often leave the eldest daughter (in the case of most South Asian families) extremely isolated.  

For children who grow up in an environment where they are expected to constantly cater to the needs of others before their own, whilst also caring for them by cooking and cleaning up after others, can leave a detrimental impact on one’s mental health in the long run.  

This is clear in the case of those who identify with the ‘Eldest daughter syndrome,’ especially online. 

In the TikTok discourse regarding the ‘eldest daughter syndrome’ in South Asian culture, several women share their experience of having difficulty navigating romantic relationships during adulthood due to being robbed of the dating experience as teenagers. TikTok creator Sanah explores this consequence in a TikTok where she expresses the difficulty of romantic relationships. 

On Twitter, user Nyx (@daylilylevi) responds to a tweet which reads, “What eldest daughter syndrome means for us,” with:  “And your younger siblings invalidating your trauma bc apparently had to keep up with YOUR standards everything is YOUR fault so you dont deserve to feel like youve been through shit !” 

The two examples above are just a few of many expressed in the online discourse regarding ‘eldest daughter syndrome’ and the consequences it has left on many young South Asian women and girls. A lot of the common consequences include developing symptoms of anxiety, poor self-esteem, trouble setting boundaries and much more.  

Within the online discourse, South Asian psychotherapist, Israa Nasir validates the feeling of many girls by regarding ‘eldest daughter syndrome’ as a “real problem.”

She expresses that many of her younger clients mirror the habits they developed as the eldest daughters in their platonic and romantic relationships.

She also points out that these clients often feel like they must take on the unwanted role of being a caretaker, and encourages anyone who resonates with having ‘eldest daughter syndrome’ to rethink their behaviour patterns, refocus energy back to themselves and learn to set firm boundaries. 

The root of the Eldest Daughter Syndrome stems from South Asian culture’s stubborn refuasl to break away from an archaic patriarchal family dynamic.

A patriarchal home consists of rigid gender roles that allow men to explore and live up to their potential, whereas the women and young girls are often expected to repress their desires, passions and needs until the emotional and physical labour of the family are dealt with.

This family dynamic has existed in South Asian cultures for centuries. Mona, 48, from Pakistan, tells me the tales of her mother and grandmother’s childhood: “My grandmother learnt to cook feasts at the age of nine. By 14 she was an expert and could cook for 18 people at a time; and she continued to cook, clean and take care of her family until the day she died, at 86 years-old. She didn’t have time for school or a job, her priority was her current family, and her future family. This is just part of our culture. It’s what women are trained to do and it’s what they are good at, and that is always how it has been.” 

Another interviewee, Mansi Sharma, 23, from India, shared a similar view: “My mother used to boast about how she learnt cooking and used to cook with her mother since 5th grade.” 

In both conversations with these women, it is clear that household chores are an integral element for existing as a woman or girl in a South Asian household and these chores are regarded more important than the education, growth and hobbies of the grandmothers, mothers and daughters of the family.

Especially, if they are the eldest. Somewhere along the way, the previous generation of women, as a result, the older generation of South Asian women become enablers and agents of the patriarchy by further reinforcing these ideas onto their future generation of women, at very young ages.  

For South Asian women that have been negatively impacted by the ‘eldest daughter syndrome,’ seeking help from a professional can be an incredibly helpful resource for rethinking and rewiring learned behaviour patterns, as encouraged by Israa Nasir. Burnt Roti magazine have published a helpful list of South Asian therapists in London on their website. 

Having daily chores which should be the responsibility of the adults and caregivers in the house leave a young child/teenager emotionally exhausted and in the case of the eldest daughters, they quickly begin to watch their youth slip away from them as they lose sight of it.

They often become preoccupied with acting as a parent figure to their younger siblings, being a mediator for their parents and completing their daily chores.

The responsibilities of being an eldest daughter, combined with going to school or working can often leave one with very little time to socialise, date or invest time in a hobby and evidently have a massively negative impact across all areas of their lives, including their mental health.

It is important to recognise the issue of the ‘eldest daughter syndrome’ is a result of a patriarchal and sexist family dynamic in which young girls are set up for dire consequences such as developing anxiety, poor self-esteem and more.

Addressing these issues is also essential for creating an equal and balanced dynamic within families. 

Featured image by Mina Shahid & Shutterstock AI.

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