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The oldest child: Too much responsibility?

My heart hurts, and my stomach: a few minutes ago, I yelled at Everett. He's seven-and-a-half, and as his dad has been away for the past two weeks doing Army duty -- he'll be away again later this month, and then, in May, he'll be mobilized to serve in Iraq for more than a year -- I'm asking the oldest boy to be far more responsible than I probably should. I know how this goes; I, too, am the oldest child of a large family, and distinctly remember feeling so infused with the responsibility of my first-born role, before I even started kindergarten I'd have nightmares in which I was the only one who could save my whole family from a house fire, an out-of-control car.

I'd been struggling with Monroe, who had dumped a quarter-cup of vanilla into the cookies, and was wailing when I wouldn't let him swipe enormous finger-fulls of butter, maple syrup, and oh, that vanilla. He was holding his arm and crying, "owe, owe, OWE!" -- I'd "hurt" him by holding his arm back from the bowl after five illicit tastes. Everett could help, I knew it: he's great with his little brother and I often look to him to fill in with patience when I've lost it.

But Everett was deep in a farm game on the iPod, and wasn't having any of this man-of-the-house baloney. I ordered him off, or else; he ran upstairs in tears. There I was: spreading my ill-patience around to the rest of the family instead of healing it. I took my breaths, set Monroe in front of the left-behind iPod, and went to apologize. But, honestly, my apology wasn't that great. I had to tell him, look, kid: when I am losing my temper and need your help, there's no one else. You have to be my go-to guy. For years.

While I work on controlling my temper, I also have this weighty question hanging heavy in the air like the scent of caramelizing vanilla: how do I temper the duty burden I'm sure to be yoking on Everett's shoulders for years to come? Where do I strike the balance between the trust and reliability I know he's earned, on one hand; and his very real needs for emotional development on the other? Have others here juggled this, whether because of being a single parent, or having a partner who frequently travels, or works very long hours? I'd love to hear your stories.

[And oh yes: the cookies turned out great. Way too much vanilla was just right.]


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In his long life it will balance out. I was asked to do too much too often and there were a few huge disasters. BUT, I was able to wait and take the time for myself to balance it when I was an older teen/ away at college/ get married early but not have first child until 30. It just worked out, worked out well, for me to have to wait that long. Kids can't ask parent (s) to not have them assist, so we act out or be the helper. And then we figure out when we can have the time/growth we need-even if it is much much later in life. He'll still love you, and may thank you for all the life lessons he's learned earlier than peers.
Just try to schedule in some one-on-one time, when Monroe's in the bath for 20 minutes all by himself and the two of you are reading or coloring or? Good luck

I'm feeling so sad for you right now, and for the guilt that accompanies all of us as moms...and specifically when we ask too much of our children. I have 4.5 year old Miles who has 10 month sister Ivy and I've noticed our relationship shift so much in the last year. I once pleaded with him when he wanted more snuggle time with me when his Dad was out working late: "Ivy's just a little baby, just like you did when you were little"-his tearful reply, "I still need you!"
So true. I find myself trying to do everything I can to let my kid just be a kid. I don't want him to be burdened with the responsibility I had for my younger brother. The key, I think, with Miles is asking him if he can. He seems much more willing if I frame it leaving him with a choice: Honey, do you think you could play with that toy with Ivy for 5 minutes while I get the dogs fed? That sort of thing. And I honestly try to honor him when he doesn't want to. Which is so hard.
I also know that me feeling guilty shifts things in a negative direction too, though. Such a fine line we walk!
I'm feeling for you! Ask for help in the coming year from all of your friends, too!

Oops, that should have read "Ivy's just a little baby, *she needs me* just like you did when you were little"


There is nothing wrong with a mother asking/telling a child to leave a game and help her. I'd argue that learning how to contribute to the well being of the family is one of the most important parts of someone's emotional development. Kids have a hard time with it, because we're all born self centered, and moms have a hard time with it, because we like our kids. He may think he has it tough, but you don't have to look too far around the world or too far back in our rural past to see children much younger than he is with much more responsibility - even in two parent families with lots of relatives helping.

It also sounds like you are under a lot of stress and pressure. That isn't to say that stress warrants us a blank check to go nuts on everybody, but I find if I give MYSELF a little kindness and empathy, I am better able to extend that to others. And, kids can understand this too, again, we don't get to dump on them. But: "Sorry, I lost it, I am worrying a lot right now, it will be okay, and I will take care of us, but I am just a bit on edge" goes far to making us all more human and understandable to one another.
I agree, it is important to the family dynamic to take on the roles and learn responsibility. And, being the oldest also comes with a lot of privilege. I am sure you will make this incident up to him, and give him a big boy privilege to go with the responsibility.
I put up the 'Rageaholics Anonymous' 12 steps on my fridge, and I practice breathing and meditation and yoga, and more so when things are stressful. I find that reading peaceful parenting books helps keep me closer to the parent I want to be.
Give yourself a big hug,(glass of wine/bar of chocolate) we are human, we do the best that we can. We fail, we are also forgiven.

I think you're asking one of those questions that has an "in a perfect world" and "in reality" answer. In a perfect world, I think it's ideal for kids to take on responsibility when it's about them and what they need rather than when it's about me, and what I need. But in reality, it doesn't always work out that way. Sounds like you acted like so many of us would and do. Don't be too hard on yourself.

I feel like this with our oldest, same age as Everett. I feel he ends up carrying a burden that isn't his and at the very same time I feel I often favor him and spend way more mental energy on him than on his younger sibling.

I don't think this is about responsibility, per se. I think in most ways kids can handle added responsibility for themselves and for their things and I think they often crave more of it.

I think its about relying on the oldest child to be more adult than they are, to have a more mature emotional skill set than they do, and to take our anger out on them when they don't. It isn't fair and I know I do it too. I don't feel so angry when the youngest doesn't come through for me, I may be irritated but I certainly don't feel BETRAYED in the same manner.

I think its common. I don't think its wonderful. And I feel you.

I am kind of with anon #1 and #2 for that matter. With that said, I am an only child with only two children and a very helpful husband... so, just delete now. So, if you didn't delete, I would say that your husband won't always be gone, so try to keep perspective even though it's probably so very hard. Communicate with your oldest and let him know you need a little bit of help from him almost almost everyday, thank him because you empathize, but don't apologize too profusely because this is the path that your family is on and this is life... like Conan O'Brien said, "You will never get exactly what you thought you would get, but if you are kind and work hard, amazing things will happen." This basically is going back to what mom22 said with her "in a perfect world" statement.
And, you know moms yell. We don't like to but it happens sometimes, so apologize if needed this time and next time and then move on.
Isn't your family there? Can you lean on them for a regular break for him or the other kiddos, so you spend some time, even if it's homework and dinner? Nothing fancy?

Sarah -- listening to you describe your guilt brings back the year Aodán was eight, and his younger brothers were five and two and a newborn and I was home alone long hours with them and did have to ask so much more from him than I saw anyone else asking of their eight year olds. I needed him to be more grown up than he was and felt guilty-- all of the boys seemed to be getting a raw bargain, somehow -- but five years later? I am really grateful for kids who are self-suficient and responsible and mostly get along pretty well with one another. And part of having responsible children seems to be having given them responsibility, even though that isn't how I understood it then. Like you, I lost it now and then, and apologized, and tried to show my appreciation. Being the oldest does have its moments of being special, of getting jokes that your younger brothers don't of feeling good because you are able to help. Feeling helpful, I think, is inherently rewarding. Which is sort of backwards from how we treat work and chores. That probably doesn't make the guilt go away, but I can say as someone who's had the privilege of spending time with you and your boys that you're doing fine, and the boys will have a resilience and strength that surprises you.

I agree with all the helpful comments here, but offer a small counterpoint to consider or be mindful of. There is a line between the oldest helping out and playing their role in the family, and being asked to also shoulder an emotional burden to support mom as well. As the oldest myself, I grew up in that kind of house, and I can remember as early as 6 or 7 years old having my mother lean on my emotionally when times were stressful and tough. Let's just say that I had to grow up way before my time, and would have benefited from a little bit of appropriate boundaries. It's not the job of our children to fill a spouse's or friend's or partner's role - and the lifetime effect of asking that of a little one is just that, lifetime. My mother often asks why I don't seek her guidance or rely on her - it's simple... it's hard to start relying on someone emotionally as a parent when you have basically had to fill that role yourself.

Please know that I am not suggesting this is at all what is going on in the first post, but I think when we are stressed out, and alone (for whatever reason - isolation, a spouse at work, a spouse who is deployed) we just have to be mindful of what role our children are taking up for us to fill that gap - b/c they are filling that gap in big and small ways.

Oh I know this painful place too well..... sometimes i am just so exhausted i just give in to that my-mother-in-me voice that just boils up sometimes..... or i just can't do it alone and my oldest daughter is the closest one at hand, or the most malleable......

thinking about the real-world/ideal-world distinction which is so apt....

wondering, a la The Soul's Code (a great read and antidote to parent blame), if our real world might be our child's ideal world....

What if we are exactly what our children need? What if we aren't solely responsible for who they are/become? What if we are exactly what they need, blemishes and all???

I know I found myself breathing easier after really letting that one in (although just that is a daily practice and it feels scary).... and funnily enough the calm I felt translated into less blemishes as a parent.

Such a delicate paradox, parenting is.... we want the best for our children (especially those of us who had traumatic childhoods ourselves - what would it mean for us to think our parents were just what we needed to be what we are today - that can be hard to swallow if you come from an aching history). we know we fall short and really really need empathy in order to allow for our own best to emerge.... and the peace of self-acceptance to descend so that we can heal what needs to be healed..... (maybe our parents need that too???)

a spiritual practice of sorts.... holding the real and the ideal in one hand....

another thing i tend to do is ask myself "what did traditional people do?" this helps me get past all the opinions and advice and get to something a little more universal. a little.

well..... in traditional cultures older children almost always tended to younger ones. they didn't necessarily support mama so that she could care for little ones, but cared for them themselves. So, we are experimenting with letting our 4 year old carry our 5 month old all around, dress him, and tend to him. we educate. we encourage. we breathe. sometimes we spot. he's only been dropped once. smile.....

they were spinning.

thanks for your honesty on a taboo subject...

p.s. traditional mamas were also soooo less alone..... how can we recover the village without denying our modern identity (sorta like how can we have great hair without shampoo)???? smile.

Nearly every mom I know with multiples has expressed this same worry to me. It's inherent in the situation, you're certainly not alone.

I am an oldest child, and my father left around the time my brother was born, so I know this dynamic well (my brother calls me his "other mother"; that's really what I was). It's unfortunate that I lost a big part of my childhood, but having to take on so much responsibility as a child made me the capable person I am today. I've been able to live in foreign countries and travel around the world on my own because I know that whatever situation may arise I can take care of myself. I'm grateful for that.

There are gifts and challenges to every life. I think being aware of the dynamic and trying to mitigate whenever possible is the best you can do. I also like the idea, mentioned above, of having one-on-one time with an oldest child (it was called "private time" in my family). It balances out the responsibility load with fun, and allows them to play/explore at their level (not the level of their younger siblings, as is often the case). It also makes them feel special, like there are benefits to being the oldest.

It's incredibly hard to parent solo. Heck, it's hard to parent when not solo. I think everyone does their best. I am sure you do.

I had to read through all the posts to see if others had already said what I would say...and they have. It's hardly necessary to respond to these posts anymore! And I say that with delight. What a wonderful, supportive, insightful community we've built here. :)

I was an oldest with too much responsibility. I grew up with a new baby on my hip every two years, before I had hips! My concerns here would be what "anon momof3" said: make sure what you are asking of your child is appropriate to ask of a child. Asking him for his work and help is fine. Asking him to support you emotionally in lieu of the support of other adults might be too much. I also resonate with what "tea_austen" says. I was very independent and self-reliant as I entered adulthood. In fact, I was in denial of really having a family for many years. It was my way of defending myself from having been asked for too much. Granted I gave it willingly because I was sweet and I loved my mom. But it took its toll because what she asked of me was not grounded in love and respect for me. It was grounded in her unresolved need that she had carried forth with her from childhood.

It is beyond apparent that you are on the right track in asking these questions. Thank you for addressing this rarely addressed topic!

I agree you are under a lot of stress. It's not easy being a single parent. I'm a single parent, and although I get along with the kids' dad, I am exhausted at the end of the day, physically, mentally, emotionally. My oldest son is 7.5 years too. However, it sounds like in the incident you describe above, involving the cookie-making, it was a parenting issue between you and your younger child, and your eldest should not have been involved. If you are making cookies and your toddler is making life difficult, it is not up to your older son to step in just because he is "great with his little brother." Expecting the 7-year-old to help more around the house and care for his brother when dad is gone is age-appropriate; expecting him to jump in when you're stuck in a frustrating situation with your younger child is not.

If your youngest was your only, and dad isn't around, what would you do? Divorced mom here, and had a child who went to pieces when dad was gone gone and had huge tantrums... I kept it together and I want you to know you can handle it on your own, whatever it is. Maybe I am sensitive to it as I was much older then my sister and well... I think its great to give children chore responsibilities but not emotional responsibilities. They don't need to protect us from what we are feeling, or defuse situations. Toddler being bad-- he can be put in his room and you can take a deep breath and let cookies wait. As adults we can control ourselves, take time outs, etc... we don't need help from a child to do it.

Eldest of 5 here.

Responsibility is great, but do what you can to have it be age and emotionally appropriate responsibilities. Asking him to take out the garbage and do a couple of extra chores while dad is gone is ok. Asking him to get off the game to do his own chores is fine. Asking him to parent while dad is gone, not. If you have to do it, you really need to let him decide the parameters. I think you know that - hence the trepidation about this situation.

I think there is lots of good perspectives and advice on the thread. I'll only add that the "parenting" position my parents thrust upon me took a BIG toll on my adult relationships with my siblings. Whereas they give each other advice all the time, I have to watch what I say because it is taken as parental judgment. They also tend to seek my approval or ask me to intervene with mom and dad when not entirely appropriate.

That said, take a deep breath. Be kind to yourself. Your family is in a tough transition. This won't be the first or the last time you expect too much from your son. You will both learn various lessons from this, even the mistakes. If you make sure you acknowledge, apologize, and give gratitude when appropriate, I'm sure he will turn out fine.

This thread really struck a chord with me. I only have two kids and a relatively helpful husband, but ever since my second came along, I've felt myself expecting so much more of my first. My kids are spaced three years apart and I'm always heard saying that thank god they weren't any closer in age, as I started needing my three year old to act so much older than she was as soon as her little sister arrived. The common themes of motherhood that include guilt, attempting to fend off anger in impatient moments, trying to strike the best balance between knowing when to be right there with our children and knowing when to back off and let them figure it out themselves...these are the things I think about every day. Thanks once again for such a thoughtful conversation.

I am an eldest child and having looked back on my childhood many times before, I have come to realize many, many things. No doubt I have been wise beyond my years for my entire life, but that wisdom came with a great price. I believe I sacrificed so much as a child. I always felt that it was my duty to protect and guide my siblings when things weren't going well with my parents. I became understanding and forgiving very quickly, probably well before my teenage years. I never wanted trouble with parents, I felt that they received enough grief from my siblings; therefore, I never bothered them to take me places, never bothered for money...I didn't want to burden them. I felt and still feel that my parents took advantage of my understanding and forgiving ways, which still haunts me to this day. But from all of this, I became an introspective observer, one who notices every little detail that surrounds others. I could read into people and understand (not judge) their true feelings, and I believe that is the greatest gift life can give, for me and for others.

Just always remember to be attentive to your eldest child and be aware of their actions and feelings all the time...they may be undoubtedly the most emotionally sensitive of your children, but they may never show it, just as I hadn't.

go easy on the kid. let him have less responsibility. you are the parent, not him. his responsibility is not to raise his brother but to grow. raising kids is your job. If you are letting your temper get away from you, that's all on you. Dumping that responsibility on a 7 year old child is going to cause some serious issues.

Otherwise, there is a good chance he will attract borderline psychotic women when he is older due to his ability to take on too much. If nothing else, he may just develop a martyr complex. I know I have and this is a very common theme among partners of these completely dysfunctional women. I'm 28 now and coming out of serious therapy dealing with a string of abusive relationships because I thought I could take on everything.

Don't panic but you have to make some changes in you. Learn how to be a better parent and stop expecting your child to.

I have been thinking so much about this, relying on our eldest so. much. I ask her to help with chores, watching her siblings, help with dinner, all on top of her own homework. She rises to the occasion most times. When she doesn't, I sometimes find myself getting frustrated with her. I stop myself and think: wait. should I expect this of my own child? She's a child, after all! It's an internal struggle for me.

I agree. Being the oldest of 6 kids, and being the more laid-back child who didn't really have as many activities as my siblings, I was the child who babysat everyday, drove siblings to activities, helped to make dinner, and clean the house. It honestly felt like I was the only child who worked-my sisters ALWAYS got out of their Saturday chores because they 'had to have friends over', or had ballet practice and basketball/volleyball games. I was expected to take care of the babies, keep the house clean, and be more 'adult' than I should have been along with 3-4 hours of homework a night. Yes, the oldest child should help around, but they should only be asked what is truly age-appropraite. The thing that happened between you and your youngest seemed just to be between you two, and not your 7 year-old. Just because he's great with his brother doesn't mean he should have to help, or be told off when the youngest was the one who sounded like he needed a time-out.

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