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6 Women On The Pressure Of Being The Eldest Kid Of Immigrants

Growing up, I constantly sought approval from my Mexican parents, even when making the tiniest decisions, like dyeing my hair. I was terrified of disappointing them after everything they sacrificed for their family. So I waited until I was 22 and studying in Mexico City to finally get blonde highlights, nervous to tell my mother, even over the phone who was back home in the U.S. And when I did? I could feel her wrath from a thousand miles away. Since then, I’ve watched as my younger sister gets piercings, tattoos, and dyed her dark hair blonde with zero consequences. While I was busy trying to be the perfect role model for my siblings, it turns out their courage to break the rules wound up teaching me a valuable lesson.
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Being the eldest daughter of immigrants is not a monolithic experience, but there is an undeniable pressure that connects us — we often become caretakers or third parents before we are ready. We are encouraged to go after the American Dream while simultaneously learning that it’s not all it’s cut out to be. Below, six women share with Refinery29 the pressures and positives of being the eldest daughter in their families.
Designed by Yazmin Butcher.

Gabby, 26, Mexican-American, Home Gardens, CA

What was your role in the family growing up? 
In elementary school, my parents divorced and we became a single-parent home and I’ve been living with my mom ever since. She was the provider, so I took on a huge caregiver role as a child — picking up [my three siblings] from school, feeding them, [filling] out all their school paperwork. 
What kind of pressure did you experience as the eldest sibling?
As much as I’m grateful to have graduated college, I did not do college for me. I did it out of not only the guilt for my family’s immigrant trauma but also out of a saviour mentality I’m still working to unlearn. I put this pressure on myself that it’s my duty to save my family out of the hood. 
What are you most proud of achieving as the eldest daughter of immigrants?
I feel really proud of the way I brought balance and restoration to my family during the pandemic. Our home life would be very different if I hadn’t been intentional about that. For example, my mom and I do a lot of the cooking and my siblings are expected to wash dishes if they're not cooking, or my siblings and I will pitch in to take my mom out for her favourite seafood meal if she’s had a long week at work.
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Jugu, 27, Punjabi-American, Oakland, CA

What was your role in the family growing up? 
I was almost expected to be a third parent. Punjabi culture consists of living with extended family that will step in and help out, but when [my parents] left Punjab, they lost that, so I had to fill that role. 
What kind of pressure did you experience?
One of the first memories I have is [from when I was] five and my mom had just given birth and my dad was driving taxis, so he wasn’t home. My mom had a really bad fever and said: “If things get bad, or if you feel like I look really, really sick, you can call this lady or you can call 911, but don't call your dad because [going to the hospital] is really expensive and I don't want him to get mad at us.” I remember being really anxious and stressed. It wasn’t until later in life that I realized I shouldn’t have been [in that position]. 
What are you most proud of achieving as the eldest daughter of immigrants?
I'm the first woman in my family who is not financially dependent on a father, brother, or husband. There's nothing wrong with being dependent on [someone], but there's a lot of domestic violence and alcoholism in my family, and often the women can’t leave because they depend on the man financially. Being able to break that cycle and work on building my own community is what I'm most proud of. 
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Mikey, 23, Filipina-American, Los Angeles, CA

What was your role in the family growing up? 
At eight years old, I was already cooking, doing laundry, and other housework on top of going to school. I just feel like I wasn’t allowed to be a kid. I had to grow up faster, especially in comparison to my white [non-immigrant] peers. 
What kind of pressure did you experience?
Every stage of my life has been fearing losing [my family’s] love. I was so afraid that if I did art or didn’t meet their expectations, they wouldn’t love me anymore. I have found that my family has proven a lot of that untrue. 
What are you most proud of achieving as the eldest daughter of immigrants?
Healing generational trauma. Taking the time to experience that healing. I have the hard conversations with my mom — we talk about the anti-Blackness my family has sometimes shown, about colonialism and the Catholic church.

Jasmine, 23, Hong Konger-European, Paris, France

What was your role in the family growing up? 
My parents were always fair with [my brother and me], so I didn’t get different treatment as an older sister, but I was the guinea pig. The faster I could adapt to different circumstances, school systems, and surroundings, the better.
What kind of pressure did you experience?
I was born in Hong Kong, but my parents were based in Japan and after two years, my family moved to Gothenburg where my brother was born, and then to Frankfurt, and then Paris. Because my family moved so much, I had to be okay with saying goodbye. I had to be okay with feeling split between two countries — split between two identities, I didn't reckon with my multicultural identity until university. I found my closest friends in more collegiate societies who spoke my language in terms of culture and experience which was helpful.
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What are you most proud of achieving as the eldest daughter of immigrants?
My understanding of myself — I realized that belonging doesn't have to be a place. It's ultimately up to me to decide what belonging is, and I think it's [belonging] to myself. 

Wardah, 27, Pakistani-American, Norwalk, CA

What was your role in the family growing up? 
When your parents are immigrants, there's an added layer of navigating life and institutions at the same time as your adult parents, except you’re a child. There was a time when if you used a credit card at a grocery store, they asked for ID and my mom didn't have one. I would help her lie and come up with stories so she wouldn’t get in trouble. Emotionally, I feel like I had to grow up really fast and be there for my mom. Even to this day, I feel like my mom’s caregiver.
What kind of pressure did you experience?
Our family was really poor and that was a direct cause of [my parents] being undocumented immigrants. I so badly want to be someone who can provide for my family and help them get out of this endless cycle of being poor or being financially unstable.
What are you most proud of achieving as the eldest daughter of immigrants?
At this point in my life, I feel stronger, more grounded, happy, self-assured, and confident than I ever have before in my life. And I'm happy that I've been able to make it here. It was hard for me to feel these ways growing up because I was dealing with things that all young girls and women of colour deal with in a white supremacist world — not feeling valued or heard, not feeling a sense of belonging, not feeling beautiful when we’re told that’s the most important thing to be. And that was on top of feeling very lost and unsupported while trapped in a toxic home.
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Neera, 28, Ecuadorian-Indian-American, College Station, TX

What was your role in the family growing up? 
In subtle ways, I couldn’t do certain things that my brother could do. It wasn’t out of malice, it was just very cultural. I had to help set the table and wash the dishes, and my brother was never asked to do things like that. 
What kind of pressure did you experience?
I was [expected] to be a good "Indian daughter" which doesn't always mesh well with the American environment I was raised in. It meant no talking to boys, no social media, no hanging out with friends on a Friday night at the mall, not being able to go to my friend's quinceaneras. I was missing out on the experiences of an American teenager. 
What are you most proud of achieving as the eldest daughter of immigrants?
As an adult now pursuing her master's, the way I stay connected to my roots is by continuously advocating for my communities. I want to create a space where everyone can feel like they belong. 
Having a second — or third — culture can be complicated. It can also be a blessing. That’s why we launched Second Gen, a series celebrating the gifts, even the bittersweet ones, passed down from our parents, communities, and cultures.
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