A collage of a young brown girl with six arms, one holding a book, one hoovering, one frying an egg, one reading, one holding a cup of coffee, one holding a phone. The faces of 5 older brown people are speaking to her on each side.
Illustration: Tara Anand

Think Being an Eldest Daughter Is Bad? Try Being From an Immigrant Family.

"Hajra started working for her dad when she was just nine."

At six, Amina was changing nappies and bottle-feeding her siblings. (Her name has been changed for privacy, like others in this piece.) Growing up, she put the children to bed when she got home from school, mediated between her parents during their divorce and even cleaned up after her mum’s waters broke in the house, aged 12. “I thought I wasn’t clever because my older brother is a genius,” says the now 28-year-old of Somali heritage. “But my therapist made me realise I didn’t have time for studying.”


Hajra, whose parents moved from India, started working for her dad when she was just nine – but unlike the cutesy paper round of yesteryear, it was unpaid and never ending. She looked after invoices and business admin, while also managing household bills. “I’d describe it as project manager of the household,” says the 26-year-old. 

What do these women have in common? No, they’re not all victims of an international child labour scandal – they’re the eldest daughters of immigrant households. 

Eldest daughters in any family are easy to spot: They’re labelled bossy, people-pleasers, the “mum” of the friendship group, the kind of type-A personality that organises your get-togethers and is strung tighter than a Skims bikini. But eldest daughters of immigrants? Jeez. Think the eldest daughter trope on crack, or at least that pill from Limitless.

Since they were minors, they’ve been answering questions like, “What is a GCSE? How do you apply for council tax? How do you open a bank account?” for their parents and pseudo-children (AKA siblings) as the family navigates a new culture. 

I know this first hand. Despite moving to the other side of the country, and winning two writing scholarships in a desperate bid to live my own “I gotta put me first Lucious” arc, I still send money home to my family in Burnley as if they live in Pakistan. It’s almost as if my part-time job exists to keep the Western Union afloat. My eldest daughter duties follow me everywhere – even when I swear this time will be the last and rant that everyone needs to grow the fuck up and look after themselves. 


One theory why this happens is that immigrant communities are used to community care – “it takes a village to raise a child” and all that. Others think it’s the patriarchy’s way of ensuring women look after everyone else, at the expense of themselves. 

Amina says her treatment as the eldest daughter of immigrants is the reason she’s a feminist: “I knew there was something wrong in the way me and my brother were treated. He was able to just live, while I was making sure everyone else survived.” If she was in Somaliland, she says, her mum’s six children would’ve been looked after by the tribal tradition. 

The term for this parent-child role reversal – where the child becomes a caregiver who provides emotional and practical support instead of receiving it – is called parentification. And the sad truth is many of us don’t even realise we’ve been parentified until we’re adults. 

For Amina, it was her sister’s 12th birthday. “When I was 12, I was looking after my younger brothers and sisters while my mum was in hospital giving birth,” she says. “I look at my sister now and I would never leave this girl responsible for children – she’s a child!” 

The realisation for Hajra came when she first moved out. “I was like, ‘I don’t live with you guys anymore! Why are you still phoning me?’” she says. “That’s when I clocked how much I do in that house.”

With so many people depending on eldest daughters, the impact on their mental health is huge. Many psychologists even identify parentification as a form of emotional abuse. Ahona Guha, a clinical and forensic psychologist specialising in abuse, notes in Psychology Today the impact can include: “Enmeshed roles within the family, difficulties with establishing boundaries, a pervasive need to please other people, anxiety, perfectionism, difficulties forming and maintaining intimate or platonic relationships, missed developmental milestones, grief, and passive styles of communication.”


We become highly independent, unsure of how to ask for help and pros at putting aside our own needs – it’s at the very least trauma. And it’s resulting in many of us swearing off having kids of our own, too.

“I don’t want kids because I feel like I’ve looked after enough people, and I’m still not done with my siblings,” says Amina. “I don’t want to look after anyone, but this makes getting in relationships difficult.”

Hajra agrees, passionately: “The only thing I really want is to be on my own and not have anyone rely on me – that’s all I want out of life.”

Communities and families may be slow to celebrate eldest daughter sacrifices, but on-screen portrayals of the struggle are finally getting their moment, from teenager Joy in Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere All at Once to Sandy Jawanda in the latest season of Married At First Sight Australia. It’s safe to say both storylines about fighting for parental approval hit me like an alarm for a 5AM flight.

Social media is finally giving us our flowers, too. There’s been a huge rise in “eldest daughter of immigrants” content recently, including the viral Tweet by @peachcrisis which compares being an eldest daughter to being an unpaid, lifelong intern.

But however unifying memes are, they don’t actually help you deal with the trauma. That’s where Home Girls Unite comes in, the support group for eldest daughters that shares information, resources, advice and events. Co-founder Yasin Bojang, 29, tells VICE her top tips for how eldest daughters can reclaim their lives.


Just say no 

“Even if you aren’t explicitly told you can’t say no, you’re often put in situations where you feel like not allowed to,” says Bojang. She recommends practising debating and negotiating with friends, to learn how to assert yourself and set boundaries. And if saying an outright “no” feels too excruciating or problematic, she recommends the softer “not right now”.

Mind your business 

“For some reason, we just want to help everyone – it’s in our nature,” she says. “But understand you don’t need to fix everything and everyone.” Bojang suggests reframing the “saving others” mentality as actually preventing them from developing essential life skills.

Take a break 

“No one is going to die if you sit down for five minutes,” says Bojang. “If people don’t do the dishes at home, just let them pile up. They won’t wash themselves and if you intervene no one is going to learn.” It might feel painful at first, but stick it out – your family’s capabilities might just surprise you.

Despite the struggles, the eldest daughters Bojang meets through Home Girls Unite never seem to regret their experiences – and I feel the same. When my siblings buy me Mother’s Day gifts; when I feel how close we are; when I reflect on what it must’ve been like for my parents to move to a foreign (frankly hostile) country at the age I am now, it’s hard to imagine how it could’ve been any different. Us eldest daughters may need to work on asserting boundaries, but this newfound recognition means the healing has already begun.