Do I have eldest immigrant daughter syndrome?
“You’re so mature for your age” isn’t a compliment
Trigger warning: This story contains mentions of domestic violence and suicide
My experience as a first-born daughter to first-generation immigrant parents is one you more than likely wouldn’t expect.
At 16 years old, my mother arrived to Canada forced into marriage with a man 12 years her senior. I was born two years later, predisposed to a plethora of challenges that permanently altered my biology, from growing up incapable of expressing myself to living with chronic anxiety and depression.
My future was laid out for me. I would complete the legally mandated amount of public education and then be traded from one man—my father—to another chosen for me. This wasn’t just little Kinza’s future but was also the past and present of my mother, grandmothers and great-grandmothers before me. After surviving over a decade of abuse, when I was 10 years old, my mother escaped with my younger sister and I. From that point on, my story’s ending was erased, waiting to be rewritten by my own hands.
Though the abuse and violence had ended and we were in a safe home, the trauma that bound the three of us never left. Instead, it shaped me to hide my emotions so as to not burden my mother and also conditioned me to step into a care-taking role for my family.
This went beyond merely walking my five-years-younger sister to the bus stop, packing lunches or giving advice. It transformed into 10-year-old me helping unpack trauma, consoling my family in times of distress and challenging generations of normalized violence. As a result of continued exposure to domestic violence, I was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder at the age of 16.
Dr. Suzanne Archie, a psychiatrist and professor at McMaster University, says when children witness abuse, they themselves experience it. “That trauma can create physiological changes,” she said. “Children are sponges.”
My mom’s memoir, A Good Wife: Escaping the Life I Never Chose includes “Kinza quotes,” which are words I said as a young child that were pivotal in my mother’s journey in breaking us free. When I was eight years old, I knew my father was abusive and even though I couldn’t articulate it, it was all I had ever known. I urged my mother to leave him, saying if she couldn’t do it for herself, then she should do it for my sister and I.
When my mom shares that story on stages around the world, many audience members approach me afterward telling me how wise and mature I am for my age. Every time, I forcefully smile and thank them, knowing their comments come from a good place. But they also come from a place of ignorance. Being a mature child is an oxymoron–I wasn’t mature, I was traumatized.
According to Dr. Archie, adverse childhood experiences can cause a child to become "parentified," conditioning them to put their parents’ emotions before their own. “Sometimes children become the parents’ main support because there isn’t anybody else. And so then the child has to deal with adult issues,” she said.
My mom, my sister and I all had deep wounds, but my mom’s were, needless to say, the deepest. She had to do several years of unlearning and unconditioning to be the mother she is today and the journey was anything but linear. Sometimes, breaking a cycle can break you in the process. Wishing for my success, my mom held me to a high standard. At the same time it was hard for her to watch me live a life that was safer, happier and healthier than the one she had endured.
I came to understand that my mom was also once a child denied the healthy, loving environment she deserved. Even if there are no excuses for her parental missteps, I can still empathize with the challenges she was predisposed to. Because children internalize nearly everything, many beliefs and thoughts are inherently ingrained in us. “These are unconscious biases that are not really intentional,” Dr. Archie said. “They just are images. They’re cognitive impressions that stay with us.”
Dr. Archie also cited Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a pyramid indicating human needs in order of importance. According to a 2020 Cell Press study, Maslow’s theory argues that safety needs must be met before one can fulfill love and belonging needs and form healthy attachment patterns. Because my mom didn’t grow up in a safe household and neither did I, we had to learn together what a healthy mother-daughter relationship looks like. As her first-born child, it was up to me to champion most of that change.
Our relationship had a lot of blindspots and some hurt more than others. Her refusing to let me dye my hair, pierce my nose or experience young love was frustrating. Her negative reactions to when I attempted to come out as queer in middle school or telling her I felt the need to end my life in high school left scars that are still healing.
It took years of joint and separate therapy, blown-up fights and tearful conversations for us to be in the place we are today—one where I’m able to freely be my authentic self. However, I’m still reminded of her shortcomings in my raising as I witness her parent my younger sister, who is also queer and struggles with mental health, in a way that is more tender and healthier than how she was with me.
“Every child in the family may not be exposed to the same level of trauma and that sometimes may cause a bit of conflict,” Dr. Archie says. While my sister and I haven’t been in conflict about this specifically—clothes and leftovers are a different story—I do often feel conflicted as the eldest daughter.
It’s difficult–I know my mom did the best she could in raising me, yet I also know I deserved a better parent. This is where dialectical behaviour therapy is most helpful, as it’s rooted in the theory that two seemingly opposite things can be equally true at the same time, according to CAMH’s website . I can be empathetic toward my mom and not see my own life through her narrative. I can feel envious of my sister’s relationship with our mom and be glad that she has two supportive people she can come to.
According to Dr. Archie, the eldest immigrant syndrome is not a real medical condition. But it can be used to describe a set of themes around intersectionality, gender roles and the perpetuation of violence.
Growing up faster than you should have doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doomed to an adulthood grieving your childhood. “As a young adult, people can develop healing relationships,” said Dr. Archie.
I can confidently say my mom and I have a mutually healing relationship, one filled with laughter, affirmation and fulfillment. I’m grateful for my mom always trying to be the best parent possible. I’m proud of the strong, unique and joyful relationships my family of three have with one another. More than anything, I’m excited for how we continue to broaden our scope of happiness.