Skip to content

“Opener of the womb”: The burden and privilege of being the first born

I’m out for dinner with my residents and colleagues. It’s our first in-person party in three years. 

It feels a little bit illicit to be lounging on the couches of a Couscous Restaurant and chatting. One thing that came up in the conversation was where we all fell in our family constellation. Most of us were either the eldest in our families, or only children. The exception was the only son in a family of girls. 

There’s a lot of psychological literature about birth order, although most of this research is of very low quality. Oldest and only children tend to have higher IQs, although usually within one standard deviation, so maybe more statistically than practically different from their siblings. They are more likely to do well in school and pursue higher status professions. They tend to be more conservative, and followers of the rules. 

These characteristics are certainly over represented in medicine. Theoretically, firstborns are privileged by their experience of focused parental attention. They are also burdened by feelings of excessive responsibility. 

I’m the oldest daughter of an oldest daughter. My mother was very much the quintessential eldest child of immigrants. She was a translator and cultural go-between for her parents from a very young age. She helped them buy their house, negotiating with the real estate agent at the age of nine. She missed her first date with my father, because her brother broke his arm and she had to go to the hospital to translate. She was a professional trailblazer who broke down barriers and became one of the first women architects in Canada. She was orderly, meticulous and able to keep everything organized in her head. 

Yet in many ways, this status was a burden. She was always the one to care for her parents and others. She ran my father’s business as well as her own. She was a working mother when that was so unusual that it was written on my permanent record at school as a “possible problem.” She faced criticism and scorn for this during the “mothering Olympics” years of the‘50s and early ‘60s when women deprived of any outlet for their creativity, managerial skills and intelligence focused on childrearing and housekeeping.  

Like many, my relationship with my mother was quite fraught. Having an extremely shy, geeky, learning-disabled daughter, who was completely disorganized did not give her the trophy child that she needed to easily counter the claims that she was an unnatural and deficient mother. 

Yet she supported me in so many ways, turned over heaven and earth to have my learning disabilities diagnosed, recognized and treated in those early days. She encouraged my love of learning, when I finally did learn to read in grade 2. She pretended not to know about the flashlight I kept in my bedside drawer so I could read under the covers. 

My mother also supported my feminism and my activism. When I handed out the McGill Birth Control Handbook outside my High School, she pushed back against the principal who wanted to expel me or at least hoped she’d be shocked and dismayed at my actions.

She never expected me to become a physician. My struggles with math, which were inexplicable to her, made her hesitant to think of me in the sciences. She expected I might become a visual artist, an interior decorator, or alternately, a social worker or clinical psychologist. 

My mother was not very good at feelings. She found it hard to gauge other people’s emotions, and she was afraid of her own. As I’ve written in other stories, she was amazing at practical kindness, but often it was my father who interpreted the emotional world for her. He could be extremely emotionally astute, unless he was completely off base. As I resembled him, emotionally and physically, I became an obsessive interpreter and communicator of emotions. This is who I am. 

I always retained a feeling of having failed her.

When I married Dave, his relationship with my mother was much more straightforward. They were kindred spirits. They understood each other intrinsically and quite simply loved each other. 

As my father started to experience dementia, my mother became increasingly angry at me.

I think she resented him for “leaving her” and displaced this anger onto me. Our relationship became so poisonous that my sister arranged for us to have family therapy. Yet my mother, my sister and I were able to pull together as a family to support each other through my father’s death. My sister and I were able to fulfill my mother’s final wishes, with love, when she was dying.

We are in our hippie feminist synagogue recognizing the seventh anniversary of my mother’s death. In our synagogue, both men and women can chant the bible portion. My eldest daughter, Ali, has a beautiful voice and is chanting the Torah reading, as I snuggle her first-born daughter next to me. 

I then give the D’var, the discussion. I discuss the ritual of Pidyon HaBen, about how the firstborn, “the opener of the womb” has a special place. How they cause irrevocable changes within a family. They transform a couple into parents and parents into grandparents. They suffer through our parental experiments as we learn what to do in real life as opposed to in theory. They become the “leaders of the pack” setting the stage for their siblings. 

In the bible, it’s only the first born males who are recognized for this status and need to be redeemed from their service in the long destroyed temple. In our lives, however, these irrevocable changes wrought by the birth of a first child are not gender specific. 

During the service, I look out at my husband, my children and grandchildren. I feel a wave of love and reconciliation towards my mother. I am proud to be the oldest daughter of an oldest daughter, and the mother and grandmother of oldest daughters. I am ready to see the joys and responsibilities of that role flow on through the generations.