Gayatri Sisodia was 11-years-old when her twin siblings were born. With two working parents, she was tasked with taking care of the infants along with a domestic worker. “During my summer break, my morning began with bathing the twins with the help of a massage lady,” said the 22-year-old Mumbai resident. Her day then segued into feeding her siblings and playing with them till their mother returned home in the evening.
As her mother made food for the twins, Sisodia would take them for a walk. “Once I came back, I had to feed my siblings while my mother made dinner for the rest of the family,” she told Re:Set. It was only after she put them to bed that she had any spare time. This was even before Sisodia was a teenager.
“While older sons are more pampered and given the freedom to live life on their own terms, older daughters are expected to take care of their younger siblings and keep the family intact,” said researcher and professor Dr. Reeta Sonawat, whose work examines the power dynamics in Indian families and early childhood. “In some ways, the younger sibling becomes the responsibility of the older daughter.”
For 21-year-old Ritika Varshney, her early teens were when she had to navigate through her parents’ emotional unavailability for both her and her younger sister. As a nuclear family that moved cities every few years, the siblings often changed schools. “My parents were never there during these transfers and my sister had a tough time because she has social anxiety,” the mass media student told Re:Set. “I would have to be physically near her, consoling her each time she had a panic attack.”
As Varshney grew older, she also saw her parents’ marriage deteriorate and found herself in a spot where she also had to take care of her mother’s emotional needs “In those years, I was in charge of making sure that they were eating on time and other simple tasks,” she said.
“Taking on the entire family’s emotional responsibilities at a young age forces older daughters to grow up early and be more mature,” Dr. Sonawat said. This behaviour moulds their adulthood as well.
Varshney’s friends often tease her saying she has — what they call — the “elder sister syndrome” where even with friends, she is always the responsible one, making sure that everyone is comfortable and that their needs are being met before taking care of herself.
Despite the large number of women who hold their families together, India has a strong preference for male children and the country’s gender ratio of 943:1000 is indicative of that country. In India, traditionally the male child is believed to be the true progeny, one who will secure the financial well-being of the family while a female child is the caregiver for her family until her marriage, after which she has to take care of her husband’s family.
Varshney, who moved to Delhi a few years ago for college, said that her parents refused to fund her education. “I have several part time jobs and internships to keep my education going,” she said. During the thick of the pandemic, Varshney’s family business, like several others in India, suffered major losses and she had to give a part of her income to her family.
But these responsibilities and forced maturing comes with its own share of mental health challenges for both the young women.
“Asking for help seems like a wrong thing.”
For Sisodia, her childhood is dotted with memories of family weddings where she would be running taking care of her siblings instead of spending time with her cousins. “I have become more anxious as a person and I panic frequently as a result of this,” she said.
Varshney believes that she has become more emotionally closed off due to her upbringing. “I have no memory of the last time I cried,” she said. “It’s hard for me to form meaningful relationships. Asking for help seems like a wrong thing.”
For these young women who have been handling a lion’s share of emotional responsibilities from childhood, their hope lies in a different future.
“I don’t want to have kids but I know that I will be forced into the institution of marriage,” Varshney said. “If I do have kids, I hope to provide them with a safe environment where they don’t feel lonely.”
While Sisodia is more hopeful about having kids in the future, she is clear that her older child won’t be responsible for their siblings. But she still hopes her first born will play a major role in the growth of the other kids. “Looking back, my siblings and I have developed an unbreakable bond and I wouldn’t replace that with anything.”