There is so much in the literature about how childhood experiences shape what we become as we get older and in particular, how we become like our parents. We are delighted with evidence of enduring resemblances between fathers and sons and mothers and daughters, attending mostly to these rather than the differences. Yet every child is significantly different from her parents in obvious ways, and although an apple (the fruit) may not fall far from the tree, it is a fact of life that we are all quite unlike our parents despite evident similarities. Some, of course, more than others.
Family practices fluctuate between the fluidity and firmness in choices that children have and furthermore, some domains are more closely scrutinised, like no tolerance zones, whereas others will be muted. This is the substance of culture and socialisation, and every cultural group, and in fact, every family, will have its own unique combinations. The matters that we focus on and those that we ignore is the customised culture that we offer to our children, and within that dynamic, children learn to negotiate their way and create their own distinctive pathways.
Something powerful that emerges from Neha’s essay this morning, is the knowledge and awareness that family is always influential, but sometimes, the impact is about what NOT to be like, rather than the other way around. As we grow older, the ways in which impressions can and do change based on our own evolution as individuals emerges, and we are able to see adults in our families as ‘real’ people whom we can confront, in our minds if not interpersonally. We begin to see the textures of their personalities more clearly and learn from them. Literature is replete with instances of dramatic dialogue between these different voices in our minds deriving from significant others in our lives. This is one of the reasons why I find Attachment Theory (AT) inadequate in explaining the functioning of intergenerational dynamics in relationships.
Another significant theme, and also another reason why AT fails, is its complete dependence on the nuclear family model (I cannot say this often enough). Although the issue is not raised in in Neha’s essay, I do believe it has a possible place in the story. The phenomenon of adult influence during socialisation, known in psychoanalysis as identification, is far more complex in large joint families where a range of role models for children are available to pick up from, and often, the parent may not be the one a child is closest to. This allows much greater fluidity in the dialogue in a child’s subjective appraisal of available role models. We need more research on these aspects to explore the dynamics of family influence in multiple generation households.
The relationship between the adults (not just between children and adults) in the family will also bear significant impact on the outcome. Yet, being a parent in today’s world, has, for many of us, become more tuned to the belief that what we do with children impacts who they become in later life. In traditional ways of caring, adults in the family believed strongly that if they fulfilled their responsibilities, children would generally be okay, regardless of how these were done. So, if physical punishment was used, and it was justifiably for a good cause, it was considered okay, even necessary. Parents did not often scrutinize their own positioning while fulfilling their assumed duties. I remember having this conversation with several parents and realised this as a recent development. As professionals in the field, the burden of self-scrutiny is even greater, as you can imagine. Yet, we all will be wise to realise that although what we do as parents is important, it is not all important. Children have their own lives that evolve through their own experiences, and we cannot be omnipotent. Balancing between these different perspectives is the key to finding our way. In older ways of caring for children (I am deliberately avoiding the verb parenting as it is alien to Indian languages), it was believed that children will obviously resemble parents in some features, but that was not overarching. Furthermore, the ways in which children were ‘handled’ was not attended to so minutely. As a result perhaps, there were also fewer doubts about oneself as long as the work was bring done.
The content of what are seen as responsibilities is also contingent on context, and the stuff that parents do with children too has transformed. In many of our field-work experiences, mothers are often amused when we suggest to them to “play with their children”, because that is not believed to be part of the repertoire of adults’ work with children……..they play on their own and with other children, not with adults!
But now I am drifting away from the story. This essay is Neha’s story, and it is one that is unique. Her words will find both resonance and resistance from readers, as it did in our team. Even within a similar social setting, there will be profound departures in the ways family life is negotiated. Therefore, so we do not want to say that this is every Indian woman’s story; but it is hers, and this is why we are placing it for you to read. Neha’s essay brings up a dramatic case of how a deeply affectionate relationship between a daughter and her mother gradually results in a realisation that you can really love someone and yet make a conscious decision to depart from the way in which they live. Resistance does not only emerge from resentment, it can also arise from love. Furthermore, when children move away from families and establish relationships with others, intimate and otherwise, there is a deeper and more detailed understanding of family relationships that seemed, quite paradoxically, simple yet inscrutable when we were young.
Over to you Neha, and we are very grateful for your generosity in sharing your story with us.
I love my mother, but I do not want to be like her!
Growing up in northern India in Delhi with my parents and four siblings, I was the closest to my parents. My three siblings were studying in a boarding school in Pilani and would come over during their college vacations. I always stayed with my parents, watched them closely and went through the “typical” process of socialisation of girls in a Hindu family. I started cooking food independently when I was in grade 6. As a child, I would resist what I can now see as male-dominated practices where my father was the sole decision-maker in the family. With gender-defined roles in the family, my father would never enter the kitchen, he had never cooked a meal or looked after us. Such separation between household tasks was common. He was responsible for earning money for the family. This left my mother with the sole responsibility of bringing up four of us along with cooking, shopping, household chores, as well as meeting needs of extended family. I do not remember one day when my mum didn’t cook three meals in a day. I remember her being sick at times, but never failing to fulfil what she saw as her duties towards the family. Hers’ was a full-time job with no time off, no weekends, and dedication to family was extra ordinary!
Household tasks kept her moving from one stage of life to another, but she never thought of growing herself personally or professionally, although I do believe that she derived a lot of satisfaction and meaning from the work she did. It is interesting how the gender-defined roles I used to resist as a young person are the ones I accepted as “normal” after getting married. Perhaps it could be the fear of not letting my parents down in society or maybe I just chose “harmony” over what felt “right” to me. As a child, being away from parents for the last 9 years, I have always suppressed the need of being close to them because of the fact that this is expected. I feel relieved in the knowledge that my parents are well-looked after as they live with my two brothers and their families in Delhi and my eldest sister lives nearby. Theirs is a traditional joint family.
As a social norm, in our community, daughters become visitors to their parent’s homes after marriage and have little or no say in family matters, at least that is how it is in mine. Having heard some of this while growing up, unconsciously, I kept myself distanced from my biological family after marriage. When my friends would ask about my parents, I would often say to them “I don’t think they will ever visit me” without any emotional disappointment or despair. I feel like I almost sent these subliminal messages to them, and that is why they never made any plans of coming and staying with me. My parents always believed that I was emotionally the strongest of all my four siblings. Just keeping up to what they thought of “me”, made me distant to my parents. Telling them less about myself, listening to them more, visiting them less, and maintaining emotional and real distance was my unconscious strategy; and they have never visited me until now. It has only struck me recently, when my parents started having health issues, that they may not be around for long. What have I done as a daughter for them? I didn’t even live up to the emotional bond our relation is based on! I have deliberately disconnected myself.
It took me 9 years to realise that I might end up repeating the cycle of my mother’s life, getting into a rhythm that she has lived for her whole life if I do not stand by what I think is “right” and what is important to me. My mother has spent so long fulfilling her duties to her family that she has lost connection with her own body. Recently, she has been diagnosed with an auto-immune disorder. Now that all of us are well-settled, she feels a vacuum in her life where she has no one whom she can turn to for friendship, comfort, or conversation; her own children are busy in their new lives. It was never a ritual for my parents to go out together or by themselves and spend time, even with each other, the children were always their binding force, and there was just so much work around the house that they never felt that they had the time, energy or resources for that, apart from also not being inclined. Now my mother is struggling to voice her opinions, to explore what makes her happy. In conversations with me, she communicates the futility of arguing against opinions because “no one will understand anyway”. Hence, she just “followed her duties”. I strongly believe not just children, even adults need a “significant” person in their lives who listens and understands their inner being. When I would ask her about her childhood or life after marriage, she doesn’t have happy memories to recall. As far back she could remember, she was the most “responsible” one among her five siblings, always doing the right thing. Through my childhood, I have seen her largely confined to the household, and at a distance from conversations, even when my father’s friends’ families would visit us. It is only after 42 years of marriage, she has realised her own health and well-being is important and that she needs to give herself some time. Although it appears to be quite mechanical, but my mother has started using positive affirmations for herself every day, and has become regular with her own needs, like taking her medication on time. It is reassuring for me to know that my brothers and their families are living around them, looking after their health needs, but I am also relieved to hear that my mother is taking more interest in herself.
This life story might resonate with women in some Indian homes, where only the extreme circumstances are usually discussed or given attention and ordinary events pass by on automatic mode. These intricacies of family practices are accepted as “normal” and that is how they persevere. But; I do not want to be like my mother. I want to live my life in “here and now”, and I want to be conscious of what I am doing with myself and what I pass on to my children.
Don’t get me wrong, I am who I am today because of her and I am extremely grateful to have her as my mother. Mothers are a source of inspiration and love. This emotional bond keeps us connected beyond distances and places. But what makes me sad as an offspring is that my mother was never with her own self, in the teaming activity of a busy household, I feel that she was lonely, at least she is now. A women’s role is not just to nurture her family, but also to nourish her own soul, and I feel she missed out on that.
It is likely that a child might disagree with what parents practice, but they sometimes end up becoming like them. Perhaps it is true that children learn from what parents do, not by what they say. I have a lot to learn from my mother’s life and one of the learnings is from what she did not practice: that family comes “second” and you come “first”. That if you don’t take care of yourself, it becomes hard to take care of others, at least in the long term. I often find myself challenging a deep-rooted belief from my childhood years: That I have to be there for my family all the time. I have decided to send my one year old to child care so that I get some time to nurture my professional and personal self, I often leave the children to spend time with their father to go for my yoga practice, and sometimes, I just walk around with my husband while our children play in park. I am grateful to have an understanding family who appreciates my “being” and facilitates my development as a better person in every possible way.
I love and admire my mother, she is responsible for who I am today. But I want to be different. I want to nurture myself as I advance in my own family life. I don’t want to make the mistake of forgetting who I am. Family life is about remembering the past, staying strong, making our own path and about supporting each other’s strengths. I also believe that it is about providing a safe space to make mistakes and learn, to nurture a purpose in life and support each other in their individual journeys.