The joint family is dead. Long live the joint family!
But who wants to live in a joint family, even if it is just the parents of one of the spouses living with their children? But folks, that’s the conventional joint family where the inmates share a roof. We are talking here of the global joint family, where the family lives under different roofs – in the same building/housing society/colony/city/country/world. It is as near perfect as possible.
- Geeta lives in the US, her parents in Hyderabad. Her husband’s parents live in Pune, where they own a sprawling house. They come to India at least once a year and spend some time with them. The parents visit their children and grandchildren in the US too when they can.
- Hemant lives two blocks down the road from his parents’ apartment. The elders visit them sometimes and the young couple comes over whenever they can. A couple of hours, sometimes more, sometimes less is spent in happy togetherness.
- There is this family with two sons. They have three flats in the same building and eat their dinner together with the parents. The daughters-in-law help in the food.
- Siya and her husband drop their toddler off at her parents’ home nearby. The couple have hired a full time maid at their place who she also helps her mother with other chores.
Joint families all, but not so joined. They share their hearts and love, but not the roof. It works perfectly – well, most of the time. Whoever said that the joint family is dead and will never work should look at these arrangements.
Note: This has become a long post, mainly because I wanted to close the topic of joint families in this one before going on to other issues, but do read it fully as I have tried to cover as many points as possible here as viewed from both sides.
This new global joint family seems to be working for both elders and youngsters. Perhaps, like the large joint family of yore, the global joint family will also slowly vanish in a couple of generations. But for now, it is well and thriving at least in upper middle class homes where money is not an issue and running two households is not a problem.
Everything is hunky dory till the parents are relatively ‘younger’ that is in their 60s and early 70s. It is when they get older that the problems begin. Considering that the exodus to metros and foreign shores began in the 70s and 80s, my generation and one before us are in focus. Living far away, the youngsters worry especially if one of the parents has passed on. And so the pressure begins to mount – from family and friends, and from their own sense of being responsible for their parents in their old age.
Sundar, an only son who lives in the US, has an 83-yr-old mother living alone back in Chennai. He has been literally begging her to come over as healthcare is excellent there but without success.
Like Sundar, there are many young people and even those in their 40s and 50s who would like to have their parents live with them. Some elders give in, others have their way. Take the case of another couple, a younger one. Venu- Varsha relocated to India when Venu’s mother passed away as the father found it difficult to shuttle between Bangalore and US. It helped that the girl’s comes from Chennai to take care of the grandchildren when needed. Still others change the cities they work in within the country, to be closer to their parents.
Increasingly a large number of elders show a preference for living by themselves but participating in their children’s and grandchildren’s lives. This is in sharp contrast to the times when it was the younger generation that wanted to leave the nest to set up their own homes. Of course, this excludes those elders who are either unwilling or are not financially, physically and emotionally equipped to live alone and so want a joint family set-up. There is a demographic divide here. This is not to generalize, but it would seem that in the north it is the son’s parents who foist themselves on the younger generation, but in the south, increasingly more parents of daughters deem it fit to live with them. I would go as far as to say that it is creating a reverse trend with girls sometimes asking the boys, ‘So what do you plan to do with the excess baggage after marriage?’
Sometimes the Shakunis and Mantharas of society try to create doubts and hatred in the minds of the one or the other generation living together in either a conventional or global joint family. I remember a young woman claiming to find it comforting to live in one where she was a stay-at-home-mom. She had no problems with the division of labour as she managed the house with her mother-in-law and the other daughter-in-law went to work to supplement the income. However I was appalled at the comments which simply castigated her for being a doormat and being taken for granted and how the MIL and other DIL were using her! This even when all money earned by various members were pooled together and divided equitably! Needless to say, such advice is being given to countless women both young and old in our society creating rifts in families where there was none.
If the arrangement works for you, just go along with it, never mind what the society, relatives, friends and the virtual world would have you believe to the contrary. But most of all, forego guilt, unless the elders have been abandoned — in which case anyway there won’t be any guilt!
Barring a couple of comments by Grond aka Harshal and Anuradha who have pointed out the plus points of a joint family in today’s world, and Varsha giving the benefit of doubt to it having never lived in one, both young and old have batted for nuclear families.
While the young want nuclear families citing the ‘fast paced, stressful’ life they lead, there are as many shades of grey in the reasons that elders have, as in the hairs of their heads.
Sundar’s mother for instance would love to live with her son, but is reluctant to give up the community she has built around her life. ‘What will I do there, confined to the house with no friends and social life?’ she asks. Sundar worries about her all the time, but is not in a position to relocate to India.
There are others who would like to have the independence that is born out of living by themselves. As a woman from the younger generation pointed out, ‘When my mother lives with me or my brother, she is living by the routines of our households, whereas in her own home, she is free to live by hers.’ This elder has lost her husband recently and wants to live in her house, which is about 25 kms away from her son and daughter.
This brings us to the point about personal space and ownership. Much like in the animal kingdom, humans have their territorial rights but being endowed with the sixth sense and emotions, they extend the territorial rights to other humans as well and here is where tension and conflict starts. So unless the elders are firmly set in the vanaprastha path, they would be tossed on an emotional sea, sometimes being buffeted and at others, affecting the youngsters’ lives.
Here come the mama’s boys and papa’s girls. Oh yes, the latter might be considered ‘cute’ and ‘aaww’ in comparison to the former, but can create as many problems in the lives of their children. A case in point is the latest movie Piku, where she is not getting married because she feels that the children have to take care of their parents ‘like babies,’ and he being difficult, she wouldn’t find anyone taking on the responsibility.
In joint families of earlier days and even today, the head of the family, often the father, held absolute control over property/work/business/trade and the mother ruled the household. The sons and daughters-in-law functioned under them. Many cases of elders abusing their daughters-in-law and being a bother to their daughters perhaps fall in this category, though I have no stats to back my statement.
Where the elders live with their children in their homes, the power base often shifts to the latter. With no tangible authority or ownership and with little or no say in matters of the household, the elders begin using other methods to assert their power. This can be anything from nagging, making unreasonable demands, complaining, interfering, hypochondria and/or depression all of which can be as intimidating and disturbing as the overt exercise of power by the elders. Again I would cite the case of cantankerous elder in Piku, as the movie seems to have become the flavour of the season.
(I plan to review some movies of Bollywood that deal with these issues in one of the later posts)
This is not to say that all elders are aggressors. There are some who are browbeaten by their children. Some use emotional blackmail to extract both property and physical work from them, in return for the security of staying with them and their children. Oh yes, grandchildren are used as pawns in this sinister game of blackmail. Some even go to the extent of driving the elders out after taking their property. Hard as it may be to believe that there are Indian parents who, even after funding their children’s expensive higher education actually give up their property if they have any left and live a miserable life as complete dependents.
The fear of abandonment and loneliness are real in many an elder’s mind, to avoid which they would go to any extent and placate their children.
There is this lady I know, who complains about how she is doing more work in her son’s home, than she has ever done even living in a joint family. She had sold off her ancestral home when her husband passed on. ‘I couldn’t live alone. I hate it when the house is empty.’ Now, I am sure she must have conveyed the message to her children who took it as her willingness to be their caretaker and are loading her with responsibilities and physical work. If only she had made it clear at the outset that she would help out, but not be the ‘working head’ of the family, she might have been able to maintain a semblance of balance and wouldn’t have been taken for granted. Who is to be blamed in this case?
The globe-trotting caretakers are also part of this section of exploited elders. They are forever on the move – to help in the delivery and then care of their daughters and daughters-in-law and then babysit for them. When they can, the elder couple travels together, but often they are separated for months with the husband fending for himself. Some of the comments surprisingly by the younger generation, in earlier posts specifically mention this fact with some bitterness.
Other than the extremes of abusers in both generations, one can see that often it is just the insensitivity of one generation towards the other that is the cause of small and big friction in day to day life in a joint family, global or conventional.
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