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Do you live with your in-laws?
Sherin Mammen | July 25, 2007 11:00 IST
Saroj Shivhare, a resident of Kandivali, Mumbai, is having a tough day. Her two-and-a-half year-old daughter is sick and irritable and needs her constantly, while her elder son has to be packed off to school. The maid has not turned up in two days. Saroj's husband, an officer with the merchant navy, can't come to her aid -- he's at sea, somewhere near Rotterdam. Saroj is in a state of despair and dearly wishes that her mother-in-law, who lives in another part of the city's suburbs, would come and help her out, given the situation.
Preeti and John Varghese in Cochin, Kerala [Images], are facing a problem of a different kind. Recently married, they live with John's parents. John has to leave for an onsite assignment in the US in one month's time. The couple expected to spend some time together and have fun before he leaves, but that is not to be -- the parents expect them to stay at home and entertain guests or go visiting relatives. A honeymoon has been ruled out and chances of going out for a quiet dinner alone together are remote. They madly wished they were in a different place, away from the folks.
The changing face of joint families
Globalisation and a booming economy are fast changing the attitudes and family structures of the modern Indian. Career aspirations and individual goals are bigger priorities than traditional family responsibilities. The result: the joint family, where at least three generations lived together under one roof, is falling apart and more and more families are going nuclear.
Younger people move away from their small towns and cities to larger cities for employment, often leaving their older parents behind. With no social security or state healthcare, most senior citizens look to their children for financial support. However, there have been several cases of senior citizens being neglected by their children. Probably, it is this rising trend that prompted the UPA Government to introduce The Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Bill, 2007. The bill seeks to make it a legal obligation for children and heirs to provide for their parents.
A joint family system usually ensured that parents who spent their lives nurturing their children, were in turn looked after by them and provided for in their old age. Moreover, their seniority and experience were valued by the household -- they were a source of support and wisdom to all family members in trying times. In the early days, the joint family system was also a boon to women who did not have the onus of bringing up their children alone. At a time when a couple usually had more than two children, extra help with the kids and household chores was more than welcome.
Besides, as Mrs Uma Bhatt, who has experienced life in a joint family system says, "The air in the traditional joint family set-up was more warm than vicious (as portrayed in our saas-bahu serials). The kids had the benefit of growing up with parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. This was healthy, because it encouraged community living. Moreover, children who were brought up in joint families were more emotionally secure and tolerant towards differences of opinions."
Of course, the joint family system also had its share of ills. For one, in most traditional families, the father, as the head of the family, had the final say in every matter. This discouraged openness and free communication among other members. It was considered rebellious to move away from the family and prove one's worth. It was thought that if one member moved away, others would follow, leading to a complete breakdown of the family unit.
In a typical joint family, the role of women was limited to looking after the kids and home. They didn't have much decision-making power and had almost no say in matters outside their homes. The life of the younger generation of married women was often controlled by the elders, as they were expected to be the ideal daughters-in-law. Mrs Neha Goenka, who spent the first few years of her marriage in a joint family feels, "Our life was limited to our bedroom. We had to be on our best behaviour at all times and meet the expectations of each family member." Mrs Bhatt adds, "Bringing up children could at times be a topic of contention between the older and younger generation. While the younger generation want to discipline their children and bring them up in a certain way, the elders want to have their say. Most often, the grandparents ended up pampering and spoiling the children."
The nuclear family system, which gradually broke up most joint families, has been a boon to couples who value their freedom and want to have a life of their own. Says Saurabh Sharma, an IT professional, "We feel more responsible for our lives and careers. It's not that we do not love our parents or value them but that should not be a deterrent to career growth or personal lives."
Also, interracial marriages are a common trend today, an issue much frowned upon in joint families. So to play it safe, most couples prefer to stay away from their parents. In matters of money also, couples prefer living on their own, so that they can budget their expenditure and save for their future, which is highly unlikely in a joint family.
Today's women have also broken away from tradition. They work and have financial independence, which also gives them a say in matters related to their families and society at large. In today's India, a woman's ability to earn is considered more valuable than her ability to cook. This may not go down well with old-fashioned in-laws, who believe that a woman's place is in the kitchen.
On the flip side, in a nuclear family, the husband and wife are solely responsible for bringing up kids and running the household. When they need an emotional anchor, they find themselves alone. In homes where both the parents are working, children's lives can get very difficult -- they are either put in daycare centres or entrusted to maids. Working parents in nuclear families live with the additional guilt of not spending enough time with their children. The children at times feel neglected and look for emotional support elsewhere. They feel lonely even if their parents are around, as the parents are either too tired to talk to them or are busy with their own problems. As a result, kids sometimes take drastic attention-seeking measures, or withdraw into a shell.
Joined by convenience
The joint family system, though not in its larger form, exists in cities even today, with just grandparents, parents and their children in one- or two-bedroom apartments. However, the power equation in this new type of joint family is quite different from that of the traditional family. The older parents have hardly any say in their children's lives. In most cases, they live with their children more out of compulsion than out of choice.
While harassment of the daughter-in-law in a joint family set-up is a common enough complaint, reports of an intolerant younger generation ill-treating their old folk are also in plenty. Today most of us who bring our parents to live with us do so for our own selfish reasons. A working woman who may not be able to afford a cook would find it convenient if the mother-in-law could manage the kitchen. A retired father is expected to take the kids to school and bring them back, or go down the road to buy groceries and provisions.
Says Mrs Sinha*, a widow in her fifties, who lives with her only son, "My daughter-in-law comes home by 7:30 pm. She expects dinner to be ready by the time she comes. And if for some reason the food is not ready, she flares up. The children are a witness to the shouting. However, they take my side and are a great comfort to me."
Another elderly lady, Mrs Khan*, recounts how she was practically uprooted from her native village and brought to the city by her son, just so that her daughter-in-law could go back to work after her child was born. However, her son and daughter-in-law found fault with every little thing she did; and the baby, who was completely under her care all day, would be unceremoniously taken from her every evening, leaving her alone and miserable.
So at the end of the day, it's really up to the individual -- you either opt for a joint family system by choice, by compulsion, or as per convenience, so that life becomes a little less difficult for you.
*Names changed to protect privacy.
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