Are We Family?

I know it’s cliché. And by saying it like this, I’m diluting a complex and layered issue, I’m just gonna get out there and do it; family is the cornerstone of Indian society and culture! Wheww. That felt good.

It is the first and foremost issue that people think about here when making decisions about their lives-what to major in, occupation, where to live, even home décor. (There are commercials about how mother-in-laws will react to the odors in your house if you don’t buy a particular cleaning agent). Parental involvement in a child’s life takes on a very different look from its US counterpart, as well as the mirror image of children’s involvement in the lives of their parents. It’s more or less expected here that a circular dance between parents and children of care, love, obligation and tradition be tangoed with, struggled with to a point-but ultimately given into as roles develop, change, settle and develop again. It’s beautiful, it works sometimes, I’m judgmental of it , incredibly covetous and ultimately curious about it’s strength and fallibilities.

I come from a world of self-love and self-help. A world where living with your parents (and even taking money from them) past college age is seen as a major personality flaw. Part U.S. culture championing the independent spirit and part product of a dysfunctional, splintered family unit, I was explicitly taught to “worry about myself”. I am self taught in how to deal with parental separation, college and graduate school, the illness and death of both parents, my first years teaching, the recession and ultimate foreclosure of a house, how to live in India. A small minion of family is there- on the sidelines. Loving, but also worrying about themselves. Benjamin Franklin is even quoted as saying “ I am lord of myself, accountable to no one”. We pride ourselves on how to “get through things”, to be strong and self-sufficient. We’re going to live our lives in the footsteps of “Laverne and Shirley”- we’re gonna make our dreams come true, doing it our way! (Sorry, AIF youngins-go to the link if you didn’t understand the 80’s TV reference.)

You’re in a bad relationship? Get out of it and move on. You hate your job? Save up or take out loans, go back to school and change your life. Find your own soul mate-no one can do that for you. You want to change your life? Pick your self up by your bootstraps. As free as we may be, all this liberation can feel burdensome without some sort of net, some guidance-a place to rest our independent feet when our boots are giving us blisters. And as the recession has knocked us on our asses, I think we may be starting to see that fierce independence isn’t as much of an asset in these kinds of situations. Many of us wish our families could just hold us and help us until it was all over. Or at least set us up with 10 eligible bachelors to date!

I’m not saying that individuals in India don’t go through the same kinds of existential dilemmas-they most certainly do. Yet it seems from the outside that having certain expectations to and from family, although stifling, leads you back to a center that can hold you when you are most vulnerable. You are positively reinforced for making the decision to move towards family-poojas, lavish weddings, children that will one day care for you, TV commercials that reflect back to you that you made the “right” decision-you made your father cry with joy. ( – watch closely, I’m in this commercial). Financially, you are compensated greater by seeing money as a family affair-something to be saved and shared-business decisions, real estate ventures-all discussed and decided upon together as a unit-an insurance that parents will take care of children and children will in turn take care of their parents while ensuring for future generations.

There is a dark side to mortar of expectations to family here. The family can be so central to the lives of a child, that community may have a difficult time affecting and protecting children’s lives. One instance plays itself out within the realm of child abuse and child rights, although we could just as easily be discussing many civil rights issues related to children and adults. Legally, children have few or no rights- being the sole responsibility of parents-the “family” being above “the law”. If a child is physically or sexually abused, there is no legal recourse a school or anyone else can take to help that child or the family deal with it. Statistically, a recent government survey ( found that over 53% of children have been sexually abused. About 50 % of those children had been abused by members of their family. On top of those numbers, most abuse will go unreported because of the expectation that child not hurt or split the family. An individual working closely with children told me that even if a parent knows that their child is being sexually abused by a family member, most of the time they would ignore it and take their child out of school if the matter is pushed. The school cannot call Child Protective services-there isn’t anything like that. And if the police are involved and it’s a matter of parent vs. child’s word, the parent will win. Or the child will live in an ashram orphanage, where their lives may not be much better. The family unit will not be broken, sometimes at the expense of a child’s physical and emotional well-being.

The questions that family bring up are at the intersection of personal, political, intellectual and economic. Here in India, I look at the way Indians define themselves through their family and long for a map like that. Independence can allow for imagination and out of the box thinking, for risks to be taken, for women to live and work in India for 10 months-but when and how do you reign that in? When is there too much freedom and too little communal responsibility for each other? While much of me knows that I am romanticizing and bringing personal issues into this rambling, I can’t help but wonder if Indian families would be able to ride out an American-like recession better than we have. Or than I have. Instead of having to stand on their own to they create a united front in weathering the storm. Maybe Ben Franklin had it kind of wrong. Maybe we should be accountable to our own, and in return-they are accountable to us.

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3 thoughts on “Are We Family?

  1. Wonderful post, and great questions. I too wonder many of these things, and wonder if there is ever a “right” way? It seems the people adapt to their circumstances, and I wonder if the US will become more family-oriented because of tougher times. You’re awesome, L!

  2. I’m with you, Lauren. I never raised my children to be independent because that’s an impossible ideal that shouldn’t even exist. We’re not happy on our own. We’re happy with other people, especially people who love us, and whom we love in return. Why should we feel guilty and inadequate if we need some help? It’s going to happen. My background is in anthropology, and we are naturally bound in ties of kinship–this is the rule, and anything else is the exception. You depend on me and I depend on you. So far this is working with our daughters and it is a source of great satisfaction. If children go home after college, what’s the big deal? It is just very recently that the ideal has changed. I grew up with my grandmother and aunt in the house. It wasn’t always peaceful, but love was strong, and it was good. My least favorite song: “My Way”.

    Your Aunt Leslie XXX

  3. Ruta – I really appreciate being able to find a compassionate voice on the other side of damning papers like the one you described. I think such attacks are born of despair professionals feel as they fail over and over to create meaningful interventions. The answer is compassionate connection. Human, simple, real. I have never more strongly believed in the power of friendship, and the capacity within each of us to love out of our own understanding of what it means to be un-loved. We are rich with insight that must be shared. Thank you for creating the space for all of us to connect and to know our own capacity for love.

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