casteism feminism LGBT rights

Caregiving and Familial Obligations

As yet another friend rushes off at the crack of dawn, to take an ailing parent to the hospital, the lid I have been trying to keep on my simmering rage gives way and leads me to type out a text message that reads, “I wonder if your father feels ashamed at all…” Oblivious to my anger, my friend replies with a sentence that reveals we are not quite on the same page about whom one should care for, how, how much and when.

From Sooraj Barjatya and Karan Johar to Harsh Vardhan and Sakshi Maharaj, our parents and grandparents have been and continue to be bombarded with notions about how the ideal Indian family should function. Of course, Indian society- like any group of people in the world- is not a monolith. Voices of dissent emerge and drive change in any nation, and the trajectory of Indian socio-cultural history has not been any different. As I write this, people, young and old, all over the country, are gradually redefining boundaries and negotiating with patriarchal, heteronormative structures to create spaces for new, more inclusive thought. The backlash, however, has been predictably heart-wrenching. And the extremely depressing reality of cultural conflict is that the nuclear or joint Indian family tends to come down most heavily on dissenting individuals, in ways too ugly to accept. Yet, we do, every day, more than accept this lived reality as the norm. ‘Honour’ killings, domestic violence, ‘correctional’ sexual abuse- the atrocities committed in the name of disciplining a family member and maintaining status quo, do not seem to deter us from playing happy family at the end of the day. We return, over and over again, to provide caregiving to abusive parents and act as good sons and daughters to those who did not bat an eyelid before crushing our dreams, hopes and bones to make us fit into the moulds of Bharatiya samaj.

I would like to clarify that I am not propagating cold revenge as a form of social justice. Responding with hate or indifference to an unwell or aging parent/grandparent/family member, does indeed make us no better than them. And one must also be careful not to see an individual as the enemy, instead of viewing them as products of society- themselves under immense societal pressure. No, I do not advocate for the classic eye-for-an-eye retaliation. I merely ask that those who have been at the receiving end of deliberate, structural oppression do not play a part in perfecting the rosy picture of the great Indian family that stays intact despite (and even because of) the absence of any scope for individuality. If you are in a position to provide resources that your family members need, by all means, go ahead and help them out. But do not grace them with emotional labour, if their actions over the years have not earned the same.

The politics of caregiving, in my opinion, is way more complex than “They took care of you when you were young; it’s your turn now”. Families that have meted out abusive treatment to members for any reason- alternate sexualities, the desire to pursue an infrequently trodden career path, marrying outside caste/religion/class, or simply existing in an equation where abuse is normalized as a manifestation of power- have not, in fact, ‘taken care’ of them. And now that it is ‘your turn’, the least you can do to not complete this circle of violence, is to make it explicit  that you are here only to provide aid in case it is unavailable from other sources. Going out of your way to make your indisposed father feel comfortable, even if he has the means to purchase caregiving from a source that will not force individuals to feel obliged to indulge in emotional labour, is too painfully in line with the straight-jacketing nature of families as hierarchical units. After all, the belief that you owe allegiance to a group of people- no matter how toxic they are- merely because of an accident of birth, is what communalism, jingoism and murderous chauvinism thrive on. Resist the emotional manipulation as a gift to the younger-you who cowered under a desk, believing, even through the tears, that a better world, consisting of love given freely and not as a ‘duty’, was waiting out there for you to create and participate in.

About the author

aina singh

8 Comments

  • Aina, thank you for writing this. This is something I’ve never heard anyone else talk about. At least no Indian.
    I’m one such adult, who grew up in an oppressive family.
    I’ve suffered everything at the hand of my parents, even sexual abuse. And yet, I feel obligated to submit more.
    Thank you for writing this. Just. Thanks.

  • Thanks a lot for your comment, Grace. Responding to abuse with love is something a lot of us have done- I guess it’s because we feel we do not have the power to respond in any other way. More power to you 🙂

  • I have cared for my mother in law who was bedridden after her stroke. For seven long years she lived, or rather died, each day with hemiparesis. Each day filled with hatred and anger towards those who were still able bodied.
    I have cared for my narcissistic and abusive mother emotionally, becoming a tool against my hapless father, and a punching bag, throughout my childhood.
    After I walked away forever from my mother and my mother in law died, I found that I was still alive. These experiences have left me wise enough to be able to really live life now, give and receive love, and stand up for myself and others. Each word of your article resonated in my mind in harmony with my experiences

  • When humanity spreads in all generations, caretaking and caregiving in families will become an integral part of society. The conflicts in families arise mainly due to monetary differences and property distribution. If there are no ‘ individual’s aims and only ‘ collective’ aims rule the world, many families will stick together and lead a peaceful and happy life .

  • Old people need help irrelevant if they are your parents who according to you were abusive to you or some random old person who needs help. It’s basic human decency to help people especially children and old people.
    You guys can crib all you want now as you are still young enough to take care of yourself.
    Let’s see when you are your parents age and require help if you’re the same person who agrees to the story by this author.

  • This article can be summarized as such “Waaaah I don’t like my parents Waaaah you should’nt too.Please ,not everyone had a sexually frustrated dad,narcisstic mother or a manipulatibe brother/sister.

    If you don’t like your family members,fine just be so.But don’t go around lecturing whom people should care more in their life misusing the label of muh individualism,muh rationalism.

    I don’t know about you but not every humans are unemotional sociopathic narcissts.

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