Family ties that bind — and gag

Cultural dislocation is a modern-day reality, and its central themes are longing and distance from the family. It’s a cocktail of social identities that an individual seeks

By K Badar

Published: Thu 3 Mar 2022, 10:20 PM

Families are under stress. It is a truism that, maybe, each generation can make its gospel truth, especially when one wants to break free. Families gag too—another truism—especially when one is just out of the teenage. Older generations are in a different headspace, turned too jaded by the vagaries of life to appreciate the energy of the younger lot.

Cultural dislocation is a modern-day reality, and its central themes are longing and distance from the family. Economic migration highlights this binary, so does growing up. Whether the individual stays connected or chooses to snap ties, family is the theme of being. Family is the central idea of varied cultures that keeps evolving and defining the culture across nations.

One tends to believe that societies that have seen capitalist riches and are technology driven have individuals breaking family ties to create new types of social relations. The idea of independence seems to revolve around the three pillars of economy, technology, and emotionality. A comprehensive survey conducted by the United Nations (UN) in 2019 estimated that the average household size in the United States (US) has remained stagnant at 2.5 members since 2000 and stood at 2.6 members in 1990. In 1960, the average household size in the US was 3.3 members. One can assess that with an increase in wealth, the family does get smaller but does not necessarily make individuals reject family ties altogether. Interestingly, around 28 per cent of households in the US had at least one member over the age of 65 in 2019, and this number has only increased from 23 per cent in 1970, providing further evidence that ties are not easy to break.

Lest this data be seen as conclusive evidence of the relevance of family ties, we should notice that around 28 per cent of American households had only one member in 2015, according to the UN study. A market research firm Euromonitor International noted that the number of people living alone in the world increased tremendously from 153 million in 1996 to 277 million in 2011. In the US, it noted that more women chose to stay alone than men, their ratio being 18 million women to 14 million men.

In a different context, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stated a universality: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” The family bond or the urge to unbond is not the only story a modern individual wants to tell. It is rather a cocktail of social identities that the individual seeks.

“It’s difficult to lose influence one has as a parent, but it must happen”

Kathi Kitner, a US-based cultural anthropologist comes from a fragmented family. She grew up in Ohio where two generations ago, her family constituted people of European origin. The composition of her family seems to reflect the political history of the continent.

“I have always had more of a scattered family experience,” Kitner told Khaleej Times. Kitner’s maternal grandfather was a Nazi sympathiser. His daughter (Kitner’s mother) dated a Jewish guy whose extended family were Auschwitz survivors. The first big rift in her family was due to political and religious differences. By the time Kitner grew up, she drifted away from the siblings due to large age differences and different interests, which she does not regret. “For me, the idea of family is fractured. I believe that families can be constructed of those who are not related by ‘blood’ or marriage.”

When Kitner was young, she wanted to be trusted so that she could become independent. Only after becoming a parent to two kids, she realised how difficult it was to balance her concerns for her children and pushing them to confront the world. She is of the view that the influence of parents remains on children even when they are adults, but it changes shapes and forms. For example, her children seek her opinion on life decisions and draw comfort from it. The idea of the family offering security could co-exist with independence for children.

Seeking independence for the self may not be the only reason why one would want to reject the idea of family, if at all. She was disappointed when her ex-husband and his family did not accept her children who were “on the spectrum of queer”. “The pain that this has caused my children has been lasting and difficult. I rejected them for their lack of love and acceptance,” she said.

She does not hold family as a sacred entity anyway, especially when it cannot deal with the choices of its members. “Rejecting someone because of who they are or who they love is painful and seems to belie the belief many of us have about a family’s love for each other,” she added.

“We are wired for attachment and relationship”

The Hague-based 28-year-old social entrepreneur Karen Kilwake, who hails from Kenya, feels that her parents belonged to a generation that honoured familial community and nuclear relations. When she was growing up in Kenya, it was usual for her to visit her grandparents and host relatives in a convivial setting. “We would have to share the bed, spread on the floor or take the couch for a week or so until they left. We did not over think about the situation since that is how we went about life,” Karen said. Is this sacrifice for the family? If yes, in her nuclear family, “that sacrifice currently still holds”.

Some changes in social and familial ties are bound to happen with a generational shift. Karen believes that millennials also honour the family the way her parents’ generation did but they do it differently. “All humans have an intrinsic need to be loved, belong and be accepted. This explains why continuous rejection (for a job, relationship, business) causes most to fall into depression and why abandonment issues are treated clinically. We are wired for attachment and relationship,” she said.

For Kilwake, this “wiring” takes people to other networks—of colleagues, friends and neighbours—when circumstances take them away from a nuclear family.

She does not think that seeking “independence” for pursuing life choices conflicts with the idea of the family. “I still carry their blood relation and DNA. I still have my dad’s surname. I am still counted by the government as a next of kin to either of them. History will not remember me as a single unit even if I go ahead and publicly and consciously disassociate with them. What changes is the social contract of involvement,” she said.

‘There is a fine line between seeking independence and being viewed as ungrateful’

Varistha Nakornthap lives in Bangkok and works with Ashoka (Thailand) as a strategic partnership manager. Her interest lies in helping women entrepreneurs scale up their ventures in Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries. The 30-year-old feels that family ties are changing and the state of economy has a role to play in this. She feels that given the challenges of the present time and the cost of living getting higher, a lot of people in her surrounding view family as a financial security blanket and support structure for things like childcare.

At the same time, the ties with the family go beyond economic compulsions, according to Nakornthap. “Gratitude is a big concept in my culture,” she said. “Parents take care of their children and when the children are old enough, they are expected to take care of the parents,” she said. In her culture, she said, there is a societal expectation to hold family ties. “I feel that there is a fine line between seeking independence and being viewed as ungrateful in my culture,” she said. Varistha has never felt the need to reject the idea of the family, though she prefers to keep some distance from them “in order to maintain a good and healthy relationship”.

While technology has made it easier for people to stay connected, it also has the potential to damage relationships. “I can connect with my cousins who live in different continents, thanks to digital technology,” said Nakornthap. “Issues arise if we tend to focus more on what’s the next post on social media rather than what memories we can create with a family member sitting in front of us. So, I feel that the participation in the family is less engaging when the digital worlds integrate with the family world,” she added.

Nakornthap grew up in a traditional Thai family. She was expected to be an obedient child, get good grades, go to good schools and universities and be an exemplary student. Despite this background, she prefers to take her own decisions and succeeds too, but sometimes the notion of social acceptability comes in the way. “Social acceptability is a big factor in my family whenever we discuss propriety. I have always tried to reject social acceptability and choose what I want based on my needs and values. If we worry too much about what others think then we will miss the chances to truly understand ourselves and our values,” she said.

“Children who were taught to be independent can function much better”

Ketki Joshi grew up in the western Indian state of Gujarat. The 36-year-old serial entrepreneur, who loves to explore the world, had parents who did not get along well and cared little for social norms that expected them to play the role of a nice, happy family. She feels that her life became unpredictable because of her parents’ emotional state, which may not have had the best impact on her or led to great consequences for the family, especially after they chose to separate. Making a generic observation about her parents’ generation, she said, “They ignored the emotional and psychological needs of children. There was a huge communication gap between two generations, and parents barely knew what the child was going through and vice-versa,” she added.

But it trained her well to handle the world. “Today, my decisions are made quickly, yet I have learned to take all aspects and consequences into account before making a particular decision. I do make mistakes, but they are my own mistakes and I take full responsibility for it, which I see lacking in most people of my generation or my previous generation,” Joshi said. Her dysfunctional family gave her personality an independent streak. “I have been compelled to make big decisions about my life and education since I was 12 years old. I did not have a safety net of the family to fall back on, but it taught me how to fend for myself and take responsibility for the consequences of my own decisions,” she said.

She felt traumatised when she was young but looking back, she said, she is thankful for not having a normal, socially acceptable family. “Probably my decisions would have had a much greater effect on societal norms and family pressure. I see this sense of independence lacking in most of the people around me. I feel that children who were taught to be independent since childhood can function much better in the world and are able to do revolutionary things,” she added.

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