LIVING ARRANGEMENTS | RECONFIGURING THE JOINT FAMILY
Eight months ago Nina, 27, and Sam Dubash, 33, left their downtown Toronto apartment of three years, to move into a duplex in the suburbs. Among the many reasons why young couples gravitate towards life in the suburbs was the prime motivation that Sam wanted his aging parents to live with him.
Traditionally, South Asians live within extended family units, with children, their spouses, siblings, parents and grandparents all under one roof. It’s a domestic situation that exists today in Canada for the diaspora as well as in India and Pakistan. However, in this day and age it is increasingly common to hear of youngsters moving away from the traditional joint family structures. In an attempt to avoid family squabbles stemming from petty differences that can easily escalate to more serious disagreements, they choose an independent start to their new lives. The nuclear family is taking over the extended family.
However, there are many like Sam, who after a few years of marriage, feel the need to return to their traditional roles as providers for the family, especially their parents. For them, the support and care their aging parents need is often a primary consideration. Having lived on their own for a few years, the couple feels secure about having established their relationship on their own terms and are comfortable enough to change around their living arrangement. “It’s not an easy adjustment, but it’s one that both Nina and I have given a lot of thought to. We considered the alternatives, and truth be told there aren’t many,” says Sam.
It’s a lonely life for elderly immigrants in Canada, especially if they choose to, or are forced, to venture out on their own. Their interactions remain limited to their children, grandchildren, occasional visits to community or religious centers, and medical visits. This lack of social connectedness can be attributed to a number of stumbling blocks, including poverty, lack of transportation and language restrictions.
“In India there is a favourable bias toward the elders,” says Ashwin Singh, 64, who moved out of his son’s home due to reasons of space and financial constraints, to a room he found on Craigslist. “Here, people think about what is convenient and inconvenient for them.”
There is an understandable cultural influence on the value placed on the family system by South Asians. For many married couples, the reality of living with in-laws in an increasingly fast-paced world can create some very real issues. Emotional as well as economic issues come into play. After Ali Hamid’s father passed away, Ali, 35, convinced his mother to move in with him and his wife in Ottawa. “We can rest easy at night without having to worry about her being all alone,” says his wife, Sadia, 35. Even though Sadia did not have much of a relationship with her in-laws before, she is content with the decision to have her mother-in-law, who she has grown fond of, move in with them. Sadia attributes teamwork, empathy and communication as the key ingredients in making their new family life work.
While Ali’s mother appreciates her son and daughter-in-law’s invitation to their home, not all in-laws are as welcoming of the idea of moving into their children’s home. Issues of control and independence are often linked to financial charge and many feel that ownership of the home they live in gives them an upper hand, if not control, of their living arrangements. Alternately, a jointly purchased home or shared financial responsibility may level the playing field and allow parents and children to get through the challenges ahead.
Sons are traditionally considered the primary breadwinners of a family and it is culturally acceptable for a son to look after his parents in their old age. However, are parents just as comfortable living with their married daughter and son-in-law? Even in this day and age, there are families who are prey to traditional stigma and consider it a matter of pride not to take this kind of support from a married daughter. However, with more and more women gaining financial independence, they feel that they too have the right to support and care for their parents, should the need arise.
“I look forward to providing for my parents even after I get married. It shouldn’t matter whether I am a girl or a boy; they’re my parents…My future husband will have to understand that,” says Sonia Ahmed, 22.
The transition from living on your own to living with in laws can be a trying one for a number of reasons, with the most obvious being that in-laws are not one’s parents. No matter how close a person is to their in-laws, it’s very rare to find the same candid relationship that one grows to expect from one’s own parents. An in-law’s love, though not ungenerous, can at times be conditional. Often issues arise within families because a spouse expects his or her in-laws to fit in the roles defined by their own parents and vice versa. In such a case, it is important to understand that each family is unique with different ways of interacting.
The fact that two people have found each other to fit perfectly together is not a guarantee that the same rule will extend to their families. As with any relationship, this one should be a gradual progression where one invests the time (and patience) to foster trust and love. It is important to take account of boundaries and individual family dynamics early on in the relationship to be able to adjust, without feeling like you have taken the weight of the world on your shoulders.
When you think about life, it usually boils down to the relationships you maintain, and there are few things more important than relationships with parents. Living with your spouse’s parents can offer the comfort of a trusted support network comprising of people you know and love. Sharing a living space with a couple that have seen it all and know your spouse better than anyone could be a great learning experience.
It could lead to an exchange of knowledge and be an excellent opportunity to create a new family unit and memorable moments. If anything, you get to love two new people and induct them into the inner circle–and that’s what family is.
Published in Suhaag Magazine (Toronto Star), Issue No. 12, Fall 2011.