Why must caring for parents be left to the son?

A daughter who weds into another family cannot disown her own.

 |  5-minute read |   19-10-2016
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A couple of days ago, the highest court of the land delivered the verdict in a divorce case pending for almost a decade.

The Supreme Court held that the wife had meted out cruelty on her husband by forcing him to leave his parents. The bone of contention was mainly on financial grounds. Social media erupted and was divided in its reactions — while some thought it was high time “home-breaking” women got their share of punishment, others questioned the double standards of a system that is otherwise fine with a woman leaving her parents post marriage, but has issues when it applies to a man.

Judgments are case-specific and there could definitely be some merit in finding a woman guilty of pressuring her husband to give up his responsibilities towards his parents. But this is one of the two problems I see in the judgment — the court goes on to generalise and callously states that “it is the pious obligation” of a “son” to take care of his parents. And it instantly reminded me of my parents who have been taking care of my maternal grandmother ever since we moved into our new house (constructed on our own plot right behind my grandma’s place) in 1995.

india-parents-son_101916030329.jpg Also, as they grow older, there’s isolation, fear and loss of control and they will need us as much as we once needed them.

I do not wish to cast aspersions on my uncle and his wife who stay in the same house as my grandma. My grandma is a great person at heart, but her experiences in life (of being the eldest daughter-in-law in a joint family, a wife to a talented husband recovering from alcohol addiction and a mother to a second son who isn’t yet economically stable) have made her quite bitter in the tongue. Whatever she said was reciprocated by my aunt and in the family drama that transcends every other house, the kitchens separated. They are cordial with each other, exchanging delicacies every now and then. But the people who have been there with her every single day (in sickness or in health) are her daughter and son-in-law.

I am not bragging because they are my parents. Career opportunities or the luxury of long holidays could have taken my parents to places. But I know for a fact that if they were to move out, my grandma wouldn’t survive for long. More than loneliness, sheer neglect would eventually kill her. When my father religiously gives her the morning tea and checks on her medicine replenishments and my mother patiently listens to her complain as she force-feeds her healthy food, I know I am probably witnessing just an exception. Why else in India would 50 per cent of the elderly above the age of 60 and 80 per cent of elders older than 80 complain of some sort of mental or physical abuse? (Source: Help Age India Survey 2015).

I think it’s high time for us to realise that irrespective of gender, children have the obligation to take care of their parents. If the society can internalise this, we probably will not have an “obsession for sons” and hence be able to correct the abysmal child sex ratio in India (918 in Census 2011)

A daughter who weds into another family cannot disown her own. Whether an economically independent woman decides to invest in her parents’ life/health insurance premiums, take them out for a vacation or even support them financially for a lifetime is entirely her prerogative. There should be some faith in her judgment as to when, where and what requires her contribution (whether it’s her marital home or otherwise). Post marriage, a man or a woman are legally bound to a new set of people – the in-laws. They too deserve the same compassion, respect and love that we owe our parents. But unrealistic expectations of in-laws replacing parents in our lives are best kept at bay.

The second part of the judgment that caught my attention was the comment on any couple staying away from parents being against Indian culture. The court states that “in India, generally people do not subscribe to the western thought, where, upon getting married or attaining maturity, the son gets separated from the family.”

This is taking it a bit far. Individuals who want to be emotionally independent, or share very diverse views from their parents, or those who wish to migrate to another city for a living or want to spend the initial years of marriage in a nuclear set-up can afford to do so, if their parents are healthy and can take care of themselves. Care and support (whether financial or emotional) can be given even while staying apart.

Having said that, we need to be sensitive about a couple of things. Our parents, most probably, haven’t invested in social security since their whole lives revolved around events in ours’ - from our birth to graduation to marriage and then the birth of our children – the list is endless. Hence, we must invest in them. Also, as they grow older, there’s isolation, fear and loss of control and they will need us as much as we once needed them. It is then best to be as close to our parents as possible.

Rather than think of our parents’ home selfishly when we wish to save on rent, or want a great alternative to crèches for our children, we need to learn to keep them engaged productively post retirement. We need to love and respect them always for what they are and not for what they are worth. We need to plan their future so that we are in a position to communicate this to our partners and set the right expectations in the first place.

Before I say a goodbye to you, here is an Irish blessing that every “dadu” witnesses coming true:

  • “May you always be blessed
  • with walls for the wind,
  • a roof for the rain,
  • a warm cup of tea by the fire,
  • laughter to cheer you,
  • those who you love near you 
  • and all that your
  • heart may ever desire.”

Writer

Samparna Tripathy Samparna Tripathy @samparnat

The author is a writer on public policy and social issues.

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