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How Aging Indian Parents Struggle to Remain Relevant Amid Cultural Shift Toward Nuclear Family

How Aging Indian Parents Struggle to Remain Relevant Amid Cultural Shift Toward Nuclear Family

  • While the children are grateful for their efforts, they want the parents to stay in their lanes and not overstep the boundaries into their parenting, marriage etc.

During my recent annual trip to India, I visited several of my aging relatives, including my mother. I also hung out with my childhood friends who were straddling two different generations — their aging parents and their adult children, all under the same roof. I heard all kinds of complaints. Complaints from middle-aged children about how their aging parents were making a nuisance of themselves by being too interfering, nosy, demanding, controlling, and so on. I also heard from the aging parents about how their children were self-centered, neglectful, abandoning, ungrateful, disrespectful, distracted, and uncaring. Who is right here and who is in the wrong? When I was younger and hot-tempered, I used to think it was the parents’ problem. They were to blame. But as I have grown older and more compassionate, I am not so sure if that narrative is true.

I faced this challenge firsthand with my mom who lives independently, a mile away from my brother’s family. She was livid because my brother and his wife had set some boundaries with her about her dropping in any time she chose to, unannounced. It disrupted their family routines, distracted the kids from their studies, and was just inconvenient at times. My mother was livid at the audacity of her son and daughter-in-law. She felt disrespected, rejected, neglected, and she was raging on about it, hour after hour, for days. Here I was, burned out from holding all the pain and suffering of my clients for an entire year, longing to spend some quality time with my only alive parent who was aging by the day, wanting to be pampered by her with my favorite soulful, home-cooked meals, take a break from human messiness and there she was consumed by her rage. I was disappointed, frustrated, angry, and beginning to feel resentful. I was wallowing in self-pity and feeling like a victim.

In the middle of the night, one day, I woke up feeling so angry, when a soft voice whispered, “With all of your training and spiritual work, the onus is on you to dig deep and take the high road here. Find compassion, perspective-taking, and empathy for her so you can help her.” So, I decided that although I was burned out, I had to dig deep to find compassion for her and see what was underneath the anger and rage, so I could help her. And that is when I had an epiphany. I understood what my mom, her siblings, my friends’ aging parents, and in-laws were all struggling with. 

They were struggling with staying relevant.

The cultural anthropologist and neuropsychologist Dr. Mario Martinez who studied healthy centenarians across five continents, says that as humans we all have predispositions to belong, to be understood, and to be valued. The three essential questions that arise from these predispositions are Who am I? What am I doing here? Who cares? As we age, if these questions aren’t answered to our satisfaction, then it results in an existential crisis for us. As a result, it can trigger reptilian responses of fight, flight, freeze, fawn, and faint. My mom was using her typical response of fight because she is a formidable woman and a fighter. Under all that rage, I could sense her fear. She was fighting to stay relevant because she was afraid that no one cared about her and what she had to offer.

My mother’s generation is stuck between two different cultures in India — joint family and nuclear family. My mother’s generation was the first generation to experiment with the nuclear family system. 

Of these three predispositions the question “Who cares?” is tied to affiliation and relevance. We create affiliation through inclusivity, bonding, and curiosity. The shadow sides of these are exclusion/isolation, rupture, and boundary crossing. When we don’t know how to meet the need for affiliation and how to answer the question of “who cares?” in a healthy way, we start to resort to conditioned maladaptive strategies. This can look like clinging, people-pleasing, emotional blackmailing, controlling, bullying, isolating, criticizing, stone-walling, gaslighting, and so on. This then can manifest as depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and other psychosomatic illnesses such as IBS, Fibromyalgia, Insomnia, and so on.

Inclusivity comes from developing strong family ties throughout your life. My mother’s generation is stuck between two different cultures in India — a joint family and a nuclear family. My mother’s generation was the first generation to experiment with the nuclear family system. While they grew up in a joint family system themselves, they raised their kids in a nuclear family setting. However, they had a hybrid version in the sense that they took care of their aging parents and in-laws who lived with them. But because of globalization, the whole world is apeing the West, and as a result, culture is shifting in India. More and more nuclear families are sprouting everywhere as are retirement homes. Family ties are weakening and children are valuing their privacy and independence over family ties. Alas, my mother’s generation feels unprepared for this cultural shift and feels betrayed. Their parents stayed relevant till the very end and now it was their turn.

Inclusivity embraces; bonding solidifies relationships says Dr. Martinez. He further elaborates that both inclusivity and bonding require openness and tolerance to connect with others. Bonding is dependent on the triumphs and tribulations that a group experiences. If you do not experience life together and share the daily joys and sorrows, you no longer develop a caring co-authorship with your children and grandchildren. Bonding is ruptured and you feel excluded from their life. You become irrelevant.

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Many aging parents, to forge this bonding, bribe their children by offering free babysitting and housekeeping services. While the children are grateful, they want the parents to stay in their lanes and not overstep the boundaries in their parenting, marriage, etc. Parents feel resentful that their wisdom is not heeded and the children instead turn to the wisdom of Google search rather than listen to their sage advice. The parents start to feel like glorified servants and struggle to stay relevant by grasping for power and control. At this juncture, curiosity — which is the third component of affiliation gets too much and starts to look like too much inquisitiveness, gossiping, and interference. A cycle of pursuing and withdrawing ensues with the children withdrawing and their aging parents pursuing them with a vengeance.

These issues are not restricted to just my culture. It is a universal pattern these days across all cultures. As a psychotherapist, I have the honor of working with people across many cultures, and I see this struggle with many aging parents. It is especially pronounced in women who strongly identified with their role as a mother and were stay-at-home moms. They have the biggest identity crisis when their role as the family matriarch is threatened with extinction. The fathers also struggle, especially after they retire without having developed any hobbies, community, and sometimes not having close ties to their children.

Once I understood my mother’s rage in this context, I found myself empathizing with her struggle and finding compassion for her grief and loss. At the same time, I also realized that we are all fully responsible for the reality that we are co-creating for ourselves. All of us get attached to our narratives, our beliefs, and our perspectives and feel trapped by our choices. My aging relatives were trapped in their narratives and their choices. I realized that if we can allow ourselves to be a bit more open to a different perspective, and a different narrative and find some healthy exits out of our cultural traps, then it is possible for us to get our need for relevance and affiliation met through a healthy compromise. With patience and compassion, I was then able to reach my mother by breaking through her reptilian defenses and helping her find more agency in fulfilling her need for affiliation in healthier ways. It’s not perfect, and neither is it fully solved; however, she has taken the first step in the right direction. And that is good enough … for NOW.

Vinutha Mohan is a California-based licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in trauma. Before her avatar as a therapist, she spent over 15 years in the corporate world.

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