While we have grown up watching popular movies portraying joint families as a treasure trove of love and affection, one does wonder, are they as supportive and happy as we are made to believe? Numerous youngsters in India are choosing to live away from their families, citing interference on behalf of relatives as one of the biggest reasons why they were inclined to shift bases. Keeping that in mind, perhaps we need to look at joint Indian families sans the rose-tinted glasses that cinema has placed over our eyes.
The joint family structure used to be pretty common among previous Indian generations. The main strength of a joint family was known to be unity and the combined strength of all the members. It was expected that family members will not only share resources with others but will also protect and help each other during a crisis.
However, many Indian families today prefer a nuclear setup. While families want to hold their relatives close, they also want a certain amount of agency and flexibility. Young members of joint families especially, move away from home to put some distance in between. But why? Just what deters people from joint family setups today?
Joint families are not bad but in order to grow and live a peaceful life, people today feel the need to have some boundaries and get away from a controlling environment. We spoke to Rusha Datta* about her experience with her joint family and her eventual separation from it to a nuclear family of her own. “It is nice to have a family and a support system behind you but it grew suffocating for me, especially when I told them I don’t want to marry or have kids, it was a blasphemy,” she recounted. Datta had to keep explaining herself till one of her uncles told her that this will not be allowed in their home and that’s when she decided to move out. “It wasn’t easy and it will probably never be but at least I am not controlled by anyone all the time. People might change overtime but you can’t wait around for that long, ” she added.
Here are 5 joint family problems that most people face but are never encouraged to talk about:
1. Rigid patriarchal norms – The traditional joint family structure often has patriarchs at that top who have to be respected by everyone. In our society, age determines the respect people expect and extract from others, not their behaviour. So whatever the elders decide is the final word and very rarely do the younger ones have authority over their own lives. Starting from the choice of subjects in education, career path to choosing a life partner, it has to be with the approval from elders in joint families.
2. Women’s struggle to have a career– Women are often treated as unpaid labourers in Indian households. In joint setups where it is a tradition for daughters-in-law to stay at home and take care of the entire tribe, it further becomes a struggle for women to have a career. In such orthodox families, bahus who hold a job are either villainised or discouraged from working, even by other women in the family. Since everyone is expected to live life by a uniform code in joint families, a working daughter or a daughter-in-law sticks out like a sore thumb. Instead of standing up for each other, women usually pull others down out of insecurity. Such behaviour often discourages women from marrying into joint setups.
3. Lack of freedom – Many joint families have strict rules that have to be followed without exception. From day-to-day choices to life changing decisions, everything has to be done keeping these rules in mind. Whatever one does, it automatically affects the rest of the family so everyone’s approval is required to prevent any trouble in the future. But it becomes very difficult for young women to take small steps towards their goal as they need to prove themselves worthy to everyone most of whom, coming from a different generation or backgrounds, don’t relate to them. Choice of clothes, friends, job, marriage or even the number of kids one will have depends on family’s opinion on the matter, thus robbing individuals of freedom and agency.
4. Dysfunctional democracy – In theory, the financial system of joint families look great as everyone needs to contribute equally and there should be no parity in treatment, based on their income. However, since it is mostly men who earn, women are treated as inferior members who must serve the male members first, before attending to their own needs. So while men are allowed to have certain agency over their lives, women are often denied decision-making power due to the notion that they are weak, or the convoluted idea that a family’s dignity is tied to their conduct in public spaces.
5. No existence of privacy – Indian parents are known to not understand the meaning of privacy and in cases of joint family it is even more evident as everyone in the family is involved in your personal matter all the time. Sometimes in case of crisis, one needs their loved ones to take care of them but when that involvement continues in every little aspect of life, it becomes unbearable. Mostly when it is the matter of a woman and her choices, everyone in the family feels entitled to voice their opinion and control her life.
Suggested Reading: When Will Parents Stop Treating Their Daughters As Strangers After Marriage?
There are toxic patterns in a joint family that are difficult to disengage from but having a family is always great. The problem isn’t with living under the same roof with your family, but with the kind of atmosphere such living setups often lead to. Joint families need to evolve into more democratic spaces, retaining strengths like providing support, but getting rid of practices like policing, if they do not want young members to walk away from the setup.
Views expressed are author’s own.
*Name changed on request