Caring for ageing parents is seen as the responsibility of a son in our society. Even though it is women who shoulder most of the physical labour that goes into elderly care, as daughters-in-law, the credit, or rather the accountability of parents’ wellbeing rests with a son. As daughters, we face a social limitation in our involvement with the lives of our parents. Why can’t a daughter be seen as a care provider for her parents? Why does society have an issue with a woman taking care of parents after marriage? Why must a married daughter be otherised and devoid of the right to care for her ageing parents?
Being the eldest among two daughters, this is an issue that often gnaws at my mind. Once my parents age, and are no longer able to care for themselves, what happens? There is a sense of helplessness that I feel, and am sure many women will resonate with. But long before such a situation arises, society makes it clear to women that they belong to the house we are married into. Everything from the time we spend with them, the equation we share with our parents after our marriage is scrutinised. A woman who frequents her parents’ home “too much” after marriage is looked down upon, and a verdict of doom is passed upon her marriage. All because she wants to continue being a daughter to her parents, despite being married off.
A married woman’s parents are part of the family too
There are many women who cannot care for their parents, because they have no support either from their parental side or from the family they are married into. How many husbands and in-laws in fact would approve of living under one roof as one big happy family, with parents from the other side? How many partners would help out with caregiving of parents and even shouldering expenses of their wife’s parents? Are a daughter-in-law’s parents seen as a part of the family structure in a household, on the same level as her in-laws?
The problem doesn’t lie with a partner or a household, it lies in strict cultural norms and how they govern the way kids are raised in our society. Even in 2020, sons are told that they are the future of a family. They must study hard, get a good job, get married, and then eventually care for their ageing parents. For Indian couples having a son is like a pension plan for a comfortable old age. Sons are given preferential treatment, no because they were born with a halo over their head, but because parents see a prospect of a comfortable old age in them, and the lure of carrying forward the family lineage. No wonder the gender ratio in this country is so skewered. However, this approach is as unfair to men, as it is women.
It is unfair that men should have to be responsible for elderly care on their own, as it keeps their focus solely making sure that they are financially sound, to keep their parents comfortable. How many men get to work in a field they love, rather than the one which pays better? Wouldn’t that change if women are educated and encouraged to work on an equal footing in a house (basically when sons and daughters, husbands and wives are treated equally? Also, elderly care can be an exhausting duty, I know this from having seen my parents and uncles having cared for their 80-something mother, who was bedridden in her last couple of years. Wouldn’t it be better then, if this duty is shared by siblings in a family, irrespective of gender?
In cases when a parent only has a daughter, they shouldn’t have to worry about their final years or have to deal with loneliness, after losing their partner. All this can change if Indian parents stop burdening one gender with parental care, and estranging another, as “parayi“.
Attitude of parents needs to change
The problem doesn’t lie with my matrimonial household, in my case though. My husband walked into this relationship knowing that he was responsible for the well-being of my parents, as much as I was for his. The problem, on the contrary, lies with my own parents’ mindset. The old fashioned couple won’t even accept an expensive gift from their daughters, one of whom isn’t even married mind you. By the time they would need our care, my sister would be married as well, perhaps. So the question in front of me is, how to convince them to come and stay over with us, if and when the situation presents itself?
At the end of the day, it is about loving your parents and being there for them when they need you the most. And if the only thing that stands in between parents and children sharing love and care is gender norms, then it is about time that they are smashed away.
The views expressed are the author’s own.