Monday, March 17, 2008

The Visiting Grandparents

- by Deepa Krishnan
Flying as often as I do, there's a special class of Indians I always see at the international airport - the Visiting Grandparents. They are usually very respectable looking couples, solidly middle-class, off to meet their children and grandchildren in the USA. The women are often in kanjeevarams; the men in 80's style shirts and trousers.

If they're first time flyers, they look distinctly uncomfortable, clutching travel documents in rexine pouches and looking around anxiously. My heart goes out to them as they battle the chaos of the airport, searching for Immigration, worried sick that the plane will somehow take off without them.

But if they're veteran flyers, ah, then it's an entirely different story. The veteran Grandmother has sensible closed shoes peeking from under the kanjeevaram, and a bold look in her eye as she drags Grandpa along. "Check-in is that-a-way, don't you remember?” she says in an exasperated tone. Grandpa argues about it a little, but then gives up and trundles along, pushing the baggage trolley. He has a sweatshirt that says 'Princeton', and shoes from Nike. The rexine pouch is still there, but the airport is no longer a scary place.

On one of my flights, I chatted with an elderly Tamil couple who looked like veterans. They were comfortable and relaxed as they waited for the flight to London.

"My daughter is in Cincinnati", said the gentleman. "We're going to see her".

"Oh, isn't it winter now?" I asked.

"Yes", he said "she was talking to me last week, and she sent me photos of snow in her backyard."

His wife smiled at me and said "Nowadays everything is on the computer. Skype is wonderful, you know? I don't understand this computer stuff, but my husband does". And she looked at her husband with a fond smile.

"So how long are you going to stay?" I asked.

"We have a six-month visa", said the lady. "My daughter has two small children, so I am going to help her."

"Do you enjoy it?" I asked her husband in my famous friendly-yet-nosy sort of way. "Or is it difficult?"

"The winter is difficult", he said frankly. "It gets dark early. Sometimes I want to run out of the house straight to India. But otherwise, it’s really nice to spend time with my grandchildren."

"He doesn't have much to do around the house", said his wife. "That's why he gets bored."

"She wants me to learn cooking at this age", he said, a little irritably.

"Why not learn?", she retorted. "Do I not change my habits when I go there? Do I go saree shopping or to the temple, or to meet my friends? We must all adjust."

I quickly changed the subject. "What does your daughter do?" I asked.

"Oh," they said, beaming, "She's a senior manager in telecom engineering, at Cincinnati Bell."

"She's just got a promotion, you see, so now she has to travel a lot"

"And the children are still small."

"And her husband also works very late hours."

"So we offered to help."

"Poor things, they're really struggling."

"Six months we stay in the US, then six months his parents stay."

"His parents can't handle the winter, my son-in-law's mother has arthritis. So they go in summer, and we go in winter."

The flight was announced, and they got up and walked away. "We're really looking forward to seeing the grandchildren", said the lady, smiling at me before she left.

As I watched them go, I wondered what their six months would be like. Would the gentleman get grouchy as the months went by? Would the lady miss her friends and social circle? Like all other things in life, I guess being a grandparent is a mixed blessing. There is the delight of hearing a grandchild speak, of watching them grow - things you probably didn't have the time for when your own children were young. But there's also a price to be paid if your children live far away. For this couple, being with their family also meant being cooped indoors in a strange place with hostile weather.

But what is it that makes us value family more than our own selves? Perhaps it is the peculiar social conditioning associated with children and child-rearing in India. Children - the continuation of the family line - are considered somehow above everything else. Detailed discussions of what the child ate, when and how that passed out of the digestive system, what the child drew in playschool...almost no detail is too small to be discussed minutely. Naturally, grandparents are happy that they are valued, useful, and still have a say in such an important part of the family. Internal and external conditioning makes grandparents willingly sacrifice their free time.

And what of the daughter in Cincinnati? Does she feel guilty, commandeering her old parents’ time? Is she doing the right thing? A friend of mine, who lived in the US for many years, says that Indian couples living abroad use their parents as "cheap baby-sitters".

He had this to say: "Here is a message to young Indian couples living abroad - grow up, loosen your wallets and show some respect to your old parents who dedicated their lives to bringing you up. At the very least, before you make a decision to have children, ask your parents if they would be willing to spend miserable months abroad to raise them for you, while you live the good life, and build that fat bank balance."

Strong words! But perhaps he is not being fully fair. Most grandparents *do* want to go help their children. They see it as a continuation of their duty, their dharma. It is natural to them. And to bring a bit of gender politics into this: if you're the mother of a working daughter, you definitely have a big desire to help. Mainly because you know that it is very hard for women anywhere to keep their careers going after children, and if you don't help your daughter, then all that effort your daughter put into her MBA or whatever will just get washed away in nappies and detergent.

My parents helped raise my daughter, because I went back to work two months after she was born. I am not ashamed of asking my mother for help, although we had the means to employ a nanny. This was the right decision for my daughter. Later, I experimented with day care as well. But irrespective of how good the day care system was, it was no substitute for family.

I do not think I was being unfair or selfish. Why? Because I know for certain that I will do for my daughter, what my mother did for me. And that's what makes all the difference. When you pay it forward, the cycle becomes fair.

My mom says nothing worthwhile comes without some pain. For the blessing of children, women go through the pain of labour. Tasty food is usually not healthy food. Travel to exotic places comes with a fat bill and weird food. It’s all about balance. When I become a grandparent, I'll gladly pay the asking price for the sound of baby laughter. What I received as a daughter, I'll give as a mother.


Anonymous said...

nicely said, deepa. it's a delicate situation for most indian couples in the US. i wouldn't 'expect' my parents to give up their life to raise my kids. at the same time, i think they will be more than happy to help if the situation arises.

for a little while, i thought you were writing about my parents (future projection.):)BTW, isn't it a bit early for you to be thinking about grandchildren?

Deepa said...

No, I didn't write it about you, since you don't have kids. What set off the Cincinnati reference was the snow in the backyard photo on venkat's blog photo. I wanted a cold place to refer to. The other references are from a mix of about 20 couples I know, ranging from my own in-laws, assorted family friends, aunts, a couple of batchmates of Pramod, etc. I recently had an airport chat in Bangalore with an elderly couple struggling with the security check, so that came into this too.

Deepa said...

The Skype reference is totally your mom, though! he he he

Anonymous said...

Each grandparent is unique, becomes fair when you ask your mom whether she's ok doing this? For how long? And especially if she's visiting you overseas, making sure you also spend time on her, taking her around to things she likes doing.And accepting it gracefully if she says, no, I dont feel like it. Many mothers feel guilty saying no, they're conditioned to 'sacrificing' for their children.

Anonymous said...

It all depends on the parent- child relationship. I have seen instances where the mother has gone to help the daughter leaving her aged husband to fend for himself. I think that is totally unfair. A lot of children are really self centred these days, and even though as parents we would go out of our way to help children - they should also ensure that the parents are comfortable during their stay. And as you say - there is a lot of joy in bringing up grandchildren.

Anonymous said...

The tricky part is when they already have their sons grand children to take care at home in india, but the " american son " is calling the parents to help himself save day care for two children.


Ravi Ramakantan said...

There is no place like Home - India!


Preschool in mumbai said...

Very well explained, its like the incident is happening right in front of us.