Q: My wife and I got married in India seven years ago and migrated with my parents four years ago to California. After having two children and getting to know each other more intimately as a couple, we are having some difficulties with my parents. They have always wanted me to be closer to them and not share many details about family, money, and personal feelings with my wife. When I first got married, I went along with my parents’ request. I thought they were right and I didn’t want to disrespect them. But now, after seeing how that leaves my wife feeling disregarded, I want to have a different kind of family. How can I best do this?
A: This is clearly a cultural and intergenerational issue. Your being the married son taking care of your parents forces you to straddle between two family structures—the traditional, hierarchical, extended family of your parents’ generation, the one you grew up in, and the modern, nuclear family around you in the United States. These familial and cultural changes and conflicts are present today in India as well. Yet, living in the United States accelerates this process considerably.
Trying to shift from the traditional to the modern perspective and lifestyle, or integrate both into one family can be quite challenging. Your parents, as elders of a male child, will feel entitled to their way of interacting in a family. They are operating out of a framework they know well and adjusted to a long time ago. They expect you to be the good son and keep it just the way they always thought it would be. Meanwhile, your wife, as a woman and living in the West, will have her own ideas, needs, and desires about marriage and raising children. This may differ considerably from your parents’ wishes. Although you are endowed ample power in this family, at first you may feel lost and confused about which model you prefer or think is right.
You seem quite attuned to your parents’ and more recently to your wife’s expectations. What are your own thoughts and feelings about this? Take some time to explore for yourself what kind of a family you want at this stage in your life. What are your values, needs, and dreams for yourself, your marriage, and your parents and children? Talk with your wife about your discoveries and ask her about hers. She needs to know that you are truly interested in her well-being and not just your parents’. Bring in the best from the family-centered, Indian culture. Add to that what you like in the individual, conjugal, marital relationship-centered, Western model. From this broad viewpoint what do the two of you want to create together? This will need to be the new foundation for your family.
Gently explain some of your thoughts to your parents. First, reassure them that they have an important and respectable place in the family. Let them know what isn’t working for you and your wife and why. Hopefully, they will be open to hearing and dialoguing about it. If not, then it is up to them how they wish to respond to the changes. Be ready for various reactions: resistance, withdrawal, anger, sadness, blame, and guilt. This will challenge you to be strong about your deeper values and the shifts you want to make towards a more egalitarian and mutually fulfilling family system.
Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist in Palo Alto and San Francisco. (650) 325-8393. www.wholenesstherapy.com