My early years as an immigrant Silicon Valley bride were spent something like this—eleven months a year, prepare, pray, and long for an India trip. Twelfth month: drink up family-time in India. Repeat. Then a few years into our marriage, something magical happened—we got our in-house supply of ten little fingers and ten little toes. As a family we still longed for India, but no longer did I seek that twelfth month with unbridled ferocity. Our satellite family had morphed into a full fledged planet of its own.
Still, I often caught myself looking at my newborn, much like Jhumpa Lahiri’s character Ashima in The Namesake, “with pity.” Who would color his Holis and light his Diwalis if almost everyone in his first circle of family was half a world away? Though the intensity of the question bleached with time under the weight of diapers and potty training, it continued to niggle away at the back of my mind. I finally decided to embark on some detective work to find out what others before me had learnt about creating and raising a family on brand new soil.
Choosing to Focus on Family
The initial experience of isolation is an experience that resonates with many new immigrants, owing to the sharp contrast between the lives they leave behind and the structure of communities they enter. In typical South Asian memories, it’s hard to pinpoint where family ends and neighborhood begins, crowded as they are by influences and linkages of blood and friendship. In those childhood memories, parents are the primary caregivers, but there are others who share and lighten their load. This experience can be at marked variance with the reality in the United States, where the physical distance from relatives reduces the family to a core unit of parents and their young children.
Anmol Mathur, Founder and CTO, Calypto Design Systems, notes that the biggest difference between his childhood and those of his two boys is that they have “fewer opportunities to be by themselves and play with their friends. There is lesser unstructured interaction,” (with people outside the immediate family circle). Parenting in this new world means adapting and revising one’s notions of family roles and a willingness to don many hats—chaperone, friend, tutor, mentor.
This process of adaptation is something that is intimately familiar to Rupa Patel. Patel and her husband brought up their two children, Rhea, 24, and Vik, 20, in various cities across the United States. Patel, a Fremont-based school administrator, reminisces, “The first few years we did not have any close family in physical proximity; both my husband and I had lost our mothers at a very young age, so focusing on family and creating a close knit family was very, very important to both of us.” Patel put job-seeking on hold for the first decade of her children’s lives in order to spend more time with them.
The Mathurs stress effortlessness and ease while parenting, an ideology that finds much support. “We just do a lot of stuff together as a family; we always eat dinner as a family. Every Sunday the kids cook with Anmol. They love it and have come to look forward to it,” says Richa Mathur.
Ranu Haque, an educator from San Jose, parent to Anika, 19, and Lamia 8, adds in a similar vein, “Make the notion of family important to the child and the rest will follow automatically.”
Haque feels that real intimacy is fostered not always in the shared spectacular experience of the vacation, or the special birthday, but in mundane day-to-day interaction. “We noticed that our girls developed a strong bond of affection by just doing simple things; like the older one helping out the younger one with home work, watching shows together on National Geographic Channel, etc. There have been times when one parent is away at work and during those moments the children automatically gravitate towards each other,” says Haque. After a few days of leaving the girls to their own devices, Haque noticed that Lamia was now seeking Anika’s opinion and approval on just about everything!
While regard and responsibility for siblings are amongst the core values in South Asian families, they become the bedrock of the immigrant family experience when transplanted to an unfamiliar culture. Kalpana Asok, M.A. MFT (Marriage and Family Therapist), Cupertino notes, “Indian parents expect more closeness between their children, especially if they do not have many relatives in the area,”
“Our boys, Anshul, 9, and Ankit, 13, are very close,” says Anmol Mathur. “The younger one copies the older one; he knows that Dada (elder brother), Mama, and Dad are all there to take care of him.”
Nita Tewari, Vice President of the Asian American Psychological Association, attributes sibling intimacy and connection to a host of socio-economic factors. How and why children in a family unit connect and sustain a bond is, as she puts it, “a complex thing.” “In the course of my research work, I discovered that siblings from lower socio-economic families have to rely more on each other as they do not have access to as many resources. A simple example of that would be of siblings having to share a room, instead of having separate spaces of their own. Being thrown together they develop closer interpersonal relationships as compared to a family that is able to provide each of its children with more space and separate rooms.” Tewari has applied this insight to her own family life. Her two children, aged 8 and 5, share a room and will continue to do so till they reach middle school when their dissimilar genders will necessitate the need for privacy.
Rona Renner, Berkeley resident, R.N., host of Childhood Matters on Green 960 AM and mother of four children between the ages 20-38, offers a different take on sibling intimacy. “Remember to spend one-on-one time with each child; that reminds each child that he/she is individually important. Accept that as they grow they might not always want to be together; but they still need to learn how to treat each other in a considerate manner.”
She also cautions parents about overwhelming older siblings. “ … the older sibling shouldn’t feel like it is their role to take care of the younger child.”
Brendan Pratt, Ph.D., Co–Director and Pediatric Neuropsychologist at the Pratt Center, Los Altos, adds, “Kids tend to view fairness as equality; they need to be told that they are being treated fairly, but not always equally. For example, when our six-year- old daughter plays with her eight-year-old brother, we start her off with a handicap, so that she has an equal chance of winning the game. This also teaches her brother to be aware of his sister’s perspective.”
Friends as Family
When the family that you once knew is oceans away, its time to tuck them away affectionately in your heart and create surrogate units. Patel places enormous value on finding a few families to share mentoring and parenting responsibilities with. “No man is an island. It’s important to find friendships with people who share the same values so that children do not get mixed messages. Your friends should be people who can stand in for you when you are physically absent.”
Psychotherapist Asok encourages immigrant families to expand their repertoire of social linkages. “As the number of immigrant Indians rises in certain pockets of urban areas, there is a reluctance to make friendships outside the community. (It’s) more comfort(ing), perhaps, but our lives can be enriched by the differences that we experience in such a globally diverse region.”
For those who might not have a robust support system at present, or for families headed by single parents, both Renner and Pratt recommend not being shy about asking for help. Putting yourself out there, reaching out to your neighbors, joining support groups for moms or dads are all steps in the right direction.
Finding such a group can be very important for the child, but, as I discovered, it can be as rewarding for the mother. Storytimes at the Milpitas library gave structure to our weekdays and joining a social networking group, the Milpitas Moms and Tots introduced us to many new friends. There we met, among others, Rita Lu and her twins, Nicholas and Elizabeth, ages 4. The Lu family had waited many years for their babies and when the doctor confirmed two heartbeats, they were ecstatic. “It dawned much later how hard it would be to raise twins,” says Lu only half-jokingly. Lu found sustenance with two groups she joined—the Milpitas Moms and Tots and TriCity Mothers of Multiples, and set aside significant amounts of time to participate in and coordinate the groups’ activities.
In her long career, Renner has been witness to many changing trends and not all of them reassuring. “Families are now going at too fast a pace. There is no family dinner because everyone is on a computer or a cell. Personally, I noticed that whenever we had a family outing away from electronic media, the intimacy between siblings became manifest. As parents we need to ask ourselves—are we providing opportunities in our lives to include others or are we leading a life that isolates and does not allow for intimacy to surface?” Renner encourages placing family dinner back on its original pedestal of importance.
“Generally Indian parents are very involved and over-protective and tend to be stricter with their children,” says Tewari. Instead of over-scheduling ourselves and our children, and sapping the family’s creative juices, Tewari encourages introspection about the motivations underlying major actions.
Anmol Mathur suggests that as parents we need to be easier on ourselves. “We don’t need to take our children to classes all the time. There is lots of stuff that they can learn from parents.” His wife Richa agrees, “Children want to be with their parents too—they need time to simply be around them. Anmol tells our boys a new story from Indian mythology every night and over the years both the kids, and even I, wait eagerly for it!”
For parents who might have pressing work demands that only allow for nuggets of family time, no need to press the panic button. Renner, Pratt, Asok, Tewari, and their ilk offer hope. Be the first recipient of your compassion, with the mantra of doing just a little less. Allowing oneself the luxury of slowing down encourages spontaneity and family intimacy.
In plainspeak—don’t cram your weekends! I had one of my delayed epiphanies when I saw my two-year-old wolf down an enormous slice of multicolored sugar and cream laced birthday cake, his second in the day. Did we really need to show up at every single birthday party? Week after week?
Roots and Branches
Immigrant parents often associate their success in creating a happy family with their ability to pass on their heritage. For most first generation immigrants, balancing this sense of bicultural identity, and keeping a connection to the homeland comes naturally. Intermittent visits during the children’s school years, language and art classes, emphasis on learning the mother tongue, volunteering at the community association or religious center, all act as necessary threads in the complicated motif of a cross-cultural existence.
“We’ve never been worried about our children forgetting our language or traditions,” says Patel. She and her network of similar immigrant families have helped each other surround the children with their traditions and values. She recalls how during one Diwali her teenage son did not want to participate in the family puja and stepped out to visit some friends, only to return home in frustration because, “his friends and everyone in their families were also busy with the puja!”
Richa Mathur does acknowledge that her boys spoke more Hindi when they were younger, but is not alarmed by their allegiance to English over Hindi. “The children are at ease with both cultures; they love to wear kurta pajamas when they go to India.”
Nevertheless, as time progresses and the immigrant family sets down deeper roots in their adopted country, this balance might become a more tenuous one. Tewari, a second generation immigrant herself, wonders how her generation will be able to pass on their parents’ heritage, considering their own struggles with a bicultural identity. “It’ll be interesting to see how they are going to raise their children and expose their kids to Indian culture, now that their connection to India is not as strong as their immigrant parents.”
Tewari feels that the resources that supported the first generation of immigrants still maintain their utility for the second and third generations, namely, places of worship, social gatherings, and community-based associations. But, ultimately, “pushing Indian culture on the kids does not help them maintain an ethnic identity,” she says. “What does maintain a connection with the culture is a positive relationship with one’s parents. With a foundation of love and trust, the chances are greater that children will maintain their parents’ cultural traditions and strong ethnic Indian indentity.”
The task of raising a family in a new land comes with enormous challenges but, for me, it has not been without its rewards. My spouse and I are free to set new rules, to break new ground, to carry forth traditions and to let go of those no longer useful. As a family we have revised our notion of intimacy to reflect the changing dynamic of our lives. Our family unit may be small but it now spans two continents. Friends were, and continue to be, found in unexpected places—the Little Gym, the swimming pool, the neighborhood park.
I may not have the same resources my mother did, but have had the opportunity to create my own set. And these resources arrived from a simple intention to keep forging ahead, to tell my child a story, to teach him a language not my own, to greet someone sitting beside me in the library. The world of a child and the form of a family is richer with every little step you take.
Radhika Sharma writes and teaches from Milpitas, CA. She would like to acknowledge the help of Dr. Brendan Pratt, Rona Renner and Rita Lu.
* Some names in the article have been changed to protect their privacy.