By: Farishta Anjirbag
On 19th April, 2020, the Coronavirus lockdown had been in force for a little over a month. Every night, my family and I – all finally in the same place at the same time – had been eating dinner together, talking, discussing, sharing opinions. It was a time of getting to know each other all over again.
On 19th April, in some unprecedented revival of the teenage angst I used to carry around with me at age 14, I wrote in my journal:
“My parents seem to take all the wrong things seriously.”
I think there is a time in every person’s life when they get to take control of their experiences and worldview. They get to develop an identity. That time, for my peers and me, began a few years ago, and will go on for many more. We’ve developed opinions that are not only evolving with each passing day, but also becoming closer and closer to our identities. Casteism, racism, homophobia, islamophobia, for example, are all ideals a lot of us are strongly pitted against. If someone blatantly propagates any of them, it is not in our interest to engage with them. These opinions – both in us, and in others – are then really important to our identities, our perception of others, and whom we choose to surround ourselves with.
Recently, India was plagued by the huge controversy of our new citizenship law. Our social media was stormed with news, opinions, and protests. Like those of many others, my opinions on this law were so strong (as they continue to be), that I unfollowed and removed every person who disagreed, even if it wasn’t with me directly. I just didn’t want to have these people in my life, and it was easy to let go of them. They were only acquaintances, only people I followed on social media.
But what would I have done if these views were held by someone I had been attached to my entire life? We can’t really choose the people who have surrounded us since birth. We can’t choose our family, or the community we were born into. While this doesn’t present itself as a problem in our childhood, things change as we start to develop minds of our own. Opinions change, and often, they don’t align with those of our family or community. Suddenly, it’s not so easy to just leave these views behind, or distance ourselves from them. And we start to question whether we really belong in the midst of the people we’re supposed to have loved all our lives.
This is precisely what provoked the return of my teenage angst that night.
Over the years, my parents have defied a lot of my beliefs and expectations in small but important ways. At that particular moment, having been indoors with them for a month, I felt like my we didn’t value the same things. For them, issues like the climate crisis and homophobia were easy to overlook, but premarital sex was always a subject of great disdain. I couldn’t understand how we were so similar in some ways, and so fundamentally different in others. It didn’t help that they took me lightly; that they probably thought my beliefs were only a result of my youthful idealism, and I would calm down once I was older.
This is a conflict that recurs not just with me, but with a lot of people I know. We all deal with it, albeit in varying forms and degrees of intensity. It got me thinking about the relationship we have with the people we’re expected to love. Is that really love, or just a familial or communal bond? And in the face of foundational differences in opinion, where does this bond factor in? Is it easily shaken? If so, then what about love – the thing that supposedly defines our attachment to our family or community – where does it come in?
For more insight into these questions, I spoke with a few peers and friends about their own experiences with this conflict. I asked them what the differences in opinions were in their relationships, how they dealt with them, how they felt about them, and where love came into the picture. Before I tell you their stories, it is important to note that while a lot of these disagreements are centered around social and political problems, the conflicts I am narrating are personal. Everyone has their own way of dealing with things, and their decisions are determined by a number of factors. There might be some opinions in here, or some manner of handling the conflict that won’t resonate with everyone. But all the insights in this article are valuable, and is not a call for undue judgement, criticism, or counsel.
The first person I spoke to is passionate about body positivity, and seeks to devalue the concept of an “ideal body”. Her mother and aunt, forever on the quest to hide their stomachs or choose the most “flattering silhouettes”, disagree. Moreover, her mother is also tired of being constantly corrected by her daughter for her implicit sexism.
Then there’s her Hindu nationalist father, who doesn’t want her to marry a person from another religion, “...god forbid a Muslim.” While with time, she has managed to create a slight dent in her mother’s sexist remarks, nothing she can do or say seems to change her father’s mind. So, of course, it affects her relationship with him: “I can’t talk as freely without starting an argument or making things uncomfortable. But that’s also where it ends. Because…conversations of those sorts are not an integral part of my relationship with my dad. We connect on other things...” She recognizes also that changing one’s mindset is a process and takes time. So, despite the fact that she doesn’t agree with him on a lot of issues, her love for her father remains unaffected. “I may not like him all the time, but I love him for what he is, flaws and all.”
So far, so good. There is definitely hope that we can coexist in peace despite our differences. There are ways to work around it and slowly make a change. Love, in this relationship, has a simple and easy place: it’s there. It allows the person to criticize, but also to understand; to disagree, but also to accept. With the next few people I spoke to, however, things were a little more complicated.
My second conversation was also with someone whose parents are supporters of the nationalist ruling party – the BJP. She never talks to her father about politics. It would inevitably infuriate them both. With her mother, she tries a little harder to listen and understand, but sees no reciprocation. Superficially, her relationship with her parents isn’t much affected by this because she hardly ever brings it up in conversation. This is a source of guilt for her, because “according to whatever we see online, you’re supposed to be continuously having these difficult conversations at home”. Be that as it may, these rhetorics never really mention the mental strain of arguing about these things, for everyone involved. They describe very one-dimensional situations. This is not to say that avoiding active conflict has made everything okay for them. Their communication has been hampered – she feels like she needs to keep things from them.
Despite this, she doesn’t want to cut her parents off, because she’s lived with them her whole life, and knows that at the end of the day, they are good people who have just been misinformed. Further, they are her parents – if this had been an aunt or an uncle, she would have cut them off. So, even though it went away a little when she learned about their political leanings, she still loves her mother and father. This love, in turn, allows her to recognize their goodness and their capacity to do better.
Of course, since these things are hardly ever one dimensional, she acknowledges that had her parents’ opinions affected her more directly, things would have been different. She is bisexual, and if her parents were homophobic, for example, it would bring another array of emotions and complexities. She would obviously want her parents to accept her. But if they did, how would she cope with the guilt of getting them to forgo their religious beliefs (which bring them peace) to condone her sexuality? But if they didn’t choose her, she would probably have to cut them off once she was financially independent. However, this would in no way be an empowered decision, but a necessary one – it would bring a lot of pain and even some regret.
So, what guides our actions in these relationships? Society’s norms? Our fear of confrontation? Our desire to have peace in the house? And then, is it really peace if it has an underlying conflict?
A little more insight into norms and confrontation, came from the person I spoke to next – a young woman from a patriarchal home, tired of the taboos and gender roles that roam her house like additional members of the family: sex cannot be mentioned even when it’s part of the word “sexist”; it’s most appropriate for women to be married by the age of 23 (by which time they will know all about cooking and nothing about sex); and everyone must compromise and accept the decisions of the man in the house. For the person I spoke to, this man is her father. She has tried relentlessly for several months to make a change, subverting expectations and promoting conversations whenever possible. During the lockdown, she and her father would spend many nights talking about their issues, discussing what they didn’t like about each other’s behaviour, and trying to reach a compromise. However, when an “I’d like you to stop complaining all the time” turned into a “you don’t even talk to me anymore”, she could tell it wasn’t working out.
Because of these differences in opinion and lifestyle, she no longer feels like respecting her father. With her mother too, things aren’t always great. The expectations to be a perfect household manager, to accept everything the way it is, and to appreciate rather than challenge, are overwhelming. All this conflict keeps her up at night, for hours at a time. She doesn’t feel like there’s any love left, and she doesn’t know whether she wants to stay in this kind of a relationship forever. Yet, several years down the line, she still sees them being a part of her life. She wants to earn a good income and provide them with all the comforts of the world – not necessarily out of love, but not really out of obligation, either; some middle ground, some other bond.
What is familial love, then, really? Is it different from a familial attachment that we mistake for love, because we can’t know any better? For her, there’s little doubt that the two are distinct.
Familial attachment becomes different from love for her family, since there is no common ground for love to work on. She does try to see where her parents are coming from and promote a healthy dialogue; but understanding becomes hard because they refuse to even acknowledge the existence of these issues.
So then, what happens to overlooking these differences? How do you peacefully coexist with someone if all they do is disregard your identity and emotions? Even finding common ground on other subjects requires some connection, some understanding. What happens if there’s no understanding? According to this person’s experiences, the relationship might sustain because of their familial bond, but it won’t have much place for love and empathy.
Understanding was a prominent theme in my conversation with the next person. I spoke to a classmate and friend, who disagrees with her parents about social institutions, political support (not centered on the BJP), their approach to resolving societal problems, and Catholic homophobia. Among her reasons for not wanting to cut her parents off, is the fact that they also agree upon a lot of things. Moreover, she recognizes that her parents don’t relate to a lot of her opinions because they were raised differently, in a different time. This makes it “kind of unfair to expect all of it to make sense to them one fine day”. She appreciates them trying. “I think they can see where I'm coming from with a little more effort...So, it could be that hope, or it could be...a sentimental attachment that I share with them, which leads me to overlook minor disagreements.”
At the same time, she knows that even though her parents may not be strongly opposed to her opinions now, it’s only because they don’t take them very seriously. For the time being, they enjoy having these conversations for the sake of healthy discussion. “But that’s just the problem. They think that it’s just a healthy discussion...they think that it’s a phase, you know.” They don’t realize what their daughter’s opinions actually mean to her; and they’ll only truly understand this when she is 25 and still has the same outlook. She also makes an effort to keep things from getting too messy by not bringing them up, because she cares about her parents.
With that being said, if, in the future she has a disagreement with her parents that seriously disturbs her mental health, and she is financially independent, she won’t think it “unfair” to cut them off (but maybe a little sad).
Apart from love, understanding, and familial bonds, mental health was a recurring theme in my conversations with these people. How do conflicts of opinion affect our mental health? Is overlooking these differences and avoiding them good or bad for our mental health? Does a deterioration in mental health stunt our love? Is it worth breaking bonds over?
The last person I spoke to has parents who are “hardcore right wingers” (nationalistic, BJP supporters), and have completely different opinions from him on important political and social matters. Any arguments against his parents’ Islamophobia makes him liable to such remarks as: “Looks like you’re going to become a terrorist one day”, as well as suggestions to “get circumcised and convert to Islam”. If he had financial independence, he would prefer to cut them off because of their toxic beliefs and emotional abuse.
“Throughout this lockdown,” he told me, “I have watched my parents gradually transform into monsters. I have watched as they devolved each day. I barely feel love for them anymore.”
The detachment from his parents is not merely a result of differing ideologies, but also of the lack of understanding and the emotional abuse, of “being robbed of a normal family life”. He also added that he would have forgiven their abuse if they had at least opposed the BJP and what it stands for. In the future, however, things will only change if his parents admit they were wrong in treating him this way.
When asked whether love had any place to grow in relationships like these, he said that though he wasn’t sure, it might be possible. He says, in the end, “All this hatred and venom that they have put on...has basically come from a small political class who have (with good PR) managed to get my parents on their side. This is just their latent Islamophobia coming out, along with other complex, unresolved feelings. I know that in spite of all this, they're actually mostly disillusioned. I choose to hold on to hope.”
Based on what I’ve seen, the general opinion in the media and amongst people has been that conflicts and differences in opinion are a normal part of family life, especially between generations. Everyone has to deal with them, and learn to work around them. But, is there a limit to their normality? What boundaries do we have to push to take these conflicts too far? When can we no longer work around them? Moreover, can understanding do any good in escalated situations? We may see where the other side is coming from, but does that automatically warrant acceptance?
And so ended my interactions for this article: with a lot of questions for a lot of different situations. I had begun work in the naive ambition for answers: where does love find its place in this kind of conflict? I am left only with more questions, and perhaps a better grasp over the complexity of the matter. I will say that noting complexity is probably worth the while in a time where dismissing it has become so easy. We live in a world of difference and subjectivity, and there is no universal right or wrong in the way we deal with conflicts of opinion. You aren’t a bad person for not trying to change your parents’ minds. You aren’t a bad person for cutting people off. You aren’t a good person, either. You’re just making your own way. The only thing that pays off is knowing your situation and preserving your identity in the way you see fit.
On April 19th, after much deliberation, I didn’t take my conflict to bed with me. My journal entry ended on a relatively positive note. I love my family, despite the fact that we don’t agree on a lot of things. I know them as people, and as parents. In all their capacities, I know their compassion and their desire for peace. I understand that we have different ideals because of our generation gap, and also that they try their best to not let that get in the way of relating to their children. I know that they wouldn’t do anything to promote hatred, even if their opinions are sometimes misguided. We disagree on a lot of things, and this conflict will persist in me for a long time to come. But I am willing to look past it because I love them. In terms of the limited factors I discussed in this article, I can say that my parents and I often try to understand each other, we compromise and relent, and we support each other. Is that what it takes for love to grow out of familial bonds? I don’t know, I can’t answer that for you. I can only leave you with questions.