A few weeks after I was born, my father travelled to Japan for work for a month. My mother packed her bags and baby, and headed to the cool hills of Darjeeling, to the warmth of her mother’s home and to the magic of her love.
I remember nothing of that time, but in the 25 years since, my maternal grandmother, my nani, has always been there for my mother, my younger brother and me. We saw her during summer vacations. We were nourished on her love and her lamb kebabs, the best in the world.
This special relationship between mothers and daughters, two women actively working on maintaining a relationship, pays huge dividends to relevant grandchildren in terms of food, devotion and love. I have lived that experience. As a daughter, and as a granddaughter.
Yet, despite the strength of this bond, when it comes to practical matters, my maternal grandparents rely more on their son.
When my nani slipped and broke her leg last month, she worried endlessly about staying with her daughters. She is currently happily recuperating at her son’s house, even though she spends a good hour every day on the phone with my mother, whose calming words and good advice helped her overcome her trauma.
Looking after elderly parents in India is considered a moral, cultural and religious duty, but apparently not for everyone. Married daughters are exempt from this responsibility, as once married, they form “a part of the family” they marry into, and as daughters-in-law, are more responsible for looking after the in-laws than their own parents. Parents, for their part, consider living off the earnings of a married daughter “morally wrong”.
Researchers have documented that even though elderly women have stronger ties with their daughters, they are strongly resistant to staying with them. In particular, studies found that parents most preferred living with a son in their old age, and least preferred living with a daughter.
A married daughter was chosen only if the parents had no sons or the sons had moved away.
If all these differential expectations resulted in was that grandchildren get relatively less time with maternal grandparents, I would still be writing this piece. But there is much more than that. Knowing that it is sons who will eventually support them, parents invest less in daughters and in making them independent.
It is no surprise, then, that not enough Indian women are financially independent, that our female labour force participation rate ranks 121 out 131 countries, or that only 27 per cent of adult Indian women are in the labour market, compared to 79 percent of men. The Economic Survey estimates as many as 21 million “unwanted girl children,” girls whose parents wanted sons instead. While qualitatively very different from the foeticide and infanticide of the past, this leads to insidious underinvestment in resources and opportunities of girls.
Today, it is easy to say that the current system has persisted in India because for too long sons have usually been the earning members of a household. Daughters, instead, depend on their husbands. No wonder then that parents prefer living with sons. But if parents invested more resources in their sons to begin with, then we are living the outcomes of a society we created ourselves.
Do sons feel more responsible for their family than daughters? Have they stepped towards that role independently? Or is their role in looking after “their family” reinforced from childhood the way it rarely is for girls, who are told that primary responsibility is the family they marry into?
In 2014, the Bombay High Court ruled that married daughters are just as responsible for looking after elderly parents as sons. But if parents themselves hesitate to accept support from daughters, there is little a law can do.
Imagine, instead, an alternative world. One where parents have similar expectations from their sons and from their daughters, and divide their time living with children equally between them. In such a world, parents would invest in their daughters to be financially independent and expect support from them, no longer relying only on sons. Daughters-in-law wouldn’t have to forego their relationships with their own mothers. Daughters would have more support from their parents in juggling careers and children. Grandchildren would get the best of all grandparents.
A fairer system of dependence would forge healthier interdependence. I wish that all Indian parents expected more from their daughters.
That, if anything, will help make our families and societies more equal, and ensure that no child in a giant family tree has to miss out on kebabs stuffed with love.
The writer, 26, is a Ph.D. student at the University of Oxford and a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School.