Being a Nigerian who has now spent half of my life in the UK, I sometimes have moments of reflection when I compare Western and African traditions. I have learned that neither culture is better or superior, but they each have pros and cons. In order to maintain my sanity, I have concluded that it is best to pick the best from both worlds, as I see it, and live the best life I can, while staying true to my maker and myself. No one can be blamed for doing things a certain way if they do not know any better, but when we gain exposure and see other ways of doing things, surely, it is common sense to try to understand the reasoning behind each method and make a conscious decision about how to live our lives, rather than just following blindly because ‘it is our culture’. As a woman in an ‘intercultural marriage’, I am even more aware of the need to understand different cultures, without ignoring the need for unity in our home and marriage. We have open discussions in our home about our upbringing, perspectives and cultures, and will usually make a conscious decision about what to teach our children, after comparing the pros, cons and possible reasons for different traditions.
The most recent issue that I have been reflecting on is the relationship between parents and their adult children. Most Africans take pride in the idea that there is more ‘respect’ and ‘sense of community’ in African families. It is considered ‘rudeness’ when children speak freely to their parents, and ‘wickedness’ when elderly relatives live in a care home, for example. The common idea is that parents should be able to say whatever they want to their children with no consideration for the children’s feelings, and good children should bring their parents to live with them in their old age. I have seen many British people that live with their elderly parents or even visit them daily to check on them. I have also seen British people who have not been able to accommodate their elderly parents in their own home, for different reasons, and have found good quality care homes for them, where they are happy and well supported. On the other hand, I have heard of people who use care homes as a means of getting rid of elderly relatives and never bother to visit them. I have also heard of people who live with their parents or parents-in-law, and resent them and the fact that they had no choice in the matter - where is the blessing in that?
People sometimes use the analogy that parents spent sleepless nights raising their children, so children should be willing to inconvenience themselves to the maximum to care for them in old age. My problem with that analogy is that parents usually choose to have children and will (quite rightly) make decisions for those children as it suits the parents. Dealing with a parent is different because they have their own way of doing things, can make their own decisions as adults and they are not like a baby that you planned to have and made preparation for. I believe it is right to support and care for elderly parents, but nothing can ever change the fact that the parent is your parent and not your child. This becomes even more difficult when you have young children of your own and need to prioritise. Is it right to constantly ignore the needs of your young family or job to care for an elderly parent, or will it be acceptable to use a paid carer or home in this case? It is obvious that having no provision for basic needs and care for elderly parents is not right, but does it have to be the children themselves that provide that practical help because their parents cared for them when they were babies? Even as a parent, I use good quality nurseries and babysitters to care for my children, when needed. I make decisions and only make sacrifices I am happy with, so that I will not blame my children for anything in the future.
A more concerning aspect of this parent-child relationship is finances. I have heard of women who have kept secrets from their husbands and started wars in their homes in the name of gathering resources from their matrimonial homes to build houses and make life more comfortable for their parents/siblings. Some women will independently choose to give all their income to their parents, leaving their husband to shoulder all the bills in their marriage. Some housewives will even expect their husband to provide for their children, as well as the woman’s parents and siblings, from his limited resources. If he has elderly parents who expect the same too, we are talking about one man catering for three homes! Is it right to put so much pressure on young people who are just beginning to build their careers and families? It is no wonder the higher risk of mental illness and suicide among young men and immigrants.
Most African parents will be quick to say that they love their children no matter what and do not expect any money from them, but the reality is that many educated African children are seen as an investment for the future. I can understand that way of thinking if elderly parents have no education, no pension and probably only small businesses that crumble when the owner is too old to work. In today’s world where people can invest wisely, start companies and get pensions, is it right to expect young professionals to cater for three homes from their salaries? As a grandparent, would I be happy to live in comfort at the expense of my grandchildren? Only a selfish and foolish person would choose ‘keeping up appearances as a pampered parent’ over the basic needs of their children and grandchildren. The problem is that many people silently sacrifice much to meet their parents’ unrealistic expectations, because ‘it is our culture’. Yes, there are men living with their families in shabby London flats and building mansions for their parents in Nigeria.
I once overheard a young woman telling her baby that he would buy her a car when he is older. I was amazed that this kind of thinking is in our generation. If my son buys me a car, I would want it to be a gift from his heart and out of the abundance he has, not because I expect it and have made him to feel that he is a failure if he does not do so. If I want a car, I will work hard now and buy it for myself, so that I can even be the one buying gifts for my grandchildren. I strongly believe that perceptions and expectations can affect our outcomes in life. If parents continue to expect that their comfort in old age is dependent on their children, then their attitude to life and work will never improve. I know that sometimes life does not work out as planned, but if that happens, I pray that I will have the wisdom and contentment to accept my fate and appreciate any money my children give me as a gift, not a repayment. They would still be my children whether I educate them or not, and it is my decision to send them to university, so I should not use their education/job as a reason to milk them when they settle down. Besides, not every one that goes to school becomes successful, so it will be great if people stop taking the glory for someone’s education. The successful people we see today used the opportunities and support provided by their families to make themselves a success. There are many that did not!
The funniest analogy I have heard for this is that children should be a ‘biblical Joseph’ to their family to bring ‘financial breakthrough’. This is based on the story of Joseph in the Bible. When Joseph was reunited with his family, he brought his father and brothers to Egypt and shared his wealth with them. First of all, Joseph was a prince in Egypt when he did this, so he was not in slavery or prison when it happened. Some people are in the prison of debt (loans, credit cards etc) and slavery of abusive relationships (e.g. prostitution and loveless marriages) just to meet their parents’ expectations of giving them money whenever they want it. We should remember that Joseph’s father thought he was dead and was not expecting Joseph to come and give him money - he actually had income of his own before the famine.
As children become adults, what they need most from parents is emotional support, but I have seen parents who still give financial gifts and practical help to their adult children and grandchildren. This helps their children to have a better starting point in life compared to the ones who are being expected to not only fend for themselves, but also for their parents/siblings. I believe that caring for parents is about ensuring their wellbeing as much as we can, within our means, not about building big houses and buying fancy cars for them to make up for the money they spent on our upbringing. Obviously, every family has different circumstances and challenges, but the important thing is love. The love, acceptance and value we place on our children, siblings and parents should not be dependent on how much money they can give us - that is not ‘our culture’! If one’s child or sibling turns out to be a ‘Joseph’ that has wealth to share, it should be accepted as a gift, not a right.