Charu works hard to get along with her Indian mom so her children can have a relationship with their grandmother, but tensions around her parenting style remain. And therapist Salma Khan offers advice on preserving family bonds with estranged relatives while resisting the need to explain our boundaries.
Charu Kumarhia is a journalist, speaker and writer. You can learn more about her work here and here. Our expert this week is Salma Khan, a psychotherapist in private practice based in California. Learn more about her work here. If you loved this episode, listen to Mom Has to Teach Grandparents to Accept Her Son's Difference and Everyone's Asking "Are Your Pregnant Yet?"
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Hi, everybody. Today, we welcome Charu. Growing up, Charu had a difficult relationship with her Indian mom. As an adult, she's figured out a way to keep her a part of her life and in her children's lives, which is really important to her, but there's still tension there. Charu feels that her mom is still a long way from understanding her and her parenting choices. Let's get into it.
Charu: I'm Charu Kumarhia, I'm a journalist and a content creator based in the Southeastern United States. I have a background in journalism and I have a podcast called The Story With Charu, that deals with race and culture in America. Growing up, I called my parents Mummy and Papa.
My relationship with my mom now, there is a relationship there, but it is limited, and it's because I've put significant boundaries in place. I think one of the things that I had a realization of was that there was a lot of mental and verbal and emotional abuse for me growing up. I'm certainly willing to forgive. We can let the past go, especially when I became a mom and I realized it was tough and it was very tough for them as Indian immigrants. I've tried to let them have a relationship as best I can with my children and keep my kids out of the truth of it all because they don't have that many years left and these are the only grandparents that my kids have. So we have a relationship, but it's different now.
Charu: I was willing to put up with a lot, but I was not willing to take criticism of how I was mothering my children. We live in another state, it's not easy to see them. My husband traveled all the time, so I decided I'll go and spend some weeks in the summer with the kids there, where they live. We go there, and you start picking up on patterns in things. I realized if there's another stressor in her life, she'll take it out on me, instead of taking it out or dealing with it with the person she should.
Charu: A situation like that was going on, and my son was going through the pantry trying to find a snack. We don't let our children have a lot of sugar and junk. He saw something and he said, "I want that," and it was at the top shelf. I went over there and she starts screaming at me, "Don't show him things in the pantry if you're not going to let him eat it," because she has a lot of anxieties around food. Are we feeding the kids enough, ok? In her mind, she had created a scenario where I was not letting him have some kind of snack. I said, "What?" because it was so out of the blue. Then I realized what she was saying and I was like, "That's not at all what's happening. Don't scream at me. I'm out, I'm leaving." You know what I mean? We had gotten there, it was just day one, literally.
She said चलो मैंने कुछ कह दिया क्या क्या हो गया मेरी मम्मी वैसी कह रही थी Which means, "So what? I said something to her. My mother said things to me too, big deal," but it is a big deal and I'm not willing to put up with it. I'm just making a simple request that you not treat me like a garbage can. If you will, I will not stay here. That was the last time I stayed with them.
That's just one incident, there are many others, and there were many tries of trying to stay and make it work. When I finally just accepted this is not going to change and I don't deserve this, I just implemented the boundaries. I wouldn't make a big production out of it, I would just do it. What does that mean for me? That means they will not follow me on social media. I blocked immediately because there were becoming a lot of comments, "Why are the kids looking so thin? I don't think you give them milk," just craziness. We're going to stop that. I'm still going to show you pictures of your grandchildren, I will send them to you. That was one.
Charu: Number two was more direct contact. I will just speak directly to you, not through my sister that talks to you all the time, to you directly. Trying to make arrangements to see them, but maybe picking a neutral space, so nobody's home. Let's rent a house together, let's get an Airbnb together. Keeping the conversation light. If there's a negativity or a subject that's becoming negative, just skirting it. Any attempt to talk about, "Hey Mummy, you may have realized that I have these boundaries in place now with you, this is why," would not be productive. It would drain me.
There is a lot that I miss. Sometimes our chaos is so much fun when we're all together at one person's house, mattresses on the floor, sleeping bags, we're talking and laughing to the point where our voices are hoarse, but sometimes I think that dysfunction and chaos, we're starting to associate that with love and fun. I had to just accept though that you need to be cognizant if you're missing something that was never really there or never really existed. I still struggle with a lot of am I doing the right thing, but I can tell you I'm a lot happier. I think I'm a happier mom.
Lantigua: As a first gen mom, I've definitely had to set firm boundaries with my mom. She's not always on board about how I parent my boys. So, how can first gens maintain healthy relationships with our loved ones when they don't seem to understand or respect our decisions as parents? It's a big one for today. What can we do so that our children have the opportunity to build healthy relationships with them, if they choose to? To help us out, I called in an expert.
Salma Khan: My name is Salma, a licensed clinical social worker. Right now, I am in private practice as a psychotherapist. I do specialize with populations of South Asian Americans.
Lantigua: As you listened to Charu's story, what did you hear?
Khan: I heard a lot of familiar and common situations, issues that came up, that do come up even with my current and previous clients, issues regarding boundaries, issues with parents' moms in particular, the generation gaps between how parents, grandparents have raised their own children and then how they want grandchildren to be raised.
Lantigua: What do you typically guide your clients to do, to think about, to consider as they're navigating these troubled waters?
Khan: The generational gap, we have to consider the different cultures, sometimes maybe religion gets into it. There are a lot of things to consider, including intentions of the grandparents, the intentions of the parents, who would be the middle generation. There's such a huge communication gap, there's a lot lost in translation.
Lantigua: I'm so glad you brought that up, because one of the things that Charu says is that she's basically given up on trying to explain to her mom her point of view about how she's distancing herself, about the boundaries that she's trying to create between them, about the ways in which she essentially has to protect herself. I'm wondering, how does such a communication gap emerge? How is it nurtured over the years and how do we begin to close it?
Khan: I think that parents, or grandparents, the original generation have this belief that there is only one way to do a thing because that's the only way that they know. From a place of fear, because they don't know anything else, we don't want to deviate from what we know. When they see their children raising the grandchildren in any other way, that is very scary for them. When they see my generation, their kids, letting their children eat something different, get piercings, do whatever, go out dating, whatever it is, it's black and white, it's yes and no, right and wrong. There's no negotiation, because they came from a different country, we don't do that, there's no gray area. It's very hard for them to trust that their children, the new adults now, can possibly navigate that, so let's just err on the side of caution.
Lantigua: I hear you also talking a little bit about there's an inherent mistrust in our ability to parent, or in our ability to just make good decisions.
Khan: Yes, yep. It's incredibly frustrating, and that's where the new parent generation, Charu's generation, is having to just say, "We're having a failure to communicate. We're having a failure to negotiate and compromise, so I'm just going to have to set boundaries with you because you're not letting me parent my own children. You're not letting me do the thing that I know I can do. There's no room to make mistakes, there's no room for push and pull, so we're just going to have to agree to disagree. This is where my line is."
Lantigua: Oh yeah. No, no, I'm there. I'm definitely there.
Lantigua: But like Charu, I also miss the loving chaos of my family.
Khan: Right, right.
Lantigua: I do. It almost feels like an emotional banishment for the sake of protection, right? So, what can I and what could Charu do to ease our way back in while still maintaining the healthy boundaries that we want to set and also maintaining the independence that we have as grown ass people with kids?
Khan: Well, the love and the chaos and the social atmosphere that we miss, we also want to remember, what were the actual details that we're missing? We miss the food and the fun, but we don't miss the drama. We don't want the negativity, we don't want the criticism, we don't want the bullying that comes with the culture. We don't miss all that crap, but we absolutely miss the festivities. We want the food, we want the clothes, we want the music, we want all of that fun stuff, and that we can absolutely recreate.
Khan: We have to be very, very aware. We have to know what not to do, and Charu knows it. She knows very clearly, these are things that my parents' generation did, these are things that my mom did, no disrespect to mom or dad. We don't have to point it out and say, "You did this and I hated my childhood," we don't have to point it out to them necessarily, but we absolutely could make mental notes and not continue certain habits and pass it down to our kids.
Lantigua: Let's talk a little bit about the folks who are basically grinning and bearing it because of a sense of obligation, because of a sense of tradition, because of tremendous guilt that might be being poured on them. How can these folks begin to ease their way out of such difficult situations?
Khan: I guess it depends to what extent, what the obligation is. Sometimes the obligation is very real, especially in the South Asian culture. There's the obligation of literally having to take care of our parents in old age, that's a very real obligation. We don't want to just take on a silent burden of assumption, "Well, I don't know. One day I'm just going to have to do X, Y, and Z." These things require real conversations. Let's sit down, let's write down a living will, let's decide. If there are multiple siblings, have conversations with siblings, who's going to do what. Some conversations, regardless of how unpleasant they are, should be had.
Khan: Then other conversations that are maybe not so deep, maybe they don't necessarily have to be had face to face and so urgently, but we can feel our way through them. Even just raising our own children, Charu gave the example of what we feed our kids, should I give my child sweets versus grandparents are like, "Oh, he's just a kid, let him eat whatever he wants," that maybe requires a little bit more nuance." Maybe supplying the snacks and just saying, "Oh, here you go, Mom, here's his food for the day," saying it in maybe a more gentle way so that she doesn't feel like she's just a caregiver. She's not the babysitter, she's grandma. I'm kind of glossing over it, but there's maybe a more nuanced way than just having a sit down.
Lantigua: Let's talk about the B word: boundaries, because most of our parents simply did not grow up where there were boundaries, other than discipline-based boundaries, or forget about ever asserting your own boundaries. And many of us also did not grow up where there were physical or emotional boundaries. I never had a lock on my door. If I was in the shower, anybody could come in and handle their business, brush their teeth, whatever they needed to do. Now, we are parenting in a way basically that we would've wanted to be parented.
Khan: Right, yes.
Lantigua: How can we talk to the grandparents about that? How can we talk to them about these are the things that would've made me healthier and happier and would've saved me money in therapy had you instituted them, and now I'm trying to do that for my children.
Khan: I hate saying it depends, but it does, because what's the reason for having to explain? It's twofold, because there is a reason for allowing our children to have boundaries without letting them be entitled, but what's the reason for having to go backwards and then explain to my parents that I should have had boundaries? Am I trying to get them to understand where they messed up? Am I trying to get them to understand me now as an adult?
I don't know if my parents are ever going to, first of all, understand certain things looking backwards because they're always going to say, "Well, we did the best that we could," which is absolutely true. They may not take ownership or accountability of certain things. Is my goal to have them review my childhood and say, "Oh, yes, we should have, we could have, we wanted to," or is my goal for them to understand why I'm raising my child the way I'm raising my child? Or is my goal to just raise my kid in the little bubble that I'm raising them in and have my parents not so involved because that's probably the most peaceful way to do it? I've got to look a little bit more carefully at “What is my goal?” because they may not get the whole concept of boundaries.
Khan: You know what? I also say that sometimes we can set boundaries and we never have to state them. Sometimes we just decide, you know what, this is a boundary, but I'm not going to tell you that's my boundary. I've just decided I'm not doing this anymore, or I'm not allowing you to do this thing with me or to me anymore and you're never going to know.
Lantigua: Wait, wait, wait.
Khan: I’ve decided for myself.
Lantigua: What kind of Jedi mind trick? How do I do that?
Khan: You can be on the phone with somebody and you can just decide, I'm going to respectfully mute you.
Lantigua: Oh, okay.
Khan: That's a boundary.
Khan: Or someone may call you or leave you a message and you'll decide that I will call you back when I'm in a good place and I have the time to call you back, that's a boundary. But I'm not going to text you first and say, "Hey, I got your message. Let me deal with the kids first." I don't even need to tell you that.
Lantigua: I'm fond of telling my children, you don't have to go to every argument you're invited to with each other.
Khan: Exactly. I tell my clients that all the time. When people are talking and people are saying something in the room, first of all, are they even talking to you? And does everything need a response?
Lantigua: That's one that I still have to practice, honestly, but I'm working on it, I'm working on it. My guys, my boys, are teaching me how to do that because they want me to referee every fight and I just don't want to. What have I not asked you in terms of the dynamics that Charu's story brings to bear about intergenerational relationship and about the cultural nuances of trying to get essentially respect and trust from our parents?
Khan: I don't think it's an issue of what you didn't ask, but I think something that we can keep in mind is trying to be aware of what we're asking to be respected for. Sometimes we fight to be respected for a specific thing, or we're trying to get our parents to understand a certain thing or respect us for a certain action or behavior, and maybe we're fighting against a brick wall. This is hard, because I need to practice what I'm preaching as well, maybe we need to recognize and find a way that we can earn some kind of mutual respect, where they can see us sometimes as peers, but then maybe in certain ways they do just see us as their children and see what is it that they can respect us for? And find mutual ground that we can find respect on. Why push a thing? If it's not going to be, then why insist on it?
Lantigua: Ah, thank you so much. I'm so grateful that you came on the show.
Khan: I'm honored to be invited. Thank you.
Lantigua: All right. Here's what we learned from Salma today.
Keep what worked. When setting aside the family habits and behaviors you do not want to pass down to your kids, try to remember to keep the ones that actually worked. Those practices, celebrations and traditions where you felt joy and love, where you had fun.
Hold the explanation, decide what your boundaries are and act on them. That's it. You do not need to explain yourself to others, period.
And remember, understand what you are truly after. Is it respect around your parenting, is it acknowledgement of past mistakes, or something else? Getting clear on this will help you decide which conversations are worth the energy and let go of the ones that are not.
Thank you for listening and sharing us. How to Talk to Mami and Papi About Anything is an original production of LWC studios. Virgnia Lora is our show's producer, Kojin Tashiro is our mixer, Elizabeth Nakano mixed this episode. Manuela Bedoya is our marketing lead, and Juleyka Lantigua is the creator and host. I'm senior editor, Monica Lopez. On Twitter and Instagram, we're @talktomamipapi.
Bye, everybody, same place next week.
Lantigua, Juleyka, host. “Maintaining a Relationship with Mom, for the Sake of the Grandkids.”
How to Talk to [Mamí & Papí] about Anything,
LWC Studios., August 22, 2022. TalkToMamiPapi.com.