Domm Yu Barkeh: Familial Relationships as Implicit Social Contracts

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Domm Yu Barkeh: Familial Relationships as Implicit Social Contracts

I promise, something weird is going on with my life where as soon as I plan to write about a certain topic or issue, my real-life almost always mirrors it to the point that when it’s time to actually write the post, there’s always a personal anecdote connected to it.

Like clockwork, this week is no different.

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I encountered a situation with a very close family member. A little situation, no biggie, but I was all in my feelings about it. On the surface I looked at myself in the mirror and scoffed at the dramatics of it all. Like really? But deep down, I knew that the reason why I was so shaken up had nothing to do with the situation itself and everything to do with the underlying feelings, questions and anxieties it awoke.

Is it right to feel that you are indebted to someone because they took care of you at a time when you couldn’t do so for yourself?

How do you negotiate relations of dependency that are rooted more in comfort and familiarity than necessity?

What do you do when you feel like your personal/familial relations are really just unspoken social contracts of ‘I scratch your back now so you can feel indebted to do the same for me in the future’?

If, as Jean Jacques Rousseau said in The Social Contract, “man’s first law is to watch over his own preservation; his first care he owes to himself; and as soon as he reaches the age of reason, he becomes the only judge of the best means to preserve himself; he becomes his own master”, could it be that we love, care and nurture each other as a  means of futural self-preservation?

I am inclined to say yes, especially in regards of familial relations in a Gambian context. I don’t know about you guys but I no longer bat an eye when I hear people talk about their children like they’re insurance policies. I was once advised by a family friend to get married and have children early so that I can “rest” earlier in life. This sentiment is echoed throughout most of the conversations I overhear (snoop on) regarding parenthood and child-rearing.

As in:

“Yalna sa dom yi barkeh nga giss sunj mageh nyu yobu la Mecca, jendal la kerr.”

“So ameh njabott rek nopaleku nga.”

“Wajurr bu neka dafa buga dormam yi terral ko elek.”

“Suma dom yi maga nenj, legi warr nenj ma nopal.”

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Let me be clear, I am not against children looking after their parents and providing them with a life of luxury. Heck I wanna do that for my momma too! Child-rearing is a difficult and endless job and it deserves full-recognition for the arduous task that it is. But, I am extremely uncomfortable with the notion that somehow children are born to be dispensers of hajj tickets, houses, cars and stacks of money for their parents/relatives later on in life. The framing of pregnancy, child-birth and child-rearing as a sort of guarantee for later life not only centers capitalist ideas of “usefulness” and “personhood”, it can also create crushing pressure for those who feel like their worth and the love they receive is dependent on them hitting these material-based targets.

Not only this, but Gambian parents at times, have a way of making you feel like you should be eternally grateful to them for being alive and that because they brought you into this world,  you are shackled to their commands. Resistance is ingratitude and attempts at reasoning are acts of defiance.

Let me poke the elephant in the room: children do not ask to be born. They did not have a choice to be put on this slowly depleting planet and it is your responsibility to take care of them until they can continue doing so for themselves. Fulfilling said responsibility is hard and sacrificial – yes, but it is not a debt which they have to repay. Don’t make them feel like so.

In my personal life, the way in which this manifests is not through parental relations but through close relatives. Those whom contributed in taking care of me when I was young (and perhaps still do so now only because I’m their “baby” and not because I actually need it) and whom I now feel emotionally indebted to as in I don’t wanna hurt their feelings, don’t want to explicitly disobey, don’t want to appear contrarian, don’t want to be the cause of pain or sadness or anxiety, lest I be reminded of the effort and sacrifices they made for me and all the different ways in which I’m throwing mud on those noble acts of theirs.

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I think that this creates conditions under which love becomes dependent, and dare I say, unhealthy. How do you look someone in the face and convince yourself that if anyone in the whole wide world loves you unconditionally, it’s them when there are a whole list of (un)spoken expectations between you and them?

Some argue that actually, this is a motivating factor for them because it pushes them to work harder and makes them feel like the struggle their parents went through was worth it when they are able to take care of them, even in a small way. I agree with this, somewhat. But, I feel like this does not negate the undue pressure that can amount from these relations of dependency. What if life hits you rough and you’re unable to take care of those who nurtured you? What happens when you’re in a situation where you feel like you have to choose between yourself and them? How do you deal with the heaviness of knowing that your love, respect and care for them will probably be measured in ways that are beyond your control (as you are subject to the realities, complexities and disparities of the capitalist, neo-liberal, neo-colonial world, especially as a black person)?

I resented those whom, at “significant” moments in my life (graduation, employment etc) thought it was their duty or even their business to point out to me that the importance of those moments served as the beginning of some sort of debt repayment for my family. I’m glad Y happened to you so you can repay your family for the X they did for you when you were younger.  First of all, shut up. There can be no repayment because there isn’t or at least they shouldn’t be, a sense of indebtedness.

If your children make it in life, they do. If they don’t, that’s unfortunate but it shouldn’t affect how much or how little you love them. It breaks my heart when I talk to adults who express personal problems that they’re experiencing based solely around the idea of ‘who can do that most’. Siblings resenting each other because they perceive there to be a difference in how much their parents love them simply because one sibling is able to do more (materially). I am always tempted to say “no, that’s not the case, they love you all the same” but deep down, that doesn’t align with my observations about Gambian society. I fail to see how parents can not create a sort of attention hierarchy when it comes to their children if the initial expectation was that those children’s existence would provide them material security or elevation..

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