The dangers of being a ‘dutiful daughter’ – Simran Sahdra

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The dangers of being a ‘dutiful daughter’ – Simran Sahdra

Since the dawn of time, women have been known to be and inherently are caregivers. This is no different now in 2020 and is especially no different in the case of south-asian women since our cultures are heavily based around strong family values and caring for both the young and old. Women are often expected to assume the role of a carer automatically and at times, this can lead to women abandoning their ambitions and dreams in order to fulfil their caring role. We also cannot forget how in many cultures, there is often stigma attached to assigning these caring responsibilities to anyone outside of the family. This only increases the anxiety and stress for the family who is caring for someone – be it a parent, grandparent, spouse or child among other relatives.

I graduated a few years ago and my initial plan was to save some money, complete my postgraduate studies and probably move to London (or abroad) to work as a lawyer. However, these plans took a back seat as during my second and final year at university, my dad had begun to display symptoms of dementia. My mum and I would often come home to find doors and windows open, the cooker or tap left on and my dad has started to struggle with simple tasks such as making a drink or simple lunch for himself.

My dad was unable to drive due to his condition which meant I would have to drive my parents to various doctor / hospital appointments and discussions with a psychiatrist to try and understand what was happening. I had to keep my university in the loop about these things as it meant rearranging classes etc and so one of the professors suggested I should take up counselling to help me cope with the increased stress I was facing.

I decided to go for some counselling sessions and these were a real eye opener. I am fortunate to have two wonderful, extremely caring and supportive parents and I have always been the type to ‘get on with it’ no matter what life throws at me. But of course, all the pressure and stress I kept bottled up all came flooding out in the therapist’s room. At the end of these sessions, my therapist left me with some advice which was basically a warning – to be careful that I don’t leave myself on the back burner too long and ‘lose myself’ in the pursuit of being a ‘dutiful daughter’. These words shook me to my core.

Immediately following my final exams, I began an unpaid internship for the entire summer as I turned 21. Along came graduation and my dad’s ability to speak and freely express himself had started to become limited. However, one of the last things I remember him saying clearly is how happy he was to see me graduate from university with a law degree – and this still sticks with me today.

After graduating, I would appear to others as ‘doing well for myself’. I was promoted at work then changed jobs to go and work at a reputable law firm in line with my long term career goals. I also began my postgraduate studies on a part time basis while still working full time and got promoted (again!). However, what people weren’t seeing was that my dad’s condition was deteriorating somewhat rapidly and I would have to balance things such as helping my mum with dad’s personal care in the mornings (including washing and dressing), giving him breakfast and cleaning up before going to work ourselves.

I knew the achievements in my work and study meant additional stress but something inside gave me strength to plough on and I knew I had to do this for myself. Perhaps it was the fear of ‘losing myself’ as the therapist had warned me. As hard as things were at home, my mum was also telling me the same – that I should take care of myself first and not give up on my own ambitions and happiness. Naturally, she was also concerned that I had said relationships and marriage were not on the table for me because of how I felt about the support needed at home.

I had come to terms with the idea that that I would have to give up my intentions to move away from home and work elsewhere because I was convinced that I had to help out at home for the rest of my life. I struggled to look past my current situation and dad’s condition was getting worse by the day as he lost his ability to talk, walk or do anything for himself.

It was only after conversations with several people who came and saw what we were dealing with on a 24/7 basis that we were encouraged to ask for support. My mum and I were hesitant because of the well-known question; “But what will people think?”. Would they think that we were incapable of caring for my dad or that we weren’t doing a good enough job?

But it was time. Time to call for support from carers and family members and start to reduce the burden we had on ourselves. My mum was constantly in pain due to having to lift and move dad ourselves and this led to her arthritis getting worse. She was always worrying about dad and was doing (and still continues to do!) all she could for her husband. I myself had my fair share of anxiety, chest pains etc to the point where the girls at work started lunchtime yoga sessions to help me relax.

Were we worried about what people thought? To some extent as it is just so embedded in our culture but then again, no. If they tried a day in our shoes, they too would realise just how much we were dealing with. We barely had time to do a weekly shop some weeks. The past couple of years when my dad was admitted to hospital, I would run from the office during lunch to go and feed him and check up on him. What did this lead to? Sheer exhaustion.
No social stigma is worth your mental or physical health. As the saying goes: “You can’t pour from an empty cup”.

Don’t get me wrong, for us and many other carers out there, particularly in the south-asian community, it is still a 24/7 responsibility to care for a family member and it is stressful. Typically, this falls on the women in the house. But battling with emotions daily, attempting to balance our responsibilities as career women, daughters, sisters, partners… it can get rather overwhelming!
This is all the more reason to be comfortable in asking for help – for the sake of your own sanity and ability to do the things you want in life. I mean south-asian women didn’t come all this way just to reduce themselves to being someone’s wife, daughter etc. I mean, yes we are proud of that and we don’t mind caring for our loved ones, but it is not all that we are.

No one should have to compromise their mental health and happiness because of an unfortunate event. If we work to get the right support systems in place, we can avoid getting burnt out and having to feel like we need to give up on our ambitions and dreams. Though my dad can’t communicate, I know for sure that he would never have wanted me to do that.

Imagine how different and better life would be if our community was more open about these issues and if we created an environment where people felt more comfortable in discussing their issues more openly. Perhaps if we don’t assume just because someone ‘shows up’ every day and looks OK that they are coping well. We could be the ones to ask them and initiate the conversation.
We need to work harder at this in an effort to eliminate the social stigma around issues such as mental health and seeking support. There is no shame in this and I hope that the community comes to terms with this soon. It’s in everyone’s interest.

As women we cannot ignore our innate tendencies to care for and love our family, but remember that is just a small part of the wonderful, talented, multi-faceted south-asian women we are today. We have so much more to offer the world, too and we can still achieve all the great things we want to if we choose to put ourselves first, take care of ourselves and allow ourselves the time, physical and mental capacity to do so.

By Simran Sahdra

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