Generally, a barrel child is a term most often used to label children who are a product of stepwise migration. They are children who are left behind in their country of birth while their parents work and live in another country. The term barrel highlights the fact that many of these children receive barrels of clothes, books and other wares from their parents residing overseas. The tan paper or blue plastic barrels, once emptied, can be seen in the back of houses where these children reside. It is important to note that some parents also send remittance in the form of money to the child’s guardian to use for upkeep.
Another term often used among academics to describe this migration process is stepwise migration. In other words, migration takes place in a piecemeal fashion where one or both parents may migrate to North America or the UK and send for the children at a later date. The separation of families in this manner commonly occurs in the Anglophone Caribbean. Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Guyana lead in the number of “barrel” children that exist.
The experience of being a “barrel” child is not well understood. When parents initially leave their child for life in another country, there are feelings of hurt, confusion, loss, and much more experienced by the child. This initial separation period could be damaging to the child and thus do permanent harm to a child’s psychosocial development. Some have suggested that the age of the child at separation, quality of the parent/child relationship, and the number of sibling being left behind are moderating factors. Yet there is little research to validate these hypotheses.
Sometimes, children are reunited with their parents and other times not. In instances where the parents send for the children, the children are put on a plane and travel to the country where their parents reside. Sometimes, parents return to the country and collect their children and take them back with them.
There are also situations where the parents fail to return to reunite with the children. These children for the lack of a better term are abandoned. They reside with relatives until they get of age to be emancipated.
Parents sometimes draw out the reunification process by taking one child at a time to join them abroad. This stepwise migration can occur for various reasons including lack of financial resources to reunite the entire family. Older children may have to finish school or may not want to join their parents abroad. Yet, some parents may not want to have the burden of taking all the children at once.
The reunification period at first is often exciting especially if the child is in a new and fun environment. I often call this time the “honeymoon” period. The novelty of the child’s surroundings often is a delight. Parents also tend to more lenient when faced with poor behavior. Parents tend to want to be in the good graces of the children rather than start any sort of punitive disciplinary practices that could fracture an already fragile relationship.
Although the parents and children are going through a reunification period, the children are also going through a period of separation as well. Children have been pulled away from their surrogate parents, relatives, and friends. As time goes by, children may begin to miss the people that cared for him/her while the parents were living abroad. This sense of loss is heightened by an uncertainty of when he/she may see their loved ones again.
There are many barrel children living in North America and Europe. Most have survived periods of separation from their parents, reunification with their parents, and separation from love ones. Yet, they survive!
This blog is my story of being a barrel child. Now that I am an adult I could understand how the barrel child experience shaped and continues to shape who I am today.
So I am writing this blog to document my experiences and call upon all “barrel children” to add their voices to this written tapestry. I will start the blog from my earliest memories. Many of the descriptions are culled from many hours of talking to relatives. My hope is that parents and children will read these pages and get some understanding of the barrel child experience that shapes the psyche of many Caribbean families.