Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Child-shifting and West Indian Migration


I recently read a 2003 paper entitled “Rethinking the Caribbean families: extending the link” by the renowned Professor Mary Chamberlain. In the paper, Professor Chamberlain argues that grandmothers are central to the cultural beliefs of families in the Caribbean. She goes on to explain that the current view of grandmothers as surrogate parents to their grandchildren in order to help their children overcome economic challenges is simplistic. Furthermore, the simplicity does not account for the cultural importance of the extended family in rearing children among Caribbean people. In this view, shared parenting is seen as cultural capital for West Indians. This is similar to Melvin Wilson’s description of the cultural capital accrued by African American extended family units through among other things the exchange of goods, services, support, and oral and written history.

Professor Chamberlain makes a good point in her summation of the importance of grandparents in the Diaspora story of Anglophone Caribbean family’s migration to North America and the UK. She suggests that “…family formation preceded the migration movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries…and was the enabling factor in, rather than the consequence of, migration.”

I concur with Professor Chamberlain assessment. She formulates a very interesting perspective on the predictors of West Indian migration and has the potential to enhance our understanding of migration. There is ample evidence, even in my life experiences, where the enactment of support (e.g., a grandmother caring for grandchildren) allowed parents to make a decision to migrate. In contrast, a different decision may have been made in the absence of similar types of support from a grandparent.

In other words, grandparents who engage in co-parenting afford parents the opportunity to pursue options for migration abroad. If Professor Chamberlain argues, that the West Indian cultural belief of the centrality of the grandparent in collectivist parenting then one can logically assume that parents were free to explore opportunities abroad knowing that their children would be taken care of by the grandparent(s).

She says, “[grandparents] willingness to care for grandchildren enabled their own children to migrate and may thus be seen as a necessary prerequisite for migration.”

How does this fit in with the ‘barrel child’ experience. For some time prior to my parents migrating to the U.S., I stayed with my grandmother during the week in Maraval while my parents worked. Sometimes I stayed with my aunt in a town called Belmont close to the Capitol. On weekends, I would return to my parents until the next Monday when I would return to my grandmother.  

This arrangement was agreed upon because it was the best child care arrangement at that time. It also was consistent with the collectivist parenting that permeated the West Indian culture. The shifting of children from parent to grandparent and to aunt and uncles and even older siblings was common across the West Indies. Fernando Henriques, the prominent Jamaican scholar, calls this child-shifting - the temporary or permanent fostering of the child by kin folk, usually a grandmother, aunt or a close family friend.

I was shifted as a youth to the care of my grandmother when my parents migrated to the U.S. My uncle recalls being sent by his mother (my grandmother) to live with his older sister when he was very young. My uncle sent his first born son to live with his grandmother when he was seven. He lived with us in our grandmother’s house.  Each child-shift could have been decided for different reasons. It could have been childcare, migration, financial stress, limited resources as well as a myriad of others.

It is possible that child-shifting can have a negative impact on the parent child relationship. However, there is limited research in this area especially among the West Indian population in nativity. It would be interesting to examine whether similarities exist between related cultures where the extended family is seen as an asset. For instance, is the West Indian collectivist parenting ideology supportive to the overall well-being of the family and its members similar to that of the West Indian extended family?

Moreover, does the impact of child-shifting on the parent child relationship vary as a function of the number of sibling in the family, how many are getting shifted, and in particular who is getting shifted? Therefore, it may not be as important to be shifted as it is to understand the reason why you are being shifted in terms of impact on the parent child relationship.

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