Thursday, October 27, 2011

The importance of the grandparent/grandchild relationship for barrel children

Grandparents are important in the lives of young children. They can offer positive guidance as well as a host of other supportive measures that predict positive outcomes. This link between grandparents and the well-being of future generations is clearly noted in the literature.

In particular, grandparents are central to the Caribbean family. As noted in the book Caribbean families: Diversity among ethnic groups by Jaipaul Roopnarine and Janet Brown, the authors argue that grandparents often share child rearing responsibilities, engage in skill building activities as well as transmit family history and norms. Furthermore, Professor Mary Chamblain indicates in her book “Family love in the diaspora” that the centrality of grandparents in Anglo-Caribbean families predicts family cohesion and child adjustment.

But what happens when this family bond is interrupted as a result of immigration? Do grandparents exert considerable influence on value transmission and child adjustment when they reside in a country apart from their children and grandchildren?

Professor Dwaine Plaza, an associate professor at Oregon State University, wrote on the influence of transnational grandmothers and their effects on third generation children living in Britain. He argues that grandchildren may suffer maladjustment from limited contact with their grandparents especially if these individuals previously played critical roles in their grandchild’s life. Limited contact with grandparents is particularly salient for barrel children who experience separation from their grandparents as a result of reunification with their birth parents in the immigrant country. These children often have to return to the birth country to see their grandparents and these visits are not nearly long enough. Dwaine offers this summation from an interview with a young girl from Trinidad who was separated from her grandmother:

For other third-generation informants, spending time with their grandmothers was restricted to return visits back to the Caribbean.
Since most Caribbean immigrant families were never financially well endowed this meant that making return visits to the Caribbean was a rare occasion. The long periods in between each visit meant that the grandchildren matured and developed their own character while grandmothers aged in the “home” country. For Denise, a twenty-five year old Trinidad-origin woman living in South London, her return visits were important because she was able to satisfy a “missing part” of her desire to understand her roots. The short duration of each return visit meant, however, that she really did not know either her grandmother or grandfather very well. What personal information she did now know about them came filtered via what her own mother told her. By the time Denise was old enough to ask serious questions about the family history both of her grandparents had passed away. Source: D. Plaza (2000). Transnational grannies: the changing family responsibilities of elderly African Caribbean-born women resident in Britain. Social Indicators Research, 51(1), 75-105.

Much like Denise, I left Trinidad and reunified with my parents in the U.S. I rarely returned to my birth country to visit during initial years in the U.S. My mother took me and my sister on vacation to Trinidad to visit seven years after we immigrated. It would be the first time I visited since I left Trinidad in the late 1970s.

The vacation lasted one week. We stayed with my grandmother in Maraval, visited relatives across the country, went to the beach, and shopped. I saw my old friends who lived next door, played cricket, and soccer. I ate foods that I missed like roti, tamarind balls, and doubles. I was in Trinidad heaven.

My cousins were delighted to see me. I even told a few to ask my parents to see if they could travel with us back to the U.S. I was so naive.

I cherished what little time I had with my grandmother. I was shocked that my strong bond with her had weakened over time. Seven years had passed since I had held her for comfort, cried on her shoulder when I got hurt, talked to her when I missed my parents, and depended upon her for food and shelter. She had aged and the vibrancy she once had while raising me as a boy had diminished. She was frail and had deep hollow eyes. I remember, on our return, my sister combing my grandmother’s hair with such care as if a sudden tug with the comb would entice every follicle on her head to release each strand.

Whether intentional of not, the forced separation from my grandmother had changed the nature of our relationship. More importantly, I did not realize how much it had changed me internally and would not realize it for some time to come.

We left Trinidad with fanfare. Everyone wished us well and hoped to see us soon. Little did I know that I would not return to Trinidad for many years to come.

I left home for college and the army and returning to Trinidad to visit became cost prohibitive.

My grandmother died while I was in graduate school. I went to the funeral with financial assistance from my parents. The mood was somber at the wake. I did not view the open casket at that point. I did not want to see her body. I wanted to remember her the way I last saw her – spirited and maternal, glaucoma and arthritis free, and somewhat mobile.

The tears came when I was finally faced with her open casket in the church. There she was dressed in a fine matron’s gown – at peace with the Lord. I thought to myself, there lay the woman that raised me for so many years as a boy. My eyes welled up and a critical mass of tears over-flooded its containment and streamed down my face. The woman who supported me during my first communion in the very same church I stood, helped me with my homework, provided for and protected my fragile spirit was being laid to rest.

I gave the eulogy. I really do not know why I was chosen. But I gave one that many said was moving. I left Trinidad hurt and experiencing a feeling of void that I hid from all.

It would not be until I got out of graduate school that I would return and return often. I wanted to know about my family in Trinidad. I wanted to know the culture and most of all I wanted to help my island nation. Although I am a U.S. citizen, my birth certificate says I was born in Trinidad and Tobago. So it is an undeniable part of me. I was driven to reconnect with my family both in Trinidad and the U.S.

From 2001 to now, I have travelled to Trinidad numerous times. I have worked on projects in Trinidad. I have done business in Trinidad and so much more. I will recount each of these trips in future blog postings and how my prior experiences as a barrel child guided my reconnection with my family.

I wrote this post because grandparents are important to the viability of future generations. They have knowledge of family history and can pass on best practices and advice that are associated with success.

Children who migrate to the U.S. and are separated from their grandparents must continue the grandparent/grandchild relationship. Parents who are reunifying with their children in a host country should take every means to provide their children the opportunity to visit the country of their birth. It is their right. It also is an intervention that would go a long way in sustaining the long term adjustment of the child.

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