How would you describe your relationship with your parents? How often do you engage in meaningful communication and to what extent are they involved in your professional and social life? When you have a major decision to make, who do you consult first, them or your friends?
The relationship that once characterised the family unit has dramatically shifted over time, thanks, in part, to new family formations which operate differently from the traditional setup, as well as technology, which has substantially redefined how families relate.
We had a candid chat with four young people who give us a peek into what today’s family is like.
MAUREEN NJERI, 22
Njeri grew up in the same household with her mother, grandmother and several cousins. Everything was done communally, including dining and going to church. A typical united family.
Years later, Njeri and her mother moved out of their maternal home. Mother and daughter live together in Nairobi, but their relationship is not what it used to be, it is now defined by need.
She explains, “Now, I am closer to my friends than I am to my family. I spend more time at work with colleagues and with friends in my social circles. I rarely meet my cousins, who I grew up with and played with, or even get in touch with them. The only time I interact with my mother is during dinner time, which is usually for a few minutes before I go to bed. Our relationship is no longer as close as it once was.”
Growing up into a young woman, Njeri says she has had to establish new bonds and appreciate the need to grow beyond the confines of family.
“I have been able to network with people who have influenced me differently,” she says, noting that technology has also influenced how she interacts with her family, particularly with her mother.
“My mother and I hardly have any meaningful conversation. We spend most of the time chatting with our friends online. We live in the same house yet in totally different worlds,” she reveals. The two only get to have a significant chat when it is absolutely necessary, but even then, this is done cursorily.
“Recently, there have been reports of murders of young women in the media, and when she watches such stories on TV, she reminds me to be vigilant, to avoid situations that would put me in harm’s way,” she says.
Interestingly, when Njeri plans to make a major decision, she first consults her friends before seeking her mother’s advice.
“It is important for me to hear my friends’ opinion before confiding in my mother. If it is an ill-informed decision, I trust them to point me in the right direction. I will then decide whether or not to go ahead and inform my mum about it,” she adds.
She once resigned before informing her mother, who she says would have advised her to hold onto the job until she got another.
“Once I make up my mind about something and fear that my mum might disagree with me, I go ahead and do it and only share with her when there is nothing she can do to sway me,” she explains, arguing that this eliminates tension between them.
She is however quick to explain that though she is independent, there are some communication ground rules she must observe as long as she is under her mother’s roof.
When it comes to her extended family, she regrets that when she and her cousins meet during get-togethers, everyone is glued to their smartphone, making the gathering pointless.
Rather than face-to-face interactions as had been the case in the past, Njeri’s extended family mostly communicates using WhatsApp.
“Whenever a family member is in need, for instance, we form a WhatsApp group to mobilise financial support, members then send their contribution to the affected person instead of visiting them,” she explains.
She adds that as soon as a group has achieved its purpose, it is pulled down, “because sustaining robust conversations has become harder by the day - boredom soon creeps in.”
Drawing from her experiences, she feels that the society should acknowledge that times have changed and as such, families should adopt communication channels that work instead of holding on to approaches that no longer work.
REUBEN NTAYIA, 27
Reuben is the second-born in a family of four children. His father, a politician, was a strict disciplinarian. He was mostly away due to work, and when he returned home, Reuben and his three siblings kept their distance.
In this household, rules of engagement were clearly demarcated, and everyone observed them without fail.
“My siblings and I could not talk to our father directly. If we needed anything from him such as material for school, we had to go through our mother, who would then relay the message to him. Failure to do this was considered a serious breach of protocol which had its consequences,” he recalls, adding that his patriarchal Maasai community has strict guidelines on how members of a family should relate.
The ‘curtain’ has worn over the years, but there still remains distance between Reuben, his siblings and their father.
“I was the black sheep in my family, and, unlike my siblings, I often got into trouble with my father,” he recounts.
Reuben describes his relationship with his father as lukewarm, like that of a teacher and his student.
“Distance characterises our interaction, but there is mutual respect too. Over time, new avenues of engagement have come up. My father and I are business partners, this way, we are able to have conversations like adults,” he explains.
“I think his strictness has slackened a bit. He has become more lenient towards us as we have grown older,” he observes.
Like Njeri, the real estate investor feels closer to his friends than to his family. His elder brother is in the military while his younger sister is a lawyer. The lastborn is in high school.
“This difference in our pursuits has sometimes morphed into an element of distance between us because there is hardly much we can share professionally. There are times though when I feel that we have become too preoccupied with our individual lives at the expense of family. This is understandable nonetheless,” he argues.
He goes on, “I have business partners and clients whom I meet and talk to daily. These people constitute a significant and indispensable part of my life, and as such, I treat them as my secondary family.”
How Reuben relates with his family is different from how he gets on with friends. The two relationships cannot compare, he says.
“Your folks elicit special feelings in you and so do your friends, but the kind of emotions that each entity arouses are worlds apart. Neither can replace the other. It is also erroneous to try to imagine the two on an equal footing,” he notes.
Reuben however considers his parents his ultimate support system, without which his life would constantly be off balance. “People who have both parents are lucky, they are your gods on earth. Their love and care is priceless. With patience, mine have groomed me to face the world.”
He adds that he and his siblings are in a transition, and whereas they may be working and living on their own, they are largely dependent on their parents.
“I still rely on my family for financial support and counsel. They are my source of inspiration as I contend with the challenges of youth.”
Reuben hopes to raise a more close-knit family, where intimacy will prevail over rigid rules of interaction.
“My dad’s approach of distance may have worked for him in that age, but I want to be closer to my children. I want to make them feel that they can easily have a one-on-one conversation with me. We can cultivate respect out of love and intimacy.”
ANGEL WANJIKU, 20
STUDENT AND FILMMAKER
Angel is a third year student of film and media studies at Moi University. She has three sisters. While her family was close-knit, she feels that distance has grown between them by the year.
“I was open about everything I went through growing up, for instance, I could easily confide in my mother about anything going on in my life. Over the years though, I have become more private, wanting to deal with my issues and fears on my own,” she says.
Part of the reason she feels distance has grown between her and her family is her nature of upbringing.
Her parents, she says, have been in the real estate business for a long time, since she was 10, in fact, buying and developing property in different parts of the country. This meant that her family was occasionally on the go, moving from one town to another.
“Sometimes my siblings and I would be left behind for several weeks on our own as our parents travelled for business. This situation made us become somehow independent,” she says.
While she agrees that parents should be protective of their children, she takes issue with those who overexert themselves on their adult children’s lives, arguing that by allowing children to venture out on their own early on, they grow into responsible young adults.
“Adult children should be allowed to lead their own lives by being given the leeway to make their own decisions about things that matter to them,” she argues.
Does she involve her family in her social life? Only where and when she must, she says.
“Unless something is so serious to require the intervention of my family, I am better off doing things my own way,” Angel says and adds, “We often discuss my academic life, for instance, and the possibilities in my field of study. My parents support me in all possible ways and appreciate my film work. They also share my achievement with family friends. This is encouraging coming from them because film is what I wish to pursue in the long run.”
Her dating life though is out of bounds, she emphasises.
“I do not think it matters to my family at the moment regarding who I am dating. Besides, I am currently not in a relationship that I feel my family need to know about,” she says, adding, “I will only involve them when I am convinced that my relationship with whoever I will be dating then has a solid future.”
Her parents, she says, are not overprotective of her, and that so far they have accorded her enough support to pursue her desires. Her biggest fear though is to fail her family.
“I wish to conduct myself well and observe all the good ideals I was brought up in. I believe in my ability to succeed and to make them proud.”
EMMANUEL MWENDA, 28
Mwenda is the firstborn in a family of two children. His parents were evangelists. Church, family tours and other family activities were critical components of their upbringing.
Mwenda desired to be like his parents, and grew up hoping to emulate them.
“I thought I could be an evangelist like them. There was also immense pressure from them to carve a life out of evangelism, but the more I tried to pursue evangelism, the more I failed. It took a couple of very terrible decisions to accept that I could never fit in their shoes.”
Life, for this family, took a turn for the worse when his father passed away when he was in university. As fate would have it, his extended family alienated them.
“All the communication and support systems were suddenly cut. My mother, sister and I were on our own. In the absence of my dad, I was forced to occupy his position and assume the male figure in my family, which was not an easy task,” he recounts.
Mwenda observes that the unfortunate death of his father made the family bond tougher, “as the three of us were now all we had”.
He has since graduated and has a job, and is careful to keep his family abreast of everything happening in his career. He also consults them whenever he has to make major decisions about his career. He is also his younger sister’s keeper.
“My sister is studying in the UK. I call her several times a week. We are closer. As a millennial, her circumstances and mine are very much the same, which makes it easier for her to share her concerns with me more than with our mother,” he observes.
“When you want to flourish, you seek for advice from as many sources as possible, the first source should be family. Your family will always be there for you irrespective of the difficulties you may be going through,” he says.
On very intimate subjects though, Mwenda chooses to keep things to himself, rather than “bother” his mother with them.
“As an adult, I prefer to discover things on my own and figure out how to handle different situations as they arise. There are issues of manhood that my mother may not be comfortable discussing with me. It would be very awkward, for instance, to seek her advice regarding my dating life.”
Mwenda adds that he would fight tooth and nail to defend his family’s values of communication, love and support.
“My father and mother sometimes disagreed, but they valued communication and consulted a lot on family matters. My father was a resolute man, a priceless attribute that I admire. At the centre of it all was love, which is what binds us to date,” he says.
“I wish to keep the principles of upbringing that made our childhood enjoyable. My parents sacrificed a lot so that we could have all the needs and comforts that we needed as children.”
Mwenda though does not intend to read from his parents’ rulebook while raising his own family, arguing that the dynamics of life have since changed.
“It is counterproductive, for instance, to force your children to take the same path as you yet they are growing up in a different social and technological context,” he says, and adds, “By the time I start a family and have children, it will be in a totally different era with new trends. Applying old principles to raise children in the modern era may never work. I will pick what can work for me and leave out the rest.”