There is a saying that it takes a village to raise a child and, in some cases, it is taken quite literally. Recently, my husband and I took our children for the ’Eid celebration to my husband’s village in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province of Pakistan. It’s a small village where he comes from and even though the family is spread worldwide they still claim to belong to that very village in North-West Pakistan. More remarkably though, those who haven’t left their birthplace, that is all current inhabitants of the hamlet, are all related to each other, in other words, they are all uncles, aunties, cousins and sisters- and brothers-in-law.
On days such as ‘Eid or to celebrate weddings, the far-flung members of the clan flock back to their ancestral home for a big family reunion. You spend the day meeting and greeting people, asking about the health of their families and chatting about the latest family news – who’s been born, got engaged, got married or has found a new job – so revising your family tree before that is a must! The kids meanwhile socialise with their cousins, roaming around the place, feeling quite at home – well it is their home after all, even though they might not remember coming there ever before or they might visit it just twice or thrice a year. You lose sight of them, but it’s alright; after all, they the will always be under the eyes of family members. Just which relatives they happen to be staying with or which house have they chosen for their playground today will be a matter of investigation when you want them to join you for a meal or get them ready for bed. Children are so happy in the company of their cousins of various ages and aunties and uncles spoiling them with sweets and ice cream that they don’t really want to go back home – that is their other home in the city. After all, ‘that’ home means discipline and it might be boring just with parents and siblings all the time.
For us, these trips to the village are only for a few days , but the children actually living there grow up happily in this closely knit society of aunties and cousins. So in parts of Pakistan it does take a village – a village full of relatives – to raise a child!
Both my husband and I were lucky enough to grow up in close proximity to the members of our respective extended families; we were able to spend time on a daily basis with our grandparents, uncles, aunties and first, second and third cousins. And we want the same for our children – the same feeling of belonging, of being part of something bigger, of knowing your family and sharing everyday life with them. We want them to learn to respect elders and to solve the problems that may arise in family relationships without breaking the kinship ties. We want them to have someone to talk to – always.
From my childhood in a small town in Poland I remember seeing my granny everyday after school and going for shopping trips with my auntie. I remember one of my uncles showing me the stars and their constellations and the other teaching me how to play basketball. I remember writing letters to my cousins and anticipating their arrival for summer holidays. I feel that I’ve learnt something from each of the members of the extended family who played their part in bringing me up. The memory of the love that I was surrounded with in my childhood cheers me up whenever I feel lonely. Now, as a mother it is obvious to me that I want my children to get the same loving support.
Not all roses
Living with extended family and seeing all your relatives on daily basis is great for your children, but there are some downsides. Not everyone may have the same idea on the definition of healthy food or for how long it is ok to let the children watch TV. Also, not everyone in your family may be a perfect role model for your child and it might appear sometimes that the children are picking up bad manners quicker than good ones. It may feel like a never-ending task trying to correct their behaviour and teach them that they don’t have to copy their elder cousins in absolutely everything!
Sharing the household with an extended family means that you have less control over your child – he or she becomes everyone’s son or daughter and similarly you become a ‘mummy’ to your nephews and nieces. Another issue that may arise is when your children seemingly become attached to someone else – not you, their mother – when you thought you were the whole world to your baby. Also, babies get very smart and find out quickly who best to ask for what. My baby daughter, who is just eighteen months old, has learnt that if I refuse to give her another toffee, her Babaji – that is her paternal grandfather – will surely comply with her request.
Bringing your children up in a big extended family requires some compromise on the parents’ side, but it is definitely worth it. And it goes hand in hand with the Islamic teachings of maintaining ties of kinship.
Maintaining close relations with members of the extended family is easy when they are physically close to you, but even if miles are dividing you from each other, you can keep in touch and care for each other. We are blessed with so many options these days: we can talk on the phone or write emails to each other. Living abroad, I make sure that my children stay connected to their family in other countries: I let them chat via the computer and update them on family news. But I don’t do it just for the children’s sake – remembering my relatives and letting them play some part in my life is how I show them respect and gratitude for all their efforts and all the love they showered me with in my childhood. It’s not merely a duty for me to call my aunties and uncles – rather I look forward to chatting to them and seeing them whenever possible. After all, we need family throughout our lives, not just when we are children.
Klaudia Khan is a freelance writer living in the UK and Pakistan. Even though she’s been living abroad for seven years now Alhamdulillah, she doesn’t forget her birthplace in Poland and she keeps in touch – daily – with her family back home.