Muslim Sons: Reconciling Family Relocation with Elderly Parents’ Servitude

*Names of people have been changed, but all the people and incidents mentioned are factual.
Mohsin* is in a fix. He finally wants to get married, but has no particular girl in mind. He currently lives with his parents, and is the only son. His parents want him to live in their house with his wife and kids in the future. However, a bride has not been found for him yet. This, however, is not why he is in a fix.
Mr. and Mrs. K* also have one son, who has been living independently with his wife since many years. Unlike most parents, they prefer that their son not live in their apartment; the reason for this is Mrs. K’s need for perfect order and control in her home. She doesn’t even like anyone else using her washroom – not even her husband! She watches a different television set in a separate room from her husband, as they fight over what to view ever since he retired and started staying at home. They have a full-time housekeeper and driver who help them run errands, and have been with them since many years. Mr. K is very proud of the fact that he still earns his own money, pursues his hobbies and, in short, “has a life”.
After more than a decade of his marriage and a few kids, however, their son realized that his parents were older and might need him more now, so he came up with a plan. Most adult children of elderly parents come up with this plan nowadays, as it suits their increasing immigration and relocation needs. He decided to sponsor them as dependents to immigrate to the country he was living in – a Western country – and asked them to relocate and live in his house. After negotiations, they decided to pay him a few months’ visit to see how the place was. After just a few days there, however, they categorically informed him that living with him would mean that they’d turn into vegetables.
“Waiting for him to come home so that we can go out in his car, not knowing anyone there, not being accustomed to the long winters….we knew we were not willing to give up our lives to live like that: totally dependent on him.”
They happily came back to resume their completely self-sufficient lives in their cozy and well-endowed apartment: one lined with shelves
housing rows of their favorite books, sporting a well-tended and nurtured terrace-garden and a personalized kitchen.
Not all elderly parents of foreign-settled adult children are so fortunate however, such as the (now deceased) Mr. A*. Since early on in his four children’s lives, he had ingrained in them the desire to immigrate to the West and live there. According to him, it was the best, most modern and peaceful place to live. They all left after marriage, one by one, until he was left all alone, being a widower. He however, preferred to live here in Pakistan, because he had his own house and his active social circle comprising of decades-old friends and a club life here to entertain him, which he didn’t in the West when he visited his children abroad every year. It was his wish to be buried in a Muslim graveyard according to Muslim rituals (did I mention that most of his children eventually became open, self-professed non-believers?), and he wanted to spend his last years in his Muslim hometown.
His children started pressurizing him to immigrate to the West to be near all of them (he had a Green Card), since their own children were now teenagers, who refused to visit Pakistan every other year. It was also too expensive for one of his children to visit him every year, and if they didn’t visit, they felt guilty about his being alone in Pakistan. They unanimously told him that migrating to North America was the best option for all of them. Despite the pressure, Mr. A kept refusing, because he wanted to spend his last years in his home country. However, fate was not on his side.
Eventually he became so ill that his son came from abroad and took him back along with him. His last days were spent on a ventilator in a foreign hospital. When he died, 4-5 men from his family (including his son and nephew) bathed and shrouded him, and prayed his funeral prayer at the Islamic Center, laying him to rest in a nearby graveyard.
Oh well – it is sad when you think about it, but now the increasing level of foreign immigration is totally dismantling the traditional joint family system. More and more women are working, standards of living are rising, and nuclear families are the norm. Young couples visit their parents and parents-in-law once a year and think that that is enough, because they can not afford to do more. And it’s not just the younger generation that is to blame for this trend. It is the elderly parents themselves, who, from when their children are old enough to understand, urge them to go abroad to study, work and eventually settle down. At the most, a bride or groom is hand-picked from back home, and then off they are back to the West, in pursuit of the foreign degree, dollar-paying prestigious profession, nationality, free schooling and health care, clean water, spotless infrastructure, corruption-free society and pollution-free neighborhood.
Is it any wonder then, that for most families now, `Eid is celebrated as a string of long-distance phone calls, webcam conversations and exchange of digital photographs? Most elderly parents spend their `Eids with their servants in Pakistan, while their distant relatives, friends, old colleagues and neighbors hop in and out the entire day for exchange of greetings.
Coming back to Mohsin and the fix he is in. The fact is that he wants to go abroad and also possibly live there with his future wife and children for a few years. The reason for this is that he has never got along well with his mother. They can barely have a conversation without getting into an argument. And to top it off, since his nature is private, he doesn’t like it when she repeatedly calls him up when he is out with his friends, asking him when he will get home, who he is with, and what he ate for dinner. The fact that he is in his early thirties, i.e. no longer a teenager, does not seem to deter his mother from believing that, since she worries about his safety and health, she has the right to call him up and ask after him. Now, his mother’s phone calls have become a source of jest among his thirty-something friends, none of whom are called up by their family members on their cell phones – not even their wives – when they are out together. Mohsin, therefore, switches his phone off at times, to save face. This adds to his mother’s indignation, as she is also in the habit of staying up late until he gets home. She claims she can not sleep, knowing that he hasn’t come home yet. Many times she laments that her son’s habits and lifestyle are causing her hair to grey and depriving her of a peaceful night’s sleep.
Mohsin doesn’t want to dwell his wife and future kids in a house where such tabs are kept on his movement and activities. He thinks this so-called “concern” for him, which forms the basis of the persistent questions and phone calls, is actually a facade for his mother’s attempts to ‘control’ his life. He also doesn’t want to, in the future, come home to a wife brimming with indignation at his mother, something which he is sure will happen once his wife comes to live in their house.
As for the parents’ side of the story – they think he is a reclusive and distant son. They’d like it if he’d sit with them while at home, and get involved in the household activities and day-to-day management, instead of staying cooped up in his room watching movies, surfing the Internet, or sleeping. He only comes to talk to them for a little while each day, and for the rest of the day, occupies himself with his own activities. He never brings his friends home to meet them, and mostly gives the latter preference over their company. He locks his bedroom and takes the key with him when he goes to work. He is also extremely secretive about members of his social circle – he won’t, for example, tell his parents their names or their family backgrounds, except for a few. One point to note is that he has been private like this ever since he was a scrawny teen. It is his innate nature.
How does this family attempt to reconcile their mutual bones of contention in order to live in harmony together? The saddest part of this situation is that, for them, the picture-perfect dream-scenario of a happy joint family residing amicably in a well-off, tranquil home is slowly crumbling to pieces. The sad-but-true, biting reality of weak relationships teetering on the precipice of estrangement, is slowly sinking in. Any attempts at reconciliation, compromise or mending the fence results in the eruption of yet another argument full of accusations that deals fresh blows to the already under-pressure, threadbare foundation of trust and companionship in this clan.
The same applies to every household where tensions erupt as a result of the joint family system, where people opt to live together under one roof. Unless one party has extra patience and a strong will to silence themselves when angry (usually the daughter-in-law, who is a gross minority at her in-laws’ house), all-out battles are the only expected outcome of the inevitable meddling in each other’s affairs or making thoughtless comments or cruel jibes at other’s mistakes or shortcomings. There are very few joint family households where privacy is provided to all members as ordained by Islam, and where everyone is given ample personal space to feel comfortable and unrestricted in movement and personal freedom.
Here is a prime example of what goes on in a typical extended family system:
Mother to her young child: “Finish your food before you go outside.”
“But Grandpa just went outside, and I am going with him!” cries the child, as she scrapes the chair backwards, leaving the food half uneaten.
[This is the food which the daughter-in-law had prepared meticulously according to her mother-in-law’s instructions e.g. semolina pudding with fresh butter and honey, or barley porridge with full-cream milk. If she feeds her child packaged food, she hears no end about how the mothers in the previous generation would always make food from scratch i.e. work harder on their children’s health]
“I said eat your food right now. Stop!” the mother’s tone of voice rises angrily. She wants to teach her children how to appreciate good, home-cooked food, and to eat at proper times, with proper etiquette. Discipline requires that they follow a routine, not their whims, she believes.
The child pouts, sniffs, and looks over at her grandmother in protest. The scene is set for the win. The latter takes the bait easily, scooping up the child in a hug, as she tut-tuts:
“Oh, let her go! It’s only for a while. She’ll come back and eat the rest of it later. We should be flexible with our children; if we are strict, they will rebel even more. Why, when I had my kids, I was so lenient with them……” the lecture continues as the child, feeling triumphant of yet another successful conquest over her mother, rushes off outside to her Grandpa, who also scoops her up in a hug. The young mother, who knows only too well that the food won’t be eaten later (because, by then it will be classified as “un-fresh” by the elders, and not fit for the child’s consumption), sighs in frustration, lowers her eyes, and listens to the rest of the advice. Once more, everyone else has had their way with her child. She goes back silently into the kitchen to prepare dinner.
Human beings have been made diverse creatures by Allah: they have a wide range of qualities and traits, with the natural outcome of clashes and conflicts when people work or live together in close proximity. Since close family members are more in contact with each other, especially if they live in the same house, there is bound to be conflict. All praise to Allah, who also created some beautiful qualities among human beings, which serve the purpose of “oiling their relationship-machines”, i.e. smoothening differences and resolving petty conflicts, and thus preventing jerks and thwarts in these machines caused by the erosion and rust of negative feelings such as envy, malice, avarice, contempt, prejudice and arrogance. These beautiful qualities, the lack of which causes situations like the ones described above, can be outlined as follows:
Accepting others’ faults and shortcomings:
Knowing that no one is perfect, and embracing the reality that everyone is born with negative traits that can never go away but can only be minimized, makes a person much more patient and tolerant of others.
For example, if a father knows that his daughter is not too keen on pursuing a 9-to-5 corporate job in a large company, but prefers to teach in a school because she finds it personally more enjoyable and fulfilling to work with children, he should accept her choice and not go on taunting her about having ‘wasted’ his money on the expensive business school he sent her to for her MBA.
Moving on from past grudges:
If you can not bring yourself to forgive the wrongs others have done to you, you can not move on in life with a productive and positive outlook. The negative energy caused by the malice in your heart will mar your personality and thinking, affecting all your existing relationships and causing even more rifts. It takes strength to forgive others, to forget what they did to hurt you, and to make du’aa for their guidance and forgiveness. You benefit no one by forgiving others as much as you benefit your own self. You go through a refreshing and rejuvenating rebirth. However, those who can not forgive, keep themselves shackled to past events that make the related negative emotions linger forever.
For example, some mothers coerce their offspring to harbor grudges against those aunts and uncles who have been mean to her in the past. They might have left her out of a social event, or looked down upon her for being from a poor, less-educated family, for example. As a result, she ingrains hatred for them in her children, talking ill of them over the years until her children end up believing that they really are bad people, per se. It is unfair to involve your children in issues you do not have the strength to get over and move on from yourself.
Giving others their rights:
Each individual should gain knowledge about what rights others have on them in Islam. As a Muslim, we will be questioned by Allah about whether we gave those rights to others, or not. However, the greatness of a person’s rights upon us, (which for an unmarried woman or man, is their mother, and for a married woman, her husband), does not give them the right to act as if they control us or to manipulate us according to their own desires or interests.
For example, the greatness of a parent’s rights on their offspring doesn’t mean it is acceptable for them to insult or demean their children, or to use them for their own ulterior worldly motives e.g. twisting their arm to become a doctor so that the family’s elite social circle is impressed, even if their child doesn’t have the caliber for it, or betrothing children off to cousins or family-friends’ children without their prior permission or knowledge.
Talking in a civilized manner, even in an argument:
Refraining from raising your voice, bringing up bygone incidents (unless they need to be referred to for a valid reason), and making accusations by saying statements starting with “You always…”, or “You never….” ensures that conversations do not turn into all-out battles. That way, family members do not offend or hurt each other when talking about a sensitive topic.
The Quran gives an apt example of such a conversation. When Prophet Ibraheem [علیہ السلام] advised his polytheist father against committing shirk, he addressed him in an endearing manner, “Yaa Abatee!” [“O my father”], despite the latter’s grave sin.
Empathy is the priceless ability to be able to put yourself in other people’s shoes; to be able to feel what they are feeling by imagining yourself in their situation. When people refuse to look at any situation from another’s point of view, they can often find themselves at opposite ends of an issue with daggers drawn, so to speak.
For example, if a man sees his wife go through the pains of pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing, he should feel even greater respect and appreciation for his mother, because of witnessing firsthand the physical hardship she must have endured with his own birth decades ago. He should automatically be more polite and respectful to her after seeing his wife go through this experience. However, insensitive sons will never make the connection, and probably look at their mother as no more than probably a primitive-minded old woman.
Mutual Respect:
Respect is the acceptance and tolerance of another person’s habits, weaknesses, choices, lifestyle and innate nature, resulting in amicability towards them. Islam definitely teaches us to respect others, even if a person is a non-believer, in particular if they are close relative. This respect means we should talk to them in a polite and civilized manner, without endorsing or approving of their evil actions or encouraging their un-Islamic behavior, of course. Respect is a definite composite of the conduct that Islam wants us to embody.
All the above qualities are a must-have for those who want to live peacefully in a joint family set-up. However, my best advice for modern-day elderly parents would be to fully expect their adult offspring to relocate to other cities or countries, particularly if you have raised them with Western ideals or role-models. Do not expect your children to turn around and give up their lives abroad to come and live with you, in order to take care of you in old age. Please be realistic; it is imperative to not live in an ‘idealistic’, fantastical realm, assuming that the years of your upbringing can be undone in a moment, and that they’ll pack up and come home to you? As mentioned above, children who are more inclined towards the life of this world, more often than not expect their elderly parents to relocate to their new country instead. It’s quite bemusing how parents can themselves ingrain a desire for the picture-perfect Western life in their children’s hearts from early childhood, yet expect them to abandon that same life once they have achieved it after much sweat, to come back to the land which they themselves found unworthy for their own children to live in! How’s that for a false dichotomy, if we ever saw one?

A point to ponder for elderly parents:
Those parents who have raised their children according to Islamic ideals and principles, you should take care not to demean your status in their eyes by demanding service from them in your old age. Allah can be sufficient for His servants, when they are old and ill – for instance, he can inspire their neighbors, ex-students, family friends, friends for the sake of Allah, and other well-wishers to take better care of them than their own children could, if He so wishes. Take the death of Prophet Muhammad [صلى الله عليه و سلم] as an example. We see that his friends – his companions – were by his side, along with his favorite wife, A’ishah, just before he died.
Therefore, an elderly, wise Muslim, who has firm faith in Allah and trusts only in Him, would consider it beneath his or her dignity to ask his children to provide for him, take care of him, or support him in old age. He is too dignified to stoop so low. He trusts only in Allah for arranging his care, either in the form of obedient and caring offspring, or any other means; Allah is not needy of the means to achieve the end.
For the ambitious sons and daughters:
Know that your elderly parents are your tickets to everlasting success: that of Allah’s pleasure in the Hereafter. Therefore, plan your life in such a way that it includes the service and care of your parents in their old age. If you have children, imagine for a moment what life would be like if they were taken away from you. Then think about how those elderly parents feel who have not set eyes on, or held their progeny for months, or even years? Do you really believe that the yearly visit, long-distance phone call or video conference can compare to your physically being near them? If you can not be with them every day, try to stay in touch as much as possible. But remember to not tip the scales so much that the rights of your own spouse or children are trampled upon. You have to maintain the intricate balance of rights and responsibilities, and only Allah can guide you to do that.
Rising to the occasion – together:
One way children can care for their elderly parents is to divide the work. For example, I know of one bed-ridden, invalid elderly lady who lives with one son who arranges her food, clothing and a female attendant’s day services, while the son who lives abroad provides the financial backing for the costs involved; her daughters chip in by regularly visiting and enquiring about her health. In short, she is well-cared for.
Another elderly lady lives with just her divorced daughter who is a self-professed “emotionally detached” person: one who never meets anyone and has no genuine relationships in life since her own marriage broke apart. The elderly lady’s only other child, a married son, sends her financial support from abroad, but hardly visits more than perhaps once in several years. When this lady had a recent surgery, neighbors, relatives and friends took her to and from hospital; her two children were not there. The best part about this extremely sad situation is her dignity and self-worth – not once does she ever complain to anyone about how her children are lacking in her care and service. She remains strong and self-sufficient, albeit emotionally, if not physically.
I know of another lady whose parents are another inspiring example: an elderly couple still residing in the tiny three-bedroom flat that’s been their home for decades. All their four children are married and settled abroad. The wife is more than willing to acquiesce to her son’s repeated requests to come and live with him in USA, but her husband refuses flatly, insisting that he wants to lead his own life, not vegetate in his son’s home. A retired teacher, he tutors neighborhood children and does the household groceries in a rickshaw. On Eid, he slaughters the clan’s goats himself. His daughters take turns to visit every few weeks. The best part about this couple is their lack of expectation from their children in providing for them and taking care of them – they remain strongly self-reliant and dignified in the eyes of onlookers; pillars of strength and determination in the face of old age weakness.
We have many such shining examples in our society, of elderly people who are well-cared for by one means or another. For all those parents who fear that they won’t be taken care of in old age, that their children will abandon them, that their provision will be curtailed, or that they’ll have no one to give them company in the impending solitude, I say, “trust in Allah, who is the Best of Providers!”.
Now let’s go back to what Mohsin should do; any tips? 🙂


One comment

  1. I am a 27 year old woman ( however don’t feel like one due to constant elderly interventions ) hehe, married for more than 3 years now..have a 2 year old baby alhamdulillah with my husband’s parents.. he is the only son and i am experiencing this issue. His parents are in good health mashaAllah and both work at esteemed organizations . My mom in law is a VP at a prestigious school and Father in law a manager at another good place.. my husband is the only son about whom they are highly possessive and all his sisters are married and living out of town independently. When my husband got the chance to move out opting for a job in Dubai.. his dad cried before him for his loneliness and stopped him… it was like a door bashing on my face and i was screaming silently :(((( I find you quite mature in such issues.. kindly help me. is there any way that i can contact you for personal assistance. I feel intolerance. I don’t speak up, neither does my husband… but I have started telling my husband to speak up. he accepts the “cold war” scenario is bad- but cant take charge :(((…I feel guilty of arousing such feelings in him.. but his parents have an unbearable interference in our lives. I don’t know to what extent am i supposed to exercise patience. May Allah guide me. amin.. please help!

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