- The Sri Lankan institution of marriage and becoming parents
In the quintessential Sri Lankan social setting, getting married and having children by a certain age is a tradition that has been set in stone for decades now. While this mindset, particularly among younger generations, is slowly but surely changing, there are many social circles and segments of our population that still view marriage and children as an essential component of building a happy, successful, and fulfilling life. This is perhaps the reason why, in general, the act of getting married and having kids is referred to as “settling down”. But what does “settling down” really mean? Is the idea of “settling down” something that is common to all of us? Is “settling down” truly settling down?
Nathasha Edirisooriya hails from a middle class family with humble beginnings. She completed her studies at a local girls’ school and her higher studies in Australia. Having forged her self-identity on her own terms, she is the modern day Sri Lankan woman – fearless, confident, and independent. But at the same time, she shares a deep bond with her loved ones, is empathic, gentle, and is admittedly a girl who loves children. Working as the project co-ordinator for the Community Welfare and Development Fund, she is also an advocate for women’s rights, a freelance journalist, a freelance writer for the The Grassrooted Trust, and a researcher. She also works on gender based violence as a member of Outright’s Asia Network. This week Brunch chatted with Edirisooriya to explore her take on the social norm of tying the knot and starting a family.
Marriage: A grey area forged between genuine human needs and social pressure
Sharing her views on the subject, Edirisooriya said that she remembers feeling strong anxiety once when she was in grade eight in school, and a lady she knew told her that she should one day get married and have children. “I come from a loving family. Yes, my parents had issues in their marriage, but it was never at a level where I could not fall in love with another person. I have been in love, and I love falling in love. I have also been fortunate to have many people in my life who love me, as a friend and romantically,” she shared.
However, Edirisooriya explained that she does not approve of the institution of “marriage” as we know it, mainly because of all the wrong reasons people choose to get into it. “I strongly believe that two people should be in that union because they truly want to and it is the right thing for them, not because it serves a social norm or because it gets you more social acceptance or makes it easier for you to get a loan or go abroad. I feel like people get married for the wrong reasons,” she explained, adding that she dislikes the social narrative which says that a woman needs a man to add stability and safety to their life, and that marriage is the only way to achieve stability. “I will not say that I am extremely strong. I cry, I have breakdowns, I feel emotions strongly. But I take care of myself. I think people look for emotional safety in a marriage. Is that the right reason to get married?” she questioned.
Becoming a parent; a decision to be made with self-awareness
Family, or rather raising a family, is a cornerstone of Sri Lankan society. The social pressure on couples to have children (plural) after they marry is immense, often leading to those who don’t want to or are unable to have children feeling ostracised. Being a parent and raising a family is a mammoth undertaking. On the flip side, the expectations placed on children by their parents to further their dreams and the family’s legacy is also immense.
Edirisooriya shared that she has three older sisters in her family, and therefore, has babysat many times when her sisters had children. She added that she loves children and that she always felt that she had to become a role model to her nieces and nephews, and she was deeply involved in their upbringing.
“If you have children, you must understand that you cannot make them do what you like. They will grow up to be individuals who have their own choices. Most parents bring up children believing that children need to be set a certain way. If you cannot accept that the child is a being of their own, having children becomes a painful attachment, both for you and the child,” Edirisooriya shared. She further explained that the main role of a parent is to be at peace and not lose themselves, while being willing to support their children through the decisions that they make. This impartiality is something that many parents, because of their own traumas and life experiences, are often not able to do.
This is why it’s important for all couples to seriously consider if having children is something they are able to do on all levels; emotionally, financially, and practically, while also looking at the bigger picture of where we are as a whole.
“On the other hand, I feel like our planet is dying, and we are running out of resources. We are also in the middle of a pandemic. I believe that bringing a child into the world, therefore, has to be thought about prudently, and not selfishly, to fulfill a social norm,” Edirisooriya added, stating that this kind of responsibility is not something that she can personally handle successfully. Edirisooriya further said that a child is a lifelong responsibility that cannot falter. “Financial and emotional stability is compulsory to be a good parent. And once you become a parent, regardless of what happens, whether your partner stays with you or not, you cannot shy away from this responsibility. Therefore, I do not believe that this is my calling. I am sure there are those who are great at doing this, but it is not something right for me,” she shared, explaining that all children have the right to a beautiful childhood, without trauma as they grow up.
The imaginary timeline and safe zone
We all hear about the biological clock, but what is less often talked about is the “social clock”, the pressure put on young people (and, well, all people) to be married and “settled” by a certain point in their life or be seen as a failure or “less than”.
When asked if she believes that social pressure to get married and have children still exists, Edirisooriya elaborated: “Even more than pressure, I think we have an imaginary timeline and a safe zone prescribed to us through years of social conditioning, that makes us feel obliged.” She added that while most of her close friends are part of a progressive social circle that is more career-oriented and independence focused, she is not blinded to the reality, that for most Sri Lankans – especially in rural areas, conservative families, or under-privileged social settings – marriage and children become a safety and belonging need.
“Recently, I joined a focus group discussion in the Katunayake Free Trade Zone. Many of the men there, who were just 19, 22, and 24, were either married or planning to get married in the immediate future. Their partners were younger than them. In cases like this, given the harsh living conditions, marriage gives them safety, security, and makes it easy for them to survive,” Edirisooriya explained, clarifying that different segments of our society associate different levels of importance to marriage and children.
Adding that both men and women have this social pressure to “settle down”, Edirisooriya also elaborated that she does not view marriage and having children as wrong or right. She simply believes that it needs to be done for the right reasons and not because you have people questioning why you are single, or unmarried, or not a parent yet.
Self-assured; changing the narrative through clarity and confidence
Speaking of coming into her own and making the decision to not marry and have children, Edirisooriya shared that the ability to make that decision in itself is a privilege that very few have. For many, it may not be possible to make that call, and Edirisooriya stated that we should not dismiss this reality.
Edirisooriya also spoke about owning your narrative and choices in life, saying: “When I became completely confident of myself and my choices, the awkward questions of ‘why are you not getting married’ stopped coming my way. I would state with clarity that this is not my calling, and people would simply stop asking me,” she shared. Edirisooriya admits that when she was much less confident of her choices, she would get such questions more often and with more pressure, to which she too, would answer with uncertainty, fuelling more questions.
Wrapping up the conversation, Edirisooriya shared that a couple of years ago, almost everyone was on the trend of wedding pre-shoots. Seeing these, Edirisooriya admitted that she doubted herself to an extent, and wondered whether she would lose her social status because of her decision to remain unmarried. However, she realised that making peace with herself changed her self-identity and narrative. “The more I became certain of what I want, and the fact that I do not want to get married, the more the world around me changed. More opportunities came my way. I know, therefore, by experience, that when we are truly at peace with our decisions, it opens up so many avenues for us to experience freedom, and live life on our own terms.”