Synopsis: An essay on how a first-generation American woman observes and rectifies her definition of romance, marriage and family life in Guyanese culture.
Author’s Note: The author is expressing her personal experience, observations and research. This piece does not depict or define Guyanese people and its culture in its entirety.
I was engulfed with shame and embarrassment for descending from a blended family until I made it a fossil in my thoughts. Thankfully, therapy and an undergraduate course I took about migration narratives aborted that humiliation.
Growing up, I used to blame my father for breaking our Guyanese family’s chance at the American Dream by birthing three children from three different women. Maybe it was The Cosby Family or Disney movies I binged-watch as a child, but what 1990s pop culture taught me a family should be didn’t align with what mine actually was.
I was often left to internalize the duality of my role as the youngest of the three and my mother’s only child. As I came of age, I found myself walking on eggshells trying to navigate my relationships with half-siblings and their dislike for my mother. To them, she was a reminder that my father never fully committed to their mothers or to them.
My father’s enthrallment with women was not seen as absurd, nor was it disputed or shamed; it was treated as a cultural norm. My uncles were the same, indulging their prideful, boisterous bravado to “catch ting.”1 Sometimes, my father and uncles would travel for long periods of time under the guise of “business” or leisure, satiating their lustful needs.
Because of their questionable behavior, as a Guyanese-American woman, I never understood what defined a Guyanese marriage or familial life therein. In my observation, I believed Guyanese culture manufactured rules that ushered people into robotic relationships, fractured by infidelity, domestic violence, and the silencing of women’s voices. Clean houses, mannerly children and well-fed husbands are the expectations of Guyanese women. Even Guyana’s GAD (Gender and Development) principles, issued by its government, state that a female can only become a woman when in a relationship with a male, and that anything regarding the female gender’s economic or societal needs cannot be resolved without male influence. The absence of recognition for a woman’s sexual orientation, desire or intelligence is based in the country’s colonial and patriarchal need for control and power. It also makes Guyanese marriage a paradox, because the reality of single-female or blended households, both in the country and abroad, do not fit societal expectations or legislation.
For years, I walked a tightrope, never quite sure my family and my parent’s marriage could be qualified as “American.” These differences were highlighted when I tried my hand at assembling my family tree online. Certain online ancestral sites automatically presumed marriages between the mothers of my half-siblings and my father. Other sites assumed my half-siblings were my mother’s children. What seemed like a light task of learning more about my lineage triggered me to question many facets of family and marriage. Is there a need for a family unit to be nuclear, and what, ultimately, do we gain or lose if it is not? This experience also made me reflect on how my classmates and fellow Guyanese peers sometimes pompously advertised their parents’ intact marriages, making me feel as though my family wouldn’t win the Oscar for perfectionism.
came to realize that my struggle to assimilate into American culture or “how things should be” would only subside if I stopped searching for acceptance and just practiced authenticity.
When my parents decided to divorce, their choice revealed their commitments to individual happiness, which went against the Guyanese status quo of remaining married “for better or for worse,” even in the instance of discontent. This was especially rare for my parents’ colonial generation who believed marriage can survive the lowest of lows, even if it resembled Dante’s seventh circle of hell.
I came to realize that my struggle to assimilate into American culture or “how things should be” would only subside if I stopped searching for acceptance and just practiced authenticity. Now an adult, I realize life will be messy, regardless of the personal choices I make to create a blemish-free facade. Who I chose to fall in love with or even whom I happen to birth will determine what my future family will look and feel like. And no matter what that is, I pray it will be an experience that won’t be pocketed to be kept secret.