Love in a Barrel. The Second Generation.
Unlike many of my classmates in primary school, I never received a barrel. You know, those brown cardboard, cylindrical containers that come from ‘foreign,’ packed with cheap goodies from the States. I used to sit stewing in envy as friends pulled Barbie and Lisa Frank stationery from their Disney character school bags. But as I grew older, I began to understand why my mother chose to have us make do with plain black book bags from the local variety store. She herself was a barrel baby long before the term became popular.
The barrel-child syndrome is well known by West Indians. Author Mary C. Walters in her book Black Identities said that Jamaican social workers coined the term to describe children left behind in the island who receive barrels full of goods from their absent parents. And it happens all over the Caribbean, in every country from Jamaica, to Dominica, to Trinidad & Tobago to Guyana, where my mom is from. It’s almost as if Caribbean people have accepted that parents who don’t have many job opportunities within the small island economies have to go ‘foreign’ – to the United States or the United Kingdom – to support their families. And research shows that the economies of several Caribbean countries, including Jamaica, are supported strongly by remittances: money sent back home by absent parents.
My mother was lucky; she was raised by her grandparents and her aunts. Her parents – her mother a nurse and her father a chemical engineer – sent US dollars every month to pay for their eldest daughter’s food clothing and shelter. These simple facts separate my mom from many barrel children who are left alone, without adult supervision or support. They lose contact with their parents, either by accident or design, and have to fend for their own survival, abandoned. And whatever the financial circumstances of a child whose parent had migrated, the emotional and psychological scars run deeper and are not so easy to trace.
“Three out of every ten Jamaican households have barrel children, as do one in every ten T&T homes”
What little formal research there is on the effect of barrel child phenomena concurs. In 2008, the Jamaica Gleaner quoted UWI Mona lecturer Dr. Audrey Pottinger as saying that depression, suicidal tendencies and sexual abuse are some of the top risks threatening children whose parents migrate. She added that three out of every ten Jamaican households have barrel children, as do one in every ten T&T homes. Anecdotal evidence floods the media and United Nations reports. Articles in the Trinidad Guardian, Jamaica Observer and even the high-profile magazine Newsweek all say the same thing – barrel children are more vulnerable to the effects of poverty and to severe emotional distress, despite the fact that their parents have left to provide better lives.
I think my mom is a reasonably well-adjusted adult. But she never shared with her mom the easiness and the affection that I now share with her. But I’ve heard hundreds of loving stories about her grandmother. When her 98-year-old grandfather came to visit, Mom went around for weeks squealing, “My grandpa is coming!” And she feels deeply for other children whose parents have migrated. A former student of hers burst into tears at school at the prospect of her mother leaving to work in the US. The 14-year-old was left with her 17-year-old sister, an elderly grandfather and an uncle; her grades had dropped, she was alternately listless and aggressive in class. My mother had tears in her own eyes as she told me. Clearly the scars are still there and they still hurt, even though she’s in her fifties.
Dr. Pottinger argued that a parent’s migration is as serious to a child as the death of that parent, or loss of access through divorce, and should be treated as such. Maybe she’s right; if barrel children can be counselled by social workers, church leaders and teachers to deal with their feelings of abandonment and rejection, they will cope better with the trauma. But maybe the real questions that parents should ask are, ‘Do I really have to go?’
“I never saw my father until I was 13 years old,” Mom said. And her first – and only – affectionate memory of him revolves around the new school sneakers he brought her. It’s chilling that a child’s first encounter with a parent should be tinged with such sadness and regret. But for many children, this is their reality. Whatever brand name sneaker or faddish game is contained in the cardboard barrels are the only symbols they have of love between a parent and child.