In quarantined houses that never felt like home, I thought about family and physical intimacy.
Growing up with three siblings, parents who were always on 9-5 jobs trying to fund our higher education, once in a month dine-outs and ailing parents of their own, communication succumbed to two measly salaams, one in the morning and one in the evening when they’d come home.
I fail to pinpoint in time during my life when physical affection from my parents died out but I may just be telling myself this when there was none to begin with.
As a kid, my dad would often tell me stories about my late grandfather, who I did not have the pleasure of meeting. At sunset, the arctic winds of Quetta made its residents coop up close to the fire wall with the radio closely listening to Radio Pakistan, their only form of digital entertainment that my father and his siblings weren’t allowed to touch.
He’d tell me how they’d turn it off the instant they’d hear dada enter the house: “We were scared to even breathe loudly in front of him”.
This is not to say my father or I, for that matter grew up in emotionally starved homes, we just assumed that’s how things were supposed to be.
I’m 22 and I’ve hugged my mother twice my whole life. The first time was when I got my 9th grade result and passed with an overall A*, the second was a few months ago when my maternal grandfather passed away.
It seems like there’s no in between and there’s no reason to be physically intimate.
“Why?” I ask myself, “They love you and you know that, shouldn’t that be enough?” I concede.
27-year-old Hassan*, a content creator based in Islamabad remembers never being hugged back by either of his parents.
“My father would just stand still and not hug back. They have always been slightly more affectionate towards my younger sister. I used to… I still do hug and kiss my parents on their birthdays and anniversaries but I know the chances of them reciprocating it are very low,” he shared.
Alia*, a university student from Karachi compared early childhood memories with more recent ones, “I think I've only ever been super physically affectionate as a child, that too with my dad only. Now it's mostly when something out of the ordinary happens like if we fight or cry then we usually have a moment. Literally the last time I properly hugged my mum was when she was going for Umrah.”
But I believe there might be some structure-less gender dynamics at play here which are definitely interesting to unpack.
Mahad*, a multimedia journalist from Karachi says, "My father's lack of physical intimacy is only for the daughters, he cuddles his son playfully.”
But when Hassan* claimed he’d had similar experiences apart from with his younger sister, I couldn’t help but wonder if physical affection in brown households deteriorated with time, or with brown parent’s inability to control our lives.
"Hiding behind a screen is what I do best. So much so that since the past five years, I’ve always texted my parents their birthday wishes because I physically dread saying happy birthday to them," Sara* confessed.
She also wished she could say a lot of things to her mum without feeling out of place or extremely awkward about it.
"Just saying 'I love you' to her is kind of difficult. Sadly, a lot of it stems from how we've never grown up hearing these things as well so we learn to show affection in different, more complex ways.”
“On Father’s Day, it took me two hours to get out of bed and hug my dad. I didn’t even wish my mother on Mother’s Day, I just couldn’t. Unless it’s an occasion where everyone is being physically affectionate, it’s so difficult,” said Kamran*, an associate at a Karachi based NGO.
“I think I’ve just accepted the fact that there are too many layers here to unpack and I don’t think I have the emotional and mental capacity to deal with this baggage right now.”
Similarly, Zain*, an academic counsellor said that the last time he hugged his dad was a year ago on Eid, indicating that the act of physical affection is perhaps nothing more than a biyearly ritual. Some people think it’s irreplaceable damage: I fear that I’ll start crying if I hug them or tell them I love them,” while others have moulded themselves to cater to loveless households.
“It's easier for me to express intimacy or affection by doing something for her - usually that comes down to making chai for her or helping her with chores. Affection becomes somewhat misconstrued with physical work or in the case of food, gifts or even objects,” Hania* confessed.
“I get them thoughtful gifts, I grew up writing poems for them”, says Aisha*.
I too, see myself toiling in the kitchen on Ammi’s birthday, fidgeting with the oven on Father’s Day and haphazardly sneaking gifts at midnight on their wedding anniversary. But I guess at one point, we all agreed that physical intimacy isn't the only kind of love language there is and definitely not the one when it comes to brown parents.
Conceivably, brown households are not devoid of love and tenderness. However, it's possible that we have feared being vulnerable with each other for so long, that we have forgotten what vulnerability looks like.
“I don’t think I’m missing out”, says Daniyal*. “People are different and have different ways to show love and closeness and I respect that when it comes to my parent’s because that's how they've come to receive theirs”.
Sheheryar's voice resonated with me the most. “I don’t care about my parents now; I just have to make sure I’m not emotionally constipated with my own children because that’s what matters now”.
**Names have been changed for the purpose of anonymity.*