Jena Alibhai Damji

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Jena Alibhai Damji
Jena Alibhai Damji and grandchild Leila Brown.jpg
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YASMIN ALIBHAI-BROWN on single-handedly caring for her lonely and ill relative.

Yasmin had to care for her ageing mother though loneliness, an operation and a heart attack.

According to the charity Age UK, 78 per cent of carers are female . Yasmin agrees with Prime Minister David Cameron that family is of the utmost importance.

"It's so hard to forgive a brother who leaves you to care for your mother alone"


PUBLISHED: 20:28 EDT, 27 August 2014 | UPDATED: 20:28 EDT, 27 August 2014:


There were countless occasions when I needed my brother’s help. The time my mother had an operation; the day she had a heart attack; the many evenings she felt lonely and needed company.

Like the morning in 2005 when I was called by the lovely woman Ealing Council had hired to care for Mum, who was by then in her 80s. The carer was distraught; Mum had a fever and was delirious, speaking only in Kutchi, our home language. Could I come over? But it was impossible — I was in Manchester, working. Worried sick and filled with guilt, I began ringing round.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown explains how she wished that her only, older brother Amir had been around to step in to help with her mother but he had moved to Cape Town years earlier, so every time there was a problem, it fell upon her to do what she could

A warden in the sheltered accommodation arranged for a doctor to visit. But he couldn’t speak our language either. Eventually, I found a couple of people from the local mosque who went over to translate and hold Mum’s hand.

How I wished then that my only, older brother Amir had been around to step in.

But he had moved to Cape Town years earlier, so every time there was a problem with our mother, it fell upon me to do what I could. I loved my mum deeply. I still miss her now, eight years after her death. But over the years resentment gnawed away.

And there were times when fury broke through. I’d say to her: ‘Where is he, Mum, your wonderful son? Thousands of miles away. You keep praying for him, but does he even care about you?’ How that must have hurt her.

Last week, David Cameron spoke with conviction about the importance of family. He announced that, from now on, all policies would have to meet the ‘family friendly’ test.

Though I have never been a Tory I do agree with the PM that family stability is the foundation of a good society. But his vague utterances sounded more pie in the sky than real life. And he was too focused on aspects of family life — child rearing, relationship counselling and marriage — that are already well known about.

What he could have addressed, but didn’t, was the unfair distribution of responsibilities within families. He needed to acknowledge that women are still expected to do more than men to sustain families. And that millions of them are not only having to look after children and grandchildren but also ageing parents.

According to the charity Age UK, 78 per cent of carers are female. Yet it seems that the men in their own families and the wider society hardly notice. These women are unheard, unseen and unsung.

For many years, I was in this place, pulled this way and that by various duties, feeling weary and often aggrieved. Like most women I also feel treacherous complaining about it publicly.

My beloved mum, Jena, would not have let me speak out against my brother while she was alive.

And she would have not approved of speaking ill of the dead. Amir passed away a few years ago, when he was in his early 70s.

Until I was a teenager, Amir adored me, told me I was his little doll. He put me to bed, told me scary stories and sent me presents when he was travelling as an insurance rep. He had given up education to support the family because my father was hopelessly unreliable.

After I married, there were a few good times. Amir had a large house in the suburbs of London and we went over for barbecues or big lunches. But after 1990 we hardly spoke, and when we did, we argued.

Why did relations break down? Partly because after he married, our relationship lost its warmth and camaraderie. But much more it was because, as my widowed mother grew older and needed more care, he left it all to me and never acknowledged what I was doing. And didn’t want to acknowledge what he wasn’t doing.

In fact, he went off to live with his family in South Africa in the early Nineties, leaving her in London in her small housing association flat.

She said nothing to him as he departed, but missed him every day of her life after that.

On his rare visits, her cup runneth over. She cooked his favourite foods, told all her friends and was filled with joy. I never heard her complain about him — he was her firstborn, only son and could do no wrong — though she did say from time to time: ‘You lose a son when he finds a wife. A daughter is yours for ever.’

After she married, there were a few good times with her brother. Amir had a house in the suburbs of London and she went over for barbecues or lunches. But after 1990 they hardly spoke, and when they did, they argued.

He didn’t think about what his emigration meant to our mother. He wanted to live in the sun and make money, which he achieved.

Oh, he phoned once every few weeks, came over briefly and invited her over for holidays. The rest was left to me.

As she got older and less able to do things, it was I who took her to the doctors, got her medicines, shopped for her, went to the bank, took her out, drove her to mosque, took over food and made sure my children saw their lovely gran.

Why wouldn’t I do all that? She had given me life, brought me up, supported us by cooking and sewing for others, moved in with me in the Seventies to look after my boy till he went to school, moved in again when my first husband left me. When my daughter Leila was born in 1993, my mother helped again.

But those years when she got more and more dependent on me were not easy at all. Sometimes I snapped and shouted at her when, in truth, I was furious with the way my brother didn’t seem to give a damn. I am ashamed of that. To her he remained the golden boy till the very end. In fact, when she was dying, she waited till he turned up and she saw his face, then passed on in peace.

The funeral did not bring Amir and I together. He hardly spoke to me, did not co-operate with the arrangements, and left after the final prayers without saying goodbye. I was never invited to his house by the sea in Cape Town.

I was very moved by a recent article in this paper by Claudia Carroll, the best-selling chick-lit author. When her mum got cancer, Carroll was in the hospital all day, every day, while her brothers came once in a while carrying many lovely flowers. What delighted her mother more? Her sons’ visits.

Mum, too, was so very thrilled when Amir did some small nice thing. She did value what I did, too, but it wasn’t special.

Now new research published in the U.S. proves what we women know already. Sons spend as little time as they can, and daughters as much time as they can, looking after ageing parents.

Not only that, the daughters increase the time they give to compensate for the sons.

So yes, women have got to the top of politics, science, arts, business and are getting better maternity rights and childcare arrangements, but when they have to look after their parents, they are alone. We need to start shouting about this.

+5 New research published in the U.S. proves what we women know already. Sons spend as little time as they can, and daughters as much time as they can, looking after ageing parents

Since last year, I’ve been on a commission looking into the lives of middle-aged working women. Many struggle looking after grandchildren and their own parents, while employers and the men in the families are indifferent to their needs.

If they drop in and out of work, they earn and save less. They can’t ask for flexi-time, because while there is sympathy for young mums and their needs, there is none for older women.

Most of my female friends seem to be looking after parents, too. None of my male friends have mentioned this duty.

One friend, Mary, took care of her disabled mum for almost six years. ‘My five brothers did sod all,’ she told me. ‘One even suggested we take her to Switzerland and see her off at Dignitas. My marriage broke up under the strain. But I am glad I was there for Mum.’

And another woman called Samira, 54, looks after her baby grandchild — her daughter, a nurse, can’t afford childcare — and her own father who is suffering from dementia. ‘My brothers do nothing,’ she says. ‘I am so tired I cry all the time. They never say thank you. It’s just expected.’

That is what I feel, too. If only my brother had said, just once: ‘I know what you do for Mum.’ But he didn’t. Most don’t.

More men now are better dads. They should learn to be better sons, too. If David Cameron really cares about families, he must address the unfair burdens placed on daughters.

Amir and I were finally reconciled. Four years ago, my daughter made me phone him in Cape Town. We had heard he was unwell.

We spoke, and for the first time in a long time he was warm, contrite and loving. He said he was sorry for not being a good brother, a good son. I too said sorry for being so angry with him for so long.

He died, unexpectedly, a week later. Alas, it was all too late.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a columnist for The Independent