A Barbadian household may consist of a single man or woman or of a mixed-gender group of as many as fifteen people. Barbadians idealize a household that consists of a married couple and their children, which characterizes about 45 percent of all households on the island. Around 35 percent of Barbadian households are organized around a mother and her children. These households occasionally encompass three generations of women; they may include brothers, uncles, sons, and the sexual partners of members of the core family unit.
Historically, in Barbados as elsewhere in the West Indies, sexual activity usually began at an early age. Women traded sex for economic support and children (called "visiting" or "keeper" relationships). Visiting unions gave way to common-law unions that, when a couple was older, a church ceremony might legitimate. Young people, however, were not the only ones who had visiting relationships. Historically, West Indian islands have been job-poor. Men left the islands in large numbers to look for work, which left significantly more women than men at nearly all ages. As a result, many women could not legally marry. Lower-class men might never marry. Moreover, no relationship implied men's sexual fidelity. Lower-class men commonly drifted from one temporary sexual partner to another. Married men in the middle and upper classes commonly engaged in a series of visiting relationships with "outside" women. Barbadian fathers, consequently, often were not husbands; even those who were frequently did not live with the mother and her children. When they did, they might contribute little to domestic life. Men often were not home. They spent time instead with girlfriends or other men, often in rum shops, which remain popular among older men. What they contributed, other than a house and money, all too often was violence directed at the mother and children.
Women, for their part, usually drilled into the children not only how much they sacrificed and how hard they had to work to raise them properly, but also that their labors were that much more arduous because they had no companion to help them. It was easy to explain family hardships. Men were irresponsible and abusive. Understandably, fathers could expect domestic help from their sons and daughters only incidentally, and the weak filial obligations that existed applied only to biological fathers. By contrast, childbearing was an investment activity for Barbadian women. In a woman's youth, children legitimated her claims on income from men, although establishing those claims required her subservience. As she moved toward middle age, daughters took over nearly all household chores, and sons provided financial support that could make her independent of spousal support and reduce or eliminate her subservience to an autocratic male. In her old age, financial and domestic support from children meant the difference between abject poverty and a moderate, or even comfortable, level of living. Indeed, these phases often transformed gender relations. Because men could expect support from their children only if they had maintained a relationship with their children's mother, the women dependent on men in their youth found men dependent on them by late middle age. Gender power relationships thus were contingent on historical conditions that made women dependent on men in their youth, and on their male children during and after middle age.
Since 1960, however, Barbadian kin relations have undergone a revolution that reflects global leveling processes that were set into motion by the Industrial Revolution in England 200 years ago. Growth in the world economy, spurred by the Industrial Revolution, was marked by increasing numbers of resource-access channels. Large numbers of resource-access channels imply high levels of competition. High levels of both international and regional competition offer selective advantages to technical skills and competencies and reduce power differentials both between nations and within societies. Gender and skin color have become less important determinants of social position.
Barbadian women experienced a conjunction of good job opportunities and increased educational levels that ushered in a revolution in the relations between generations and between genders. The West Indian marriage pattern of visiting, common-law, and legal unions persists, but empowered women enjoy more domestic help, emotional support, and affectionate behavior than women who are not empowered, and they experience little or no family violence. Women freed from dependency on childbearing have fewer children. Women freed from dependency on men have markedly better relationships with their partners. The incidence of family violence on Barbados fell dramatically in just one generation.