The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Single in the city...
...and a parent too

I love mama and she is very strong. But I know she has a lot to do so I don’t want to trouble her more, because she will worry,” says Amar (name changed). So he ends up keeping things to himself, till he can’t take the hurt any more.

Amar is only in Class II, but he already knows the hazards of having just one parent. He understands the dual role of both parents his mother plays, but having lost his father, he knows there is a gap that cannot be filled. This is something the seven-year-old student of a prominent south Calcutta school realised when some of his classmates told him that if he didn’t listen to their demands, they would call their fathers to school and have him disciplined by the principal. Who would he call in his defence' His mother, a working woman, could only console him over the phone that day.

Being single in the city is not easy in Calcutta. Being a parent, too, is as tough as it gets. Those living out the reality say acceptance in case of divorced or separated women is rare, support structures are often non-existent and help is usually restricted to a small circle of family and friends.

Even that, sometimes, is not forthcoming. Like in the case of Shirley (name changed), mother of a 12-year-old daughter, who still has to face questions from her mother’s friends, six years after her divorce. “Every time they visit my mum, they ask me about my ex-husband (who doesn’t even live in India). And every time, I tell them the same thing — that I think he’s fine, but I have no idea… My friends have only now started to accept it,” she says.

And it’s something Shirley has to deal with in every sphere of life, almost every day. From the maids asking “dada babu koi (where is the man of the house)'” to her daughter’s teachers asking her if there’s anything “lacking at home” when she’s done something wrong. “Snide and suggestive remarks are common,” she shrugs.

The biggest problem for most single moms is usually social stigma. Be it marital breakdown or death, the loss of a spouse means a label of “steer clear”, “loose” or “fast”. If it’s divorce or separation, then the complications are compounded with the woman often stereotyped as “bad” or as someone with a “problem”.

Soft targets

Mira Kakkar runs a self-help support group for abused women, most of whom are single and mothers. She points out that these women face daily harassment from various quarters because they are alone. “These women have no rights of their own, and are not seen as individuals, but as an extension of their husbands. One of the women in the group had to move back to her parents in Bangalore, because her three teenaged daughters were being harassed by some goons in the locality.”

Urmi Basu, single parent of an 18-year-old boy, says: “The stigma is terrible. Often, it can be just looks. Everything’s hush hush, because no one wants to talk about it. It’s taboo.”

Though the number of single-parent families is on the rise, societal acceptance remains elusive. “We need to slot people, which is not easy to do in this case,” explains Leena Chatterjee, professor of behavioural sciences at Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta. “These women are stereotyped as unconventional and on the hunt for a man. The way to avoid this is to keep all channels of communication open. Don’t avoid interaction. Don’t become isolated or too sensitive.”

The women are often stronger than most, since they have faced — and continue to face — greater adversities than most. Beating the odds can be exhausting. Except, there is no time to be tired because overcoming obstacles, while being wholly responsible for another life, is a full-time job.

Even the bare necessities don’t come easy. Like renting a home. “Renting or getting a loan is a huge challenge. For a single woman it’s hard, but when you have a child, too, it’s much worse. They want all kinds of details about the husband. Being divorced, I am literally at the bottom of the ladder,” says Urmi, who runs an NGO, after having recently moved house.

Guilt and grit

The catch, according to Indian law, is that there is no specific law guarding against daily doses of discrimination against a single parent. “The Constitution doesn’t provide for these situations, so every institution has its own rules. If it’s admission in a school for a child, the authorities have a right to ask about the father. There’s nothing one can do, at least legally,” clarifies barrister Arijit Banerjee.

If divorce brings one kind of stigma, death brings another kind of alienation. Just ask Amar’s mother, Aruna (name changed). Being both parents and the sole breadwinner, she has no one to depend on but herself in an alien city where work has brought her. “It’s tough, but I have to do it,” is the simple survival statement.

That is why these women are proud of who they are, despite the guilt that lies just beneath the surface. They are independent and nothing is too difficult or impossible for them — homework, housework and holding a job — because it all has to be done.

“There are extra burdens but I take it as a challenge because the rewards are doubly precious — they are my own,” asserts Isita Roy, mother of a 10-year-old boy. “The double role is difficult, but I manage, with a positive attitude and the support of my parents and colleagues. It’s good in a way — it’s all about gender equality, because no one gives an inch,” says the social development worker from Baguiati.

One natural reaction among kids faced with cruelty from the peer group or teachers or relatives is to clam up. “They don’t want others to know, so they don’t express themselves. We have to keep our eyes and ears, as well as our doors, open so they are encouraged to talk. But then some of these kids are actually happier, because a single-parent home is better than an acrimonious marriage,” feels Anuradha Das, principal of Calcutta International School.

Sense and sensitivity

The smallest of things can cause hurt to a kid already on the defensive. “It was something as small as making him write ‘Mr and Mrs’ on an invitation card. He used to get upset when he was younger, but just to make it lighter, I’d ask him to send the card to his father. But then he seemed to lose interest,” recalls Isita.

Sensitisation is the key, observes Meenakshi Atal, principal of The Heritage School. “Children can be cruel, but it’s a question of instilling the right value system. Sensitisation, for both kids and adults, is necessary, and for that, the corridors of communication have to be kept open, at home and in school. They shouldn’t be treated any differently, when it only makes others aware that they are ‘lacking’,” she elaborates.

As for the long-term consequences, psychiatrist Rima Mukherjee reinforces the fact that even if there is a lot of bitterness and acrimony between husband and wife, it shouldn’t be passed on to the child. “They are confused enough. Don’t influence them further — brainwashing leads to several long-term problems. The younger the child, the easier it is for him/her to deal with it. How the child turns out depends entirely on the attitude of the parent bringing him/her up. Divorced or separated women often suffer from guilt, but it doesn’t matter what other people think. Be comfortable,” she advises.

Despite the obvious pitfalls of one missing parent, single mom Sushmita Sen feels that the child’s upbringing is more “focused”. Having adopted little Renée, she is happy with the way the mother-daughter relationship has developed till now. “In a single-parent scenario, the child can’t manipulate the situation by playing the mother and father against each other. Neither does he/she get confused about what’s right and wrong, because with only one decision-maker, there is no question of two opinions,” sums up the actress.

“Life would be a little easier if I could just sit and talk to others like me. For this is something that people can sympathise with, but just can’t understand,” says Aruna.

Daughter Renée

The best thing about being a single parent' The list is endless. The toughest thing to deal with is the sense of guilt. While as a single parent you can’t possibly give up what you’re doing, the time spent away is a problem, especially in my profession. I try and spend quality time with my child (Renée or Mitthu or Sona). As long she is happy to see me (Ma, Mamma or even Sush) when I get back home, we’re happy.

Daughter Anwesha

I was extremely hassled while getting my daughter admitted to school. Even the headmistresses of convent schools had questioned me on my daughter’s legitimacy. I had to show them her birth certificate. Whatever dictum there is about single mothers being the guardians of their children exists only on paper in this country. Anwesha now studies in Cambridge International School.

Son Shiven and Daughter Shivangini

I have never faced any problem being a single parent but in the beginning some people had tried to show me ‘sympathy’ which I ignored. I used to feel guilty for not being able to spend as much time as I wanted to with my kids when I had a hectic work schedule. But now, I have ample time and it’s they who always remain busy with studies and extracurricular activities.

care and rear

1. Don’t avoid interaction and if need be force it

2. Don’t become isolated or too sensitive

3. The children are confused enough when one parent is missing. Don’t influence them further; brainwashing leads to several long-term problems

4. Sensitisation, for both kids and adults, is necessary, and for that, the corridors of communication have to be kept open, at home and in school

5. Divorced and separated women often suffer from guilt, but it doesn’t matter what other people think. Be comfortable

* Opinions of experts, classrooms to clinics

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