Sunday, November 15, 2009

Being a Single Mother

Single parenthood in India is not really as much of an ‘aberration’ as it is made to seem like. If the invisibility of single parenthood is taken away, the existence may come across as a norm. Having grown up in a household under the parenthood of a married woman who for years struggled to run the household by balancing the needs of day-to-day existence of her children and herself while managing the distance control of an ever absent husband who only surfaced occasionally to abuse and leave a seedling behind, I am cripplingly conscious of the invisibility of single parenting by married women. Single parenthood is an insecure social subject of discussion even as one lives the life of a single parent in India. And, therefore, the tag of marriage remains a means to gain or maintain some semblance of respectability and some security from unwanted sexual and economic assaults and denial of basic constitutional rights.

Marriage is used to control access to many day-to-day facilities, social networks and relationships and legal rights and provisions. For a society so used to dealing with largely those who have the tag of marriage or are recognized as a dependent of a married couple, it doesn’t know what to do when it comes face to face with one without such a tag. So it does what an Ostrich would do; it blocks all the access points even to what may be basic or fundamental rights for the single parents and treats the single mothers as delinquent juveniles who must be judged and counselled by everybody else. As a single mother, I have experienced more than my share of unwanted ‘social support’ in the form of people jumping to conclusions about my abilities as a parent, my relationship with my child and of course have been condemned so often for leaving a child in a boarding school and ignoring the child even when I happen to be perhaps the only parent in that school who legally can’t take the child outside the country, has been running pillar to post to get the situation redressed and perhaps the only one who is flying across seas four times a year to manage the child’s needs and holidays.

This form of social engagement with single parents is not without basis though. Being a society of marriages and joint families even as they erode, it is nearly impossible even for the enlightened most to see that the basic support means are not available to single parents, that access to social and legal provisions are closed shut in our faces, that we struggle to eke out a living and cope with the perpetual fine balance between our desire to be a contributing member of the globe or the country and an imposed expectation to be a super sacrificing mother. The means of practical support for single parents like me, who are out and about on their own, are non-existent. So when even an iota of support need is expressed by the single parent like me, it is treated as a sign of our incompetence or it is that extra which entitles others to judge us.

There is an amazingly near blindness to the realities of the realities of the lives of single mothers. Women have been seen as ‘un-earning’ members of a household who derive economic means from family assets and properties, which they may not even own or control, to meet the child care responsibilities. This perception is so settled that there is no realization that a woman may need to make money to be able to keep herself and her child alive and to meet her child’s and her own basic needs. And where this is pointed out and the single mother demonstrates her ability to be more than a mother, she is immediately branded guilty of being ambitious and violating the stereotype of ever so sacrificing mother. Couldn’t she just eke out a measly living in the neighbourhood, why must she go after challenging work opportunities and even if her work contributes to the betterment of the society, can’t she leave that for somebody else to do that and focus on her child alone … the list of questions raised is long, unending, tiring. If the single parent was to be a man, he would be pitied, glorified and would be advised and pressurized to get married to bring a socially accepted carer for his child. As a single mother who wants a life as a person, she is a bad example or someone who has just too much going on. Either way, she is off limits and, therefore, must be stigmatised, condemned and reprimaded.

For the child it is not easy either. It is never a normal life – the norm in their lives covers pity even when things for them should be done as a matter of their right and because they are legally required to be done, unreasonable indulgence where they should not be indulged and being reprimanded for their independent views, and being told all the time that their family is abnormal and that their parent is not capable. Matters of their personal life, which they may not want to share with the rest of the world or may not be legally required are subjected to vicarious scrutiny by individuals and institutions and get recorded in files that, legally speaking, should not exist in the first place. Their opportunities to go out and make their own mistakes like any other child are sealed by the fears of either the mother or their own of being judged unreasonably, of sex vultures who sit waiting to pounce on a single mother and her child as soon as they get an opportunity, and the rebuffs by a few over protective well-wishers among others.

I am ranting and generalizing because I’m trying to not single out anyone just in case someone decides to use the social or bureaucratic authority to deny the basic right of my child or make my life more difficult. I certainly don’t want to deny that sometimes this is done by people’s genuine belief that they are doing the right thing. But would they dare act and react in the same manner or in the same proportion to a child whose parent has a marriage tag implying that there is a socially approved father somewhere or to a parent who is in a relationship of marriage? No, not to my knowledge. People make assumptions, they pass judgments, make harsh and interfering comments, they shut the single mother off into cell where she has to be forever grateful for small and big acts which allowed her and her child to have a human life that they are entitled to. But it has not been all bad all the way for me. Some of my friendships have strengthened because I am a single mother, some broken because I saw the opportunism and superficiality in them, some people I came to know of and who I respect – people, who I probably would not have come across if it were not for single parenthood. For sure, single parenthood has made me far more empathetic and probably more aware of the challenges that we as women face and prejudices that even the supposedly progressive persons could practice.

I can only imagine the challenges that parents, who chose to be parents outside the wedlock, face. If I compare what I face with stigma, violence and social problems coming from stereotypes and prejudices that they have to face, I suppose I can feel better. But the question that bothers me is that why despite the apparent changes, social and legal systems and such a large majority of individuals continue to believe that a family with both parents is normal. I would understand if they were to regard it as predominant. I read somewhere recently that 49 percent of children in India are from single parent homes, yet single parents are being treated as aberration and nothing is being done to facilitate the transformation of the social and legal systems to meet the needs of this change. The Ostrich like lack of recognition of this change will only result in a large number of children growing up in environments which does not care for child rights and a society and country that does not care for half its population.

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