The trial of a single mother
My past 3-year gig as a single mom has been a challenge and an emotional rollercoaster ride. There are days when am ecstatic with a sense of achievement and joy on being able to teach my four year old something new. But then there are those when I feel downhearted and forlorn, nursing a 103-degree fever, drained of all energy and a sense of ineffectuality gnawing at my core. Being a single mother is an uphill journey for women and the deep patriarchy entrenched structure of the Indian law, and bureaucracy make it further a gargantuan feat. Together with these the normative stereotypical understanding of the family as a mom-dad-child unit makes the journey arduous and fatiguing for us. Being a single mom is pretty much as tough as it’s cracked up to be, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love it.
Official paperwork for a single mom can be a nightmare in our country. Visa applications, issuing of passports, international travel, aadhar card registration, school admissions, house lease and many more paper filings require the name of the father irrespective of his guardian status. Aastha (35), single mom for a 4 year old son shared, “I am facing problems getting my son’s passport re- issued because it is necessary to get his father’s signature and passport along with the application. Even though the custody of the child is with me, the passport officers are not reissuing my son’s passport unless I get the permission from his father. ”
Similarly Sonali (36), on her experience, “I had to apply for a passport for my daughter when she was 18 months old. Being a single mother meant that I had to go through a separate channel, as it was seen as a ‘special case’. I did have to run around getting annexures signed by magistrates and had to get a permission letter from my child’s father too. I found the extra legwork exhausting. I feel it would have been a whole lot kinder on my daughter and me if we hadn’t been treated as ‘different’. I certainly do not appreciate the the high-handed attitude of clerical staff when dealing with special cases.” It’s the same story in every government paperwork proceeding. I had to face similar interrogation and a condescending stare when I went to get my son’s Aadhar Card made. There is no provision to include the mother’s name on the document. The law of our country is impervious to who is the one raising the child and is spending endless hours being there for his/her needs. The only thing supreme is the law of the father. Recently some feminist lawyer groups have been trying to bring amendment to the same.
For example, visitors to the Supreme Court of India are required to fill up an application form for issue of an entry pass.The application form requires “Father’s name” to be filled in by the applicant. Two months back, the Lawyers Collective sent a letter to the Hon’ble Chief Justice of India bringing to his attention this requirement. The letter mentioned that in cases of divorced women, single mothers, or widows, the mother may have been the natural guardian and the visitor may be unaware of his/ her father’s name. The form has now been amended and “mother’s name” has been added to the photo entry form.
School Admissions. I was super excited when my son turned 3 and it was time to get him admitted to the big school. I did my happy dance on his third birthday. Some baby free time was what I was thinking about though I had a full time job and a PhD to take care of. Nursery admission process in Delhi is based on a point system where the schools allot points to a child out of 100, on the basis of criteria including distance of residence from school, sibling studying in the school, if a parent is an alumni, if the child is a girl. There are some school-specific criteria too, which the schools are allowed to decide, after a High Court order. I was appalled at the policies of some schools vis-à-vis single parents. While some gave extra points to children of single parents, some schools only count widows/widower as a single parent. There seems to be a sense that by being a widow you are somehow ennobled and other cases like divorced women are not worthy of this concession.
Gayatri Sharma, a well-known lawyer in the city elaborates, “The status of a widow is higher than that of a divorced woman as per Hindu Succession Act. A widow is a class 1 heir, while a divorced woman is not. Even if we don’t go strictly by what the law says, in domestic violence case it has been observed that Judges are more inclined to grant relief to widows rather than divorced women (see for example the Lawyers Collective 6th M&E report available online).” All this makes me question the very ideology of the structure of the institution of marriage and family in our country. Now that my son goes to school, he is no more a baby. Raising a baby alone is a lot different than parenting an inquisitive school going child whose friends have moms and dads who either live together, or are both involved. When my son asks about his father, I answer truthfully, quickly and then change the subject (advice I gained from a child psychologist). I never say anything negative and know this conversation will evolve, as my son grows older and more curious. The first instinct that most single moms I spoke to have is that we can do it all by ourselves. But that’s not true. No one is a super mom and its perfectly normal and realistic to ask for help and support from family and friends.
I am truly grateful to have my parents and sisters there to pitch in whenever I need. Sonali had much the same to share, “In my case there was severe emotional trauma in the beginning as I was getting away from a man who abused both me and my child. Added to that was the struggle of finding myself alone in something I had not planned to do alone. My health did deteriorate when my daughter fell seriously ill with a viral infection the first time. However, the support of my parents ensured my general well being. They have stood by me, as have my sister’s and friends. While I thoroughly wish the work of parenting could be divided ever so often and miss having a hand to hold through difficult days, I feel unusually empowered for having chosen to protect my daughter and ensure a violence-free future for her. I think pockets of Indian society are changing for the better and if everyone’s friends and family encouraged their endeavour as single mothers, it would be all that women like me would ever need.”
Sonali puts her experience beautifully as, “It’s been a tough year and a half. That said though, I’m also having an absolute ball and I’ve never felt stronger, happier and more determined, despite the constant prying questions from all and sundry and aches and pains.” Kudos to all you single moms out there.