Why Is There Still A Cultural Stigma Against Single-Parent Households Across India?

A mother joyously holding her child.
A mother joyously holding her child.Sanchita Sarkar

What is it that makes a family? Are families forged by blood or by bond? Can you call someone family even if they do not have the same blood as you coursing through their veins? Being a child of a single parent, I’ve often spent moments of solitude pondering these questions. Even with the advent of modernism, the idea of the family is quite different in India than in the west. We come from a nation where, even today, joint families are considered the norm in society compared to nuclear families. In a patriarchal society, the presence of the mother and father, raising a child, and performing assigned gender roles, is considered to be the ideal familial structure. Children coming from a single-parent household often have to bear the brunt and stigma of society a sentiment the popular expression, “They come from a broken family”, conveys. Since they come from a ‘broken’ family, society perceives something wrong with their family, and by extension with the children themselves. Any family that exists outside the hetero-normative structure is scorned by societal standards.

Sociologists, child psychiatrists, and their research have shown that most children, coming from single-parent households, especially with the absence of a father, grow up in unstable environments, with a sense of financial insecurity. They lack a code of discipline and tend to be rebellious. They prefer to cut the proverbial umbilical cord sooner by leaving their parent’s house. In the absence of a parent figure, they tend to form attachments, sexual and otherwise, with other people sooner than children, who have grown up in households, with both their parents. While I do think that such research results have their merits, my own experience and those of the people I know raised in single-parent households are much different and cannot really be captured within such statistical data.

My parents were divorced when I was too young to read aloud the English alphabet. One stormy night, my mother took me to my grandmother’s house and I have lived there ever since. I have often described my mother as a woman, with the strength of two—for she had to play out the roles of both parents. Yes, financial insecurity was indeed a major part of my growing up, the sociologists were right about that, but it is basic mathematics — a family is always better off when two people are earning. In society, ever since the time of hunter-gatherers, man has always been seen as the breadwinner but such archaic ideas are changing.

Financial struggle taught me to live within my means and to be happy with the bare minimum. Every time I wanted that shiny new red toy car as I passed by this famous toy shop in our town, Wonderland Toys, I reminded myself how blessed I am to have a roof over my head and food on my plate — a privilege not possessed by many boys of my age. This also fostered within me a strong desire to foster my own financial independence. From the age of sixteen, I started teaching English as a private tutor to local kids and earning my own bread. It gave me a sense of achievement, albeit a small one, over my peers who depended on their parents to support them. It paved the way for me to financially support my family in the later years to come.

There is very little that I, a man, can write about womanhood. However, watching my mother struggle all these years always with a smile on her face and sometimes teary-eyed has redefined the idea of a woman for me; in a way that deviates from societal expectations. Although I have used my mother’s maiden surname for the longest time, there was a time when I used to use my father’s surname. I often used to get bullied for that in school and I found it all the more difficult to deal with the bullying as my father’s surname signified a figure, that has always been absent. I could not identify with it and yet, it made me inexplicably sad. My mother was always there to console me when I returned from school and actions speak louder than words — she undertook all the legal proceedings for an affidavit and change my surname.

The journey is different for everyone. It’s different for children growing up with no mothers, children of divorce, and children, who have had one of their parents pass away. It was again a stormy night in 2013 when I learned that my father had passed away. Unfathomable pangs of sadness gripped me and sank my heavy heart. I felt a void and did not know how to mourn for something, that has forever been absent.

I recently saw the father of one of my students pass away. He was a renowned doctor and a caring father. My student has been in shambles and his family is under deep financial duress. However, it is this adversity that has made him much stronger. My student is no longer that carefree, happy-go-lucky boy of seventeen. Instead, he has begun studying with renewed grit and determination. He is now well aware that he must stand strong and be able to financially help his mother and younger sister as soon as he can.

Another instance is of a close friend of mine, who grew up without a mother. Although she has been financially taken care of by her father, it is the emotional needs that only a mother is typically capable of providing, that she has lacked throughout her life. As a child that made her remorseful, but as she grew into adulthood, she tells me that void has been filled by other meaningful and deep bonds that she has formed with other women. She claims that it is that existing void that allowed her to form such meaningful connections and it is a wonderfully positive outlook that she presents me with.

Now to try answering the first few questions I began with. Family can be anyone — it can be your childhood friend; who always held your hand in the playground, it can be the sweet neighbouring woman; who would always feed you when she cooked some delicacies during festivals and it can even be your furry friend who wags its tail when you return home from a tiring day after work. Family is forged by connection, not blood and blessed are those who find and treasure such bonds.

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