In 1989, Neena Gupta defied convention when she chose to welcome her daughter, Masaba, out of wedlock and raise her as a single mother. At the time, the actor was in a relationship with West Indian cricketer, Vivian Richards. She has gone on record to say that her pregnancy wasn’t planned, but once it happened, she decided to raise her child on her own. Her acting career paid the bills, while her father stepped in during the early years to help raise her. Masaba is now a successful designer with a flourishing business.
Today, March 21 is Single Parent’s Day, an ode to women like Neena. It started off as a celebration in the USA in 1984 when President Ronald Reagan brought it into existence. Four decades later, it has gained momentum as a global movement to honour and celebrate single parents around the world.
Everyone who has ever raised kids will know how challenging parenting can be, especially when done alone. Gupta chose to be a single mother. A lot of women in the country do not actively make that choice but are left holding the reins after they have been widowed, divorced, or when a partner walks out on them. The challenges they face are manifold.
Financial Stability & Security
“I have been a single parent for the last 13 years,” says Harishree Janani, who is a pharmaceutical sales manager based in Hyderabad. “My two children are now in their late teens and so life is a little more structured – I can focus on my career and pursuing financial stability. But I remember the early years when things were difficult. I obviously work full-time because I receive negligible support from my ex-husband, and need to ensure a good education for both my children. I also need to put food on the table, pay utilities and ensure a few outings. But between doctor’s appointments and exam schedules, I found that promotions and bonuses were not forthcoming, and I was surviving on a threadbare income, barely making ends meet.”
A 2017 estimate by World Population Prospect revealed that the poverty rate of lone-mother households is 38 per cent, as opposed to 22.6 per cent in dual-parent households. For Janani, what eventually helped her was financial planning. “I first made sure I didn’t spiral into debt. We always lived within our means, even if it meant foregoing dinners at restaurants or new clothes for birthdays. Also, I didn’t have a lot of savings, but whatever I did, I immediately put into a Fixed Deposit so that I wouldn’t spend it, except in a real emergency. Today, I am earning better, and the focus is on saving for my children’s college education so that they can lead independent lives thereafter, and also set aside money for my own retirement needs.”
According to a UN report released in 2020, 4.5 per cent of households in India are managed by single mothers. Around 13 million women in the country tend to their children alone in single-parent units, while 32 million live in extended households. The UN report also collected data from 89 countries worldwide, revealing that eight out of 10 single-parent households worldwide are headed by women.
Despite the growing numbers, single women across the country are stigmatised by society, by those they once considered their peer group, and sometimes by their own families. Those in the middle and lower socio-economic brackets are particularly vulnerable. Single mothers are concerned that if something happens to them, there will be no one left to look after their children, and there is no Plan B. Add to that the challenge of being perceived as ‘easy’ or ‘available’ for a good time by some men. And then, your child faces social stigma as well, often excluded from outings and birthday parties, particularly if others are judgemental about your divorce or separation.
You can’t control the world and how it reacts. What you can do is surround yourself with people who radiate positivity. Find a like-minded group of single mothers, either online or in person, with whom you can interact once or twice a month. Teach your children to stay strong. Be open to the prospect of counselling, if either you or they feel overwhelmed by the situation.
Maintaining A Work-Life Balance
It's a Catch-22 situation, isn’t it? On the one hand, more work means more moolah, which comes in handy if you’re the sole breadwinner. However, more work means that you compromise on several other aspects of your life – right from time spent with family and friends, to your own physical and mental health. Rithika Shah, who works in corporate communications for a global firm, says, “Asking for help is the only way to achieve a work-life balance. My son is six-years-old right now and my job requires me to travel across India. I drop my kids off with my parents whenever I have to travel. My nanny is a rock as well. If you can afford reliable childcare, my advice to single mothers would be to take it. I’ve also looked towards friends and neighbours for carpool solutions, and found that people are more than willing to help out.
“At work, I’ve tried to set boundaries. Unless it’s a bonafide emergency, I don’t bring work home. It is also important for me to spend quality time with my son doing fun activities or even finding fun in doing household chores together. We create happy memories together and develop a healthy bond. Lastly, I need to prevent burnout and look after myself, so I find time to work out every day, read a good book or watch a movie occasionally, and visit the spa as a one-off treat.”
If you feel that the challenges as a single parent are insurmountable, there are some strong, fabulous women who got there without a partner, doing it on their own terms. Think about JK Rowling, a single mother escaping a bad marriage, and struggling to find a foothold in the publishing world. Author Mandy Hale put it beautifully when she said, “Single moms: You are a doctor, a teacher, a nurse, a maid, a cook, a referee, a heroine, a provider, a defender, a protector, a true superwoman. Wear your cape proudly.”