A few years of observing and writing on families and the relationships that make them has left me convinced that nothing about being a mother is easy—this is only amplified when you’re a single mother.
When a marriage ends for any number of reasons, it is often the woman who is left with the bulk of parental responsibilities, a near-total withdrawal of social support and maximum heartache. While a man in the same position might be free, even actively encouraged, to take another partner or pursue another relationship to get his emotional and sexual needs met, the same understanding is rarely if ever extended to a woman.
Often, the welfare of the children is the most powerful argument used to keep women from pursuing their own desires. Receiving support and encouragement from grown-up children can then detonate the guilt and release the mother to forge her own path forward.
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In line with this, even as Millennial and Gen-Z youth are finding ways to live and love on their own terms, they are also encouraging their single mothers to do the same.
Avantika* (25) and Anu* (19) are people I know, who take full credit for persuading their mother to leave a marriage of 27 years. Reema* (54) was subject to years of financial abuse at the hands of her husband, but leaving is just not an option for women of her generation.
“My sister and I were able to talk her through it. Today, she is separated from our dad and is about to file for a divorce. She lives in her own apartment now and is really enjoying her independence,” Avantika says.
Both daughters and the mother have a lot of healing to do, as the trauma of the separation is still fresh. But if and when the time comes for their mother to seek another relationship, they are ready to be supportive. “We’ve been taking her clubbing and encouraging her to meet new people and feel twenty again. Personally, of course, I feel very protective of her. But I would be excited if she met someone worth her time,” she says
Put at ease by such understanding from their children, women are also open to the widening of the dating scene, especially in metro cities.
“In urban settings, there is an increasing number of mixers and events organised to get single parents together. For those who would like to be discreet, there are dating apps. With brands targeting this demographic around occasions like Mother’s Day, it is certainly becoming more normalised for single mothers to seek romantic and sexual connections,” observes Vani Subramaniam, a Bengaluru-based counselling psychologist.
Some women however are still playing it safe, especially with children who aren’t yet old enough to understand the complexities of the situation.
Mandira* (44) lost her husband to cancer nearly five years ago and has been working on herself and her relationship with her 15-year-old son since then. “My son is at a crucial stage of his growth, where he is not a child anymore but he’s not an adult either. Perhaps in a couple of years, he would be in a better place to handle the possibility of me finding another partner,” she says.
Understandably, this is still a top priority for most single mothers, who find that their children’s needs are as important as theirs when it comes to bringing a new person into the family. “There is too much at stake,” Mandira says. For her “there is no question of joining dating sites or going on blind dates” — she’d rather go out with someone who she knows well already.
Age-appropriate communication is key, says Rayna Mehta, a Mumbai-based child and adolescent psychologist. “Anytime you keep something in the dark, you’re promoting a taboo. While it might be easier to speak about this with older children who are more familiar with the concept of dating, younger kids can also be kept in the loop. They can be gently assured that ‘mommy has a new friend, but she doesn't love you any less’.”
Year after year, I see women in my circles get married and disappear into the expectations that are set for them—especially when motherhood comes. It is fair that the immense responsibility of raising children drives most other things out of one’s mind. But very few people tend to see motherhood as one part of a woman’s life and not its entirety.
“What we need to normalise is not just single mothers dating, but women being more than just mothers,” says Mehta. “Because they are similarly shamed (as when dating) for pursuing their careers and other interests as well.”
The gradual change affected by mothers and their children, working together to forge a path for women to rightfully meet their own needs and desires, is a welcome one. According to Mehta, this will “ultimately also teach the children to develop the ability to take care of themselves, be self-assured and form healthy connections later in life.”
Indumathy Sukanya is an artist and independent journalist based in Bengaluru