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Opinion I Being a single parent is not a frailty

Single parents have the toughest job in the world. They not only single-handedly wrestle with the crazy schedules, school and playdate mandates, but also face stigmas associated with being a solo parent.

A still from the film ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’, in which Will Smith plays a single father
A still from the film ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’, in which Will Smith plays a single father

Being a parent is challenging to say in the least. Whether you see it from the perspective of a man or a woman, parenting is probably the most difficult incline we climb with absolutely no training.

As Jackie Kennedy famously stated, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much." So, no pressure there.

It truly takes a village to raise a child. But the reality is that for some, leave alone a village, there is often no partner to share the labour, the joys and the many tears that parenting brings. Single parents, independent of context or circumstances, have the toughest job in the world. They not only single-handedly wrestle with the crazy schedules, finances, school and playdate mandates, but also face stigmas associated with being a solo parent. Not just for themselves, but more so to protect their little ones.

Shwetambara Sabharwal
Shwetambara Sabharwal

The popular perception of a single parent child being deprived or having a weak hand vexes me. In case of any behavioural or academic concern, the cause is immediately attributed to be the child having only one parent.

Some research has stated that children of single parents tend to have behavioural and academic slags and, or, difficulty in socio-emotional growth later in life. As a mental health professional having worked with parents, children and schools for 16 years, I can confirm that I have seen several children with both parents having similar slags and difficulty in managing life in general as well.

It cannot be definitively stated that it is the absence of one parent that causes emotional or behavioural problems. I believe that stigma, judgement and prejudice can be very intrusive in a child’s development, thus causing emotional and academic difficulties.

Having met several single parents in the past many years of being a practitioner, I can assure that they are some of the most motivated, determined and focussed people I have met, having the quickest response time to therapy. If anything, they impact their children positively by demonstrating grit, hard work and strength, provided they had healed from their own traumas.

My theory is simple, whatever expectations you set with children, that's what they try and achieve. If you treat them as if they have a disadvantage over the others, they will believe you. If you believe that they are geniuses, they will try and be just that. They want to be trusted, to be held accountable, to be made responsible and they go to great lengths to prove us right.

The stigma over single parenthood percolates down to schools, families, college, in relationships, at work and more. It's not about the absent parent. It is more about the way we perceive singlehood as a disadvantage or a handicap. If not that, we lament about destiny having vanquished their chances of a “complete family". That takes away their sense of self and what they have. I have been in a room with children of single parents often, and they are treated as if they were delicate, made of glass, called “poor things", and in some horrifying cases they are sadistically interrogated.

No doubt single parents have a more challenging journey, more responsibilities and a steeper incline to scale up.

Most importantly, single parents need to manage their perceptions of their situation as that makes all the difference. While they may be doing this solo, they do not have to feel alone or be lonely. The job of bringing up a child alone may seem daunting, but they need to perceive the situation rationally and, as far as possible, positively. I do believe that perception of the parent impacts their interaction with their children, and the sense of self these kids have in the future.

Be as truthful as possible about the “why" behind the singlehood. When children find out you lied, they assume it is a really bad thing that happened to you. Gentle conversations and preparation go a long way in acceptance and building confidence.

Know that you are enough! As J.K. Rowling shared, “I would say to any single parent currently feeling the weight of stereotype or stigmatisation that I am prouder of my years as a single mother than of any other part of my life."

Whether one parent or two, being happy, confident and resolved in bringing up healthy and happy children is the goal. Relatives and, at times, even peers may sympathise or cast aspersions on your style of raising a child. But knowing that you are the “single most important person" in your child’s life will help you shake off that self-doubt.

Developing a support system in friends and family can be a very useful tool for single parents. However I also strongly believe that they need to be very clear and picky on who their children spend time with so as to avoid exposure to stigmatised treatment.

Having said that, kids cannot always be kept in a glass vase. Educate them about the common and archaic stigmas that people hold and how that does not concern the culture of your family, does not shrink the bond you share and certainly will not impact how far your kids will soar.

Shwetambara Sabharwal is a Mumbai based psychologist, psychotherapist and a mother of two.

  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    27.09.2020 | 09:00 AM IST

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