“Being a mother is the most important—and most humbling—job I’ve ever had. As we rightly celebrate motherhood, we should give special thanks to the women who are raising children on their own. And let’s vow to do more to support them, every day.”
This is how Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, signed off her post on Mother’s Day. Sheryl is a much loved and admired leader, who has never shied away from speaking her mind or dodging the feminist tag.
However, this Mother’s Day she admitted through her Facebook post that she had not fathomed the magnitude of the challenges that single parents, especially moms, face everyday across the globe and especially in America.
It is her current status as a single mother that triggered this admission. Almost a year ago Sheryl lost her husband to a heart attack. She posted on Facebook – “For me, this is still a new and unfamiliar world. Before, I did not quite get it. I did not really get how hard it is to succeed at work when you are overwhelmed at home.”
Sheryl’s book Lean In published in 2013 has been written from the perspective of the wonderful support system she had in her spouse, family, friends and colleagues. In the book, she emphasised how critical a loving and supportive partner can be for women both professionally and personally and how important Dave was to her career and for their children’s development. Recently, she admitted that though she still believes this she had probably not done justice to women who did not have supportive partners. “I did not spend enough time writing about the difficulties women face when they have an unsupportive partner or no partner at all. I never experienced and understood all the challenges most single moms face, but I understand a lot more now than I did a year ago.”
A very emotional and tearful Sheryl opened up about Dave’s death, dealing with grief and how she was impacted by his loss, while speaking at the Graduation of Class of 2016 at Berkeley last week. Here too she highlighted the challenges single parents face.
Her candid speech about her grief and the challenges faced by a single mom, inspired me to delve deeper into the challenges single moms face in India. Given the cultural ethos of our country and the patriarchal system, which sees women as someone who needs to be protected by a father, brother or husband, being single – either as a divorcee or a widow – is often looked down upon. What are some of the challenges these single mothers face? We spoke with a few of them and here is what they shared:
Lack of a safety net
Sheryl said that the lack of a safety net affects single parents the most. This is true for women across India; widows, single moms with no support system, abused women who have left their home and women who have been abandoned find themselves working hard to make ends meet. Financial independence is the biggest challenge for most single moms. Thirty-five percent of single mothers experience food insecurity, and many handle more than one job. In addition to being the sole breadwinner they have to take care of their children and manage a home single-handedly. A missed paycheck or an illness can present impossible choices, since poverty is always looming in the horizon.
The only person
Other than the financial challenges, being single is also emotionally draining and stressful as you are always on the run. As a single mom living independently in India you can’t afford to fall sick, take off on your own or take a night off from being a parent. Since there are no safe places for the mothers to drop off their children, taking a break and doing something they like on their own is impossible. The sense of loneliness is enhanced when the workplace environment is unpleasant and not accommodating.
As a single parent you are the one always carrying the grocery bag, or taking kids to school, doctor check-ups and dance classes. You are always in the driver’s seat and there is no respite from the situation. There is no companion to share the load with, says Indhu Rebecca Varghese, a single mom who teaches at Army Public School, Bengaluru.
Tackling difficult questions
Single mothers also have to tackle difficult questions from kids who want to know about the family dynamics, which are perhaps different from most of their friends. As a single mom it is pertinent to explain to the kids the situation so that they can field awkward and inevitable questions that come their way about their father. Amidst juggling work and household chores it requires single mothers to spend time with kids and understand their needs and problems.
Manisha Ahlawat of Vivafit says, “You have to be honest and explain to them that there is nothing wrong with having a single parent. I used to tease mine saying they would get double attention from me.” Over the years, Manisha has ensured that her kids did not stew in all the difficult situations and questions they encountered.
Slipping off the white saree
For single moms who have lost their spouses, the grief and the pain along with the tag of widowhood in India is often not a pleasant experience. To move ahead in life along with the grief and to make up for the loss of the other parent when it comes to the children takes a lot.
Indhu lost her husband two years ago. She says that the one thing she has realised in the last two years is that most people expect you to continue wearing the widowhood mantle. “It’s like you can’t slip out of the invisible white saree that the society drapes on you. The pitiful glances fail to acknowledge the very strength required to wake up, smile and lead a joyful and independent life! ‘Widowhood is not the end,’ they say, but they don’t believe it. If they did then the concept of a happy widow would not sound like such an anomaly for most ears,” she adds.
Single moms are are often vulnerable to unsolicited advances, ranging from mild flirtations, to subtle hints to sexual harassment. Single moms who have been victims of harassment, abuse and domestic violence too face this. This is an unnecessary stress and often don’t get to air their grievances because they doubt if anyone would listen to or believe them.
How do we change things?
There are hardly any support groups or communities for single mothers in Indian cities. Due to the judgments directed at them most single parents prefer to keep a low profile. It is time we changed the equation. As Sheryl rightly puts it, we need to rethink our public and corporate workforce policies and broaden our understanding of what a family is and looks like. We need to build a world where families are embraced and supported and loved no matter how they fit together. We need to understand that it takes a community to raise children and that so many of our single mothers need and deserve a much more supportive community than we give them. We owe it to them and to their children to do better. We must do more as leaders, as coworkers, as neighbours, and as friends.