We’ve all heard the dating cop-out “It’s not you, it’s me”, but single mothers are often left dealing with the heartbreak of “It’s not you, it’s your child”. Add to that restrictive cultural norms for moms, and their prospects for a second chance at love are often doomed.
When recently divorced Priya (name changed) shared with her friends and family that she was ready to date again, she was greeted with sheer horror. “How can you even think of dating now that you have a child to take care of?” was the general consensus. “Every time they asked me to put my child’s interest first, I wanted to scream that I already was,” she says.
Janki Mehta, consulting psychotherapist and co-founder of Mind Mandala, Mumbai, says single moms often shy away from dating to avoid social stigma.
“We find faults with single women alone. Imagine the amount of scrutiny a single mother has to face in our society,” she says. Social pressures, she says, make it nearly impossible for single women to date in India.
To unpack exactly how these “social pressures” manifest, we spoke to a bunch of single moms and experts.
‘Shame! How can a mother date?’
Married for four years, Akriti was 26 when she decided to separate from her abusive husband. As a young, single mother she had everything stacked against her, yet she chose to raise her child alone rather than in an unhappy household.
“Those who criticise me for not giving my daughter a ‘normal childhood’ don’t even know the trauma we underwent in my ex-husband’s house. It isn’t always necessary to have two parents to raise a child. I am doing what’s best for my child and have no qualms about being a single mom,” she says.
Akriti, who is open to dating, met a man whom she really liked, and who reciprocated her feelings. However, his parents could not ‘accept’ a single mother as their son’s companion. “He is divorced as well, you know, but the difference is that I have a three-year-old child. They were okay with him dating a divorcee, a widow or a single woman, but not a mother. Because for most families that is still unacceptable and really shameful,” she says. Rather than prolonging the relationship, she decided to call it quits.
Janki Mehta says the stigma of being in a relationship with a single mother often outweighs any fondness a man may feel for her. “Often men back out as their families don’t accept such relationships or they fear being questioned about their choices. It is more convenient and socially acceptable to be with a childless woman,” she says.
‘A woman with a child is a burden’
Factors such as joint custody of the child with former partners, the expenses of school and other care requirements, make men wary of committing to single moms. Devika, a 32-year-old woman from Hubli, Karnataka, walked out after eight years of being in a physically and emotionally abusive marriage, taking her now seven-year-old daughter with her.
“I had to move out because [the situation] was affecting my child. She was diagnosed with spina bifida, and the toxic environment was making things worse for her development,” Devika says.
She says neighbours and relatives treat her like a pariah, constantly whispering behind her back. “Their eyes are always on me, I can feel them follow me everywhere. They notice when I leave, who comes to my house and what I do. They refuse to see how happy I am now and fail to see why I left my husband,” she says. Yet, she refuses to buckle under societal pressure.
“My daughter’s condition back then was far worse, and my doctor has assured me she is only going to get better. I have done what’s best for my child,” she says.
Although open to dating, Devika says it is too much to ask of men, who lack the courage even to accept women with ‘normal’ healthy babies, to be with her and her daughter. “I wish society would support single moms like me instead of treating us as if we are burdens”.
‘She will always put her kid first’
Narendra Kinger, senior clinical psychologist and counsellor from Mumbai, says men feel threatened at the prospect of a woman prioritising her child over them.
“Not only is the child a burden for them, they also believe that they will always play ‘second fiddle’ to the child”. It is also a common belief that a mother is so focused on her child, that she has no room in her life for anything else, including herself. Kinger says that as a society, “We place mothers on a pedestal and strip her off her human qualities and desires. A single mother, in fact, could be open to dating as she wants to find a compatible partner and a father figure for her child.”
Priya says that like any other mom, with or without a partner, she keeps the interests of her child at the forefront, but she also wants to have a companion.
“It took me time to realise that I was ready to fall in love again and that men could be interested in me. I felt the physical signs of having carried a child would be a turn-off for men, but I was pleasantly surprised on a couple of occasions. Single moms are scared to lay bare their hearts, but I think we should take every opportunity to do so,” she says.
’The child will not accept me, so I won’t accept him/her’
Kinger tells us of a single mom whose new partner tried to force her to choose between her two children, a six-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy. The man was ready to accept her daughter but uncomfortable with the idea of butting heads with her pre-adolescent son. “She was asked to send him to a boarding school and then a college abroad, with the extra expenses to be paid by the biological father,” Kinger says.
The exalted position that is bestowed upon men in our society, makes them feel they need to be looked upon as providers and protectors. This makes them wary of children who may not accept them as father figures. So instead of trying to befriend the child, or attend counselling sessions along with the mother and child, they back off on the slightest pretext. Mehta explains that single moms instinctively recognise this hesitance and start feeling guilty and ashamed for dating a single and childless man.
“Very often in therapy we work through the layers of emotions and set goals to have a smooth entry of the partner into the woman’s life,” Mehta says. She tells us of a client who had lost her husband to an accident when she was just 30 and had a two-year-old child. “She felt she was a burden to her family, yet felt guilty of wanting to start afresh. Luckily for her, she had supportive family members and in-laws. We worked together for five years, during which she started opening up and voicing her needs. She went on to meet a man who accepted her and her child, and they are living together now,” Mehta says.
‘What about my bloodline?’
Often men feel that a single mother is not open to having more children and this makes them back out of any serious commitment. In addition, “The man and his family do not want her first-born to be the older sibling in the family, and thus have their own bloodline become secondary somehow. Family politics, and a preoccupation with taking the man’s bloodline forward, contribute to prejudices against single mothers,” Kinger says.
Even ‘well-meaning’ relatives have told Akriti that society accepts a single dad remarrying, but that a single mom doing the same is unacceptable. “It’s so sad that we live in a society where not many people encourage and support strong, independent, single working mothers,” she says.
Outdated social mores
Priya says she has encountered barriers regularly in her dating journey. From a sense of misplaced morality to plain meanness, many men and women alike found it incomprehensible that she wanted to find a romantic partner. Some even thought she was a bad influence on the daughter that she was raising single-handedly.
“Indian men, single and married, feel single moms are desperate and easily available. Women on the other hand are full of suspicion, and think we are waiting to entice their boyfriends and husbands. That I may want to dress well for me, is provocation in their eyes,” Priya says.
Priya has a plea for society to change their perception of single moms: “She is just another girl who wants to enjoy her life, and maybe if she’s lucky meet someone special. She isn’t a home-breaker, a fallen woman, or a bad mom.”