However, there is one important difference. Divorced in 2003, Jennifer is a single parent with primary custody and financial responsibility of her children as well. Though the kids are supposed to spend vacation time with their father, things are complicated by the fact that both parents do not live close to each other. As the children want to plan for extra classes or summer jobs, they choose to stay with her, and Jennifer’s tight routine is therefore all her own. Anyone’s illness can throw things off schedule and she then has to take time off from work and cope as best as she can.
“In the South Asian culture, the concept of family is very central, and any break from the tradition causes stress,” says Dr. Alzak Amlani, a clinical psychologist who has been practicing for the past 18 years in Palo Alto and San Francisco, as he talks about the issue of divorce. “The entire extended family will then withdraw its support to even the children, as they are disapproving and want no part of the situation. In a worst-case scenario, the father completely abandons the children and won’t even visit them unless made mandatory by law. The entire load is then on the single parent.”
Such was the case for Jennifer who separated from her husband in 1999, and has since been the primary custodian of her children. Her family disapproved of the divorce and withdrew their support. Though she was a very active member of the Malayali community, she has since been cut off from her former social circle and the loneliness is just one of many challenges she has to face.
“It is harder for South Asians because we tend to stick to our own,” says Amlani about the lack of a supportive environment for Indian divorcees. “And our own may not want to expose their family to a family of divorce.”
“There are a lot of problems being a single parent. Being a divorced woman is very hard in our community; it is very challenging,” says Jennifer. Though she feels that the decision to divorce was right for her, she is not sure how much her children have accepted it.
“When I asked for a divorce, my son lost the man in his life, and he blames me for that. Looking back I realize how much my boy, who was only 7 at that time, tried to make things work by talking to both me and his father; a boy needs a father,” she says. However, her daughter, who was older at that time and aware of the tension between her parents, was more supportive.
To ensure that her children retained some stability in their lives, Jennifer decided to continue living in the same neighborhood so that the children would at least have the same friends at school.
“It takes a village to raise a child; you need friends, relatives and a community,” concurs Amlani. He also adds that a single parent should make use of the resources such as therapy and support groups to lessen their load.
While Jennifer feels that her children have been scarred by their parents’ divorce, she hopes that it has made them stronger. However, she is aware of the fear at the back of her children’s mind. For instance, they saw their father with another woman and are worried about what would happen to them if their mother decided to choose another partner as well.
“There is a fear and therefore a need for emotional reassurance that a child requires most at this difficult time,” says Amlani.
This responsibility places multiple kinds of pressure on the parent. Apart from the challenges of dealing with the finances and litigation, the single mother or father may also go through anxiety, anger, and depression. This would therefore deplete their emotional resources for parenting.
Even the simplest of tasks can become a challenge as the single parent is faced with new and difficult situations. Amit Rege, who has been separated for 20 months and is now working toward a divorce, has two kids—a boy and a girl, aged 15 and 9. While he does get to spend time with his children, the meetings are too short and not as frequent as he would like.
“Cooking is a challenge,” he admits. “I have had to learn cooking from scratch, and I try to cook something that my children like when they come over. They would initially not eat anything I cooked, but I am getting better now,” he says. “It is also hard for me to find something that both my kids like to do, as because of the age difference they have varying interests.”
Though there is some sadness and anger, he feels that his children have adjusted to some extent. The older one has taken it harder, the younger one is happier; and they mostly don’t talk about it. As for himself, he went through some helpful counseling, and researched books from the library to find out how to talk to his children about the issue.
“I kind of muddle through, doing the best I can,” he says.
He observes that “kids take their cues from adults. I have noticed that even if a young child falls down and gets hurt, if the adult looking after the child is calm, the child will settle down too once the pain has subsided. It is therefore important to gain the strength to not show your troubles in front of the kids, to keep things calm.”
However, says Amlani, the stress of being a single parent can lead to frustration and impatience. Overloaded with responsibilities, the single parent may resent the kids as her own emotional needs are not met. And where there is less parenting available, kids also become more demanding and needy.
Without parental support, children may get angrier; they may feel rejected, and therefore act up; or they could withdraw, preferring to keep to themselves, and eventually get into trouble—such as drugs, drinking, or unsuitable company.
Of course, sometimes the parent is happier, adds Amlani. Freed from the fighting and the tension of the marriage, the parent is at peace and has more energy for the child.
But it is not easy to be strong, as was the case for Maya (name changed upon request). Separated after seven years of marriage, she has two children, now 16 and 15. Throughout her non-amicable divorce, her children were with her and she even went back to school to get a decent-paying job.
“You just live, do what needs to be done; life seems to stand still. I was concentrating on the kids, they were my focus, my priority,” she says about her initial tough times.
Though she now shares joint custody of the children with her ex-husband, Maya initially went back to India with her kids. There she saw them thrive, surrounded by affectionate family members. She however felt that her children needed both parents, regardless of the relationship between them, and decided to return.
“When we came back, they quieted down; I could see the change in them. We didn’t know anybody else who had had a divorce, and they felt they were the only ones in this situation,” she says, of her children.
Her decision to join Wings, a support group for divorced Indians made a positive change in their lives. She was able to meet other divorced parents and in the midst of this supportive environment she saw her kids become kids again.
“I used to feel bad for them; that they don’t deserve to be in this situation,” says Maya. “Initially, it was hard for them, but at the end of the day they were okay.”
However, both she and Jennifer warn that both partners should make every attempt to work things out and choose divorce only as a final option, keeping the interest of the children in mind. While Maya feels that it is better to be at peace alone than live together in animosity, Jennifer warns of the financial struggle for both parents and the probable loss of their children for most fathers.
Jennifer feels that she did the best she could for her children, providing for them, caring for them, and making sure that they could always come to her if there was any problem. However, she is uncertain about their future. “I worry about their lives—if they decide to get married. I hope this (her divorce) does not affect them and that they have happy and stable lives.”
Priya Gopalakrishnan is a freelance writer and editor.
FOR THE SAKE OF THE KIDS
To ensure a caring and supportive environment for the kids, clinical psychologist Dr. Alzak Amlani offers the following suggestions for single parents:
• Create as amicable a divorce as possible, so that parents are able to talk to each other about decisions involving the children. Some couples may need to get counseling to resolve their issues with the ex and work together for the kids.
• Address the fear in the child’s mind. Reassure them that they are still loved and that the divorce has nothing to do with them. The emotional situation of the child at this time may predispose him or her to more sickness. So spend more time with the child. Constant reassurance is very helpful.
• Keep the family together. The best of Indian culture is that families really support each other. Children hunger for family, and the extended family should support the children.
• Take care of yourself, and don’t get too run down or depleted. On the other hand, keep in mind that your acting too free after a divorce can be scary for your child. Behave discreetly and responsibly, especially when you find a new partner.
A NEW FAMILY CIRCLE
Wings is a support group for “single again” Indians in the Bay Area started by Shamyo Chatterjee. His divorce in 1998, he feels, was probably due to the stress faced by any working couple. As this father of two grappled with severe depression after his divorce, he realized that even therapy was not helpful, as the therapist did not understand his cultural baggage.
In search of more people in the same situation, he advertised in the Bay Area Indian and San Jose Mercury News. This was the beginning of the support group, Wings, which started with 15 to 20 members, but has since grown to around 250.
“Being with people who came from the same background and had gone through a similar experience was the only thing that helped me,” says Chatterjee. “Unless you have been through something as traumatic as a divorce, it is difficult to relate. Being with friends is better than therapy.”
He says that upon hearing of a divorce, people in the South Asian community are not sure how to react. Then there is a slow, but sure diminishing of the friends circle for most Indian divorcées. Through Wings, they can interact with people from the same background, who are in the same situation. The group helps the members move forward and manage the loneliness that most feel.
“I don’t feel any loneliness since I joined Wings,” says Jennifer. “There is a great deal of camaraderie. Mentally this group helps; members can get a lot of advice, on divorce and lawyers, and many other things too. I don’t feel cut off from society anymore.”
“All my current friends are people I met through Wings,” says Chatterjee. He adds that the group plans activities such as camping and hiking with the assumption that children will be included. This helps single parents enormously as they can now take their kids to a place where they are not the only ones in a difficult situation.
The entire group tries to meet at least once a month, and smaller informal groups of more intimate friends within Wings meet more often. The activities too are very loose and unstructured.
“We have sangeet nights, garba, or Bollywood evenings, and also celebrate Divali; whatever there is to be celebrated we celebrate,” says Chatterjee.
There is just one requirement for joining: “We don’t accept people unless they have at least filed for divorce,” says Maya.
Wings is a nonprofit. Membership $20 a year. www.iwings.org