The Unenviable Condition of the Single Mother

Written by Meghalaya Times. Posted in Writers Column

Genevieve Lyngdoh Mawphlang
The single mother is seen everywhere. She is there because of the husband’s death, a divorce, the man just left her, an unplanned pregnancy, or she’s forced to just walk out of a troubled marriage or relationship which has become too unbearable to bear. In some parts of the world, (not in the area where this particular study was conducted), some women choose, in a way, to be single, when they become mother via donor insemination, or through adoption.
 A description has been there: that a single mother is independent – she is in charge. One wishes that the description of the single mother ended there or could continue in that drift. However, that is true only for a miniscule number of single mothers. In general, the life of a single mother is ridden with complexities and problems. The problems are fundamentally familial, emotional and financial with the last being the overriding one, and education of the single mother’s children being scuttled.

Extensive study has been done on the problems and hardships faced by the single mother in different countries of the world – the USA, the UK, China, India. The study attempts to shed light on the plight of the single mother in Swer, a village a quintessential Khasi village in East Khasi Hills, Meghalaya. The objective of the study is to examine the various problems faced by the single mother and to assess her relationship with her children.  
The research has perused studies done on the subject and subjects related to it. The literature is wide-based. The studies reveal that, often, challenges beset the single mother to such an extent that she cannot cope with them. At such times, stress, anxiety and depression set in; the mother has even been found to have contemplated suicide. Perusal of the literature has also pointed to a heartwarming angle: that the challenges that the single mother faces have induced in her resourcefulness and, subsequently, resilience (Cheeseman, 2011).
There has also been a more than significant increase in the number of single parents all over the world. In America, there are 13.6 million single parent families with 21.2 million children accounting for 26% of the country’s population (Shannon, 2010). In India, a 39% increase in the number of households headed by the single mother. Census data have shown the numbers have risen from 51.2 million in 2001 to 71.4 million in 2011 (Salve, 2015).
In mainland India, single mothers are torn between continuing the role of a mother at home and that of the provider outside. The judgmental societal prism through which the single mother is viewed contributes towards to her self-esteem being weakened. Few are the women who have managed to rise clear above the judgments of society. The pain and agony is particularly stark in case of the mother who has lost her husband. Besides the economical and emotional setbacks, Indian widows are specially the target of superstitious and retrogressive people. The widow has to conform to a certain dress (white sari), appearances and practices. In this context, the progressive lobby is gaining ground, but problems arising from the death of the husband still persist. The widowed single mother finds that she is a stranger in her parents’ home; whereas, for her in laws, she is an undesirable burden. All the time, the single mother has to simultaneously deal with her bereavement and the need to realign herself to a new life.
Kotwal & Prabhakar (2009) states in their study that role of single working mother is a challenging one. The single mother not only has to look up with the bringing of their children but they also faces many challenges like socially, emotionally and economically. They have to keep intact the discipline among the children due to the absence of a husband or a father. Therefore they also suffer from depression from being loneliness and being traumatic but they found it very challenging to handle the responsibilities of their children.
For the collection of data for the study in Swer, qualitative interview, in-depth interview and focus group discussion were employed by the researcher, and thematic analysis was used to interpret the data. During the interviews and discussions, one thing that stood out is the inability of the single mothers to send their children to school. In addition to that, providing nutritious food for the children is quite a difficult task – even impossible. A heartwarming observation is the healthy relationship of the children with the single mothers in the sense that there is a connectedness between them, in spite of the fact that they struggle to find time for each other. The children feel pity for their mothers and appreciate the fact that they have to work hard; while at the same time they are happy to see the mothers being independent.
50% of the respondents are in the age group 20 – 40, 37% between 41 and 60, and 13% are between 61 and 80. 80% have done class IV or below, while the rest have done classes V to IX. Domestic workers and daily wage earners constitute 30% each. 37% do a variety of farming activities like kitchen gardening, farming etc. Shopkeepers make up the remaining 3%. Quite a noticeable fact is that 73% of the single mothers’ children are female and 27% are male. All the single mothers’ children’s qualification is Class VIII or below.
Almost all the respondents expressed they had deep desire to send their children to school so they could be better settled in life. However they are only left disappointed as poverty proves too great a hindrance and that poverty in turn causes the single mothers to, in a way, justify discontinuation of the children’s study as then they would be available for some other works, mainly in the field, and thus contribute to the income of the family. It could also be inferred that because the mothers themselves have not done much schooling, their determination to send the children to school is diminished to an extent.
Nutrition of the single mothers’ children is an amenity that has suffered greatly. The mothers have said that they give their children whatever they can afford, which is not nutritionally valuable. Potato, which is grown by the single mothers themselves, becomes from time to time their source to feed the family.
The main sustaining activity is cultivation, rearing of livestock and the MNREGS. By the nature of these sources, often times the single mothers fall into poverty; in such instances, and in times of additional requirements (other than food) they have to seek help, in the form of loan, from friends and relatives. Thus, they are bound to be perennially dependent on others.
Lack of companionship has been observed to weigh quite heavily on the single mothers. The companion would have, expectedly, been a very dominant source of support for the mother in many of life. The burden would then be much lighter as responsibilities are shared. When it comes to the decision making in the family, the mother finds herself in a tough situation. In the absence of the father, she sometimes is compelled to consult her children; but then again, they are usually rather still young for discernment and decision making. In certain serious matters, she has to take help from her other relatives, especially the uncles of her children.
There is a rather remarkable deviation of sorts. Some of the single mothers expressed gladly that the absence of the father provides some kind of freedom and independence for them. Being single, they say they have become more self-reliant than when they had the husband. They are free to steer their life in the direction of their choice.
Regarding the children’s emotions, it is kind of a mixed bag – comprising feelings of sadness, pettiness and happiness. The children feel pity for their mother having to struggle all alone. They look ahead to the times when they can be of some help to the mother and be a source of happiness for her. There are also children who say that life without the father is way better; this is the case with the children who had an abusive father, a father who would drink and beat their mother. They relish the peace they get with only the mother.
In conclusion, it is not that hard to appreciate the hardships of the single mother. One may say that she has to work twice as hard to maintain her family and provide for her family. Education of the children, it must again be stressed, is a major casualty of a family becoming single parent (mother) family. Children of the single mother are adversely affected in myriad ways in all areas of their life. Invariably, children who come from homes headed by a single mother carry deep scars in their life. Tough as it may seem, and surely it is, for the single mother to lead a normal life and care for the children as two-parent homes can, she must try to help herself and her children. In this regard, it suggested that single mothers consider education as something very important. Single mothers should take advantage of the various schemes which can be of assistance to them. Wellbeing of the children and their challenges should be top priority for the single mother. If single mothers come together they can share their challenges and emotional travails and perhaps can be some form of resource for one another. Only realization of the fact and resignation to the fate of being a single mother should not be enough.
The writer is a student pursuing her  Master’s degree in Social Work and her work on this piece has been supervised by Dr Ardonister Lyngdoh (Assistant Professor, MLCU)


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