Children of a lesser parent


The Indian family system is changing today as never before. In fact, the very concept and definition of ‘family’ is up for substantial reconstruction, asserts Shoma A. Chatterji.

The average Indian with a traditional mindset still believes that a family with both parents is normal or predominant and single parent families are somewhat away from the mainstream. This is not because one parent has had an untimely demise, but because the parents are either separated or divorced. Or, perhaps, one parent has deserted the family and gone his/her way, never to come back. This is the reason why there has been a sharp rise of single parent families in India that accounts approximately for 49% of children. The social stigma, though it is fading away ever so slowly, maintains that children suffer backlash in schools and among friends and families as the “odd ones out”, which is a sad reflection of our failure to cope with social, filial and spatial changes in the lives of separated, divorced, deserted or even widowed parents.

The parent trap
Ajita Jabal Shah, in her article ‘The Parent Trap’ (Times News Network, 1st July, 2005) writes: “The short term effects of divorce vary, depending on the age and sex of children. Boys and girls handle break-ups with different emotions. Some get angry, some feel sad, and some may experience feelings of rejection. Pre-school children, aged three to five, react with feelings of anger and sadness. Many will regress after the initial shock of the separation. Signs of regression could be represented in asking for a security blanket, bedwetting, returning to thumb sucking, needing help feeding themselves, or hitting their siblings. The children in this age group are more anxious and insecure than their counterparts in an unbroken home.”

The nuclear family appeared to offer a better alternative to the extended family in urban metros. But it remained patriarchal and male-dominated. Everything within the family is seen as private and presumed to be in the best interests of those who were part of it. The women’s movement in the 1970s drew attention to another aspect of the family – the family as an institution that perpetuates violence. Newspaper reports speak volumes of the nature and extent of violence that takes place within the family. The social pressure on the woman to conform and hold the family together makes it necessary for her to suffer in silence and resign herself to her fate. In urban India however, the situation is changing.

The educated, working wife has a lower threshold of tolerance, which leads to early break-ups, separation, or divorce. What happens to the children? They are forced to grow up with the parent who wins the custody of the children, forced to spend the weekend with the other parent who may have ‘visiting’ rights, or spend weekends with him/her. The fragmentation of the family leads to the fragmentation and decimation of the child’s physical, emotional and psychological growth. Divorce and separation are subjects that have received considerable media attention. Little attention, if at all, has been focussed on the effects of the single-parent family on the children who grow up within it.

But all is not lost. One needs to look around to discover that being the child of a single parent is not always a losing game either for the child or for the parent. Leander Paes, Pooja Bedi, Meghna Gulzar, Lata Mangeshkar, Satyajit Ray and Varun Gandhi are all children of single parents, either because their parents broke up, or because one of them died an untimely death. Indira Gandhi was a single parent herself to sons Rajeev and Sanjay. Lata Mangeshkar is a single-parent child. Satyajit Ray lost his father at the age of two-and-a-half and had no living memories of this parent. Their lives show that though we agree that being the child of a single parent can be more stressful than a child with both parents living under the same roof, success holds no bias against them. They can become as famous, as successful and as powerful as children with both parents.

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen is not a single parent child, but for all practical purposes, he was brought up by his mother Amita Sen and maternal grandfather, renowned scholar Khsitimohan Sen, because his father Ashutosh Sen worked away from home, first with the West Bengal Public Service Commission, and then with the Union Public Service Commission, and travelled a lot. His first wife, Nabaneeta Deb Sen, Professor of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University, and a scholar, columnist and author in her own right, remained a single mother to their daughters Antara and Nandana, till they grew as successful individuals, one as a journalist and editor, and one as an actress, filmmaker and activist.

The nuclear family appeared to offer a better alternative to the extended family in urban metros. But it remained patriarchal and male-dominated. Everything within the family is seen as private and presumed to be in the best interests of those who were part of it.

However, in a survey by the National Opinion Research Centre, US in 2005, researchers discovered that children from divorced families are more likely to go through a divorce themselves. The research showed that female children of divorce were 60 percent more likely to undergo divorce or separation in adulthood than a similar population from intact families. The divorce rate for male children of divorce was 35 percent higher. They found that post-divorce difficulties were more severe when children of divorced parents became adults because their search for commitment, for a relationship they could belong to, became increasingly important and crucial.

Actor Gulshan Grover who has been a single parent says, “It gets difficult when your child hits the teens. He begins questioning the whole situation. Why am I different? What went wrong with my universe? It’s easy to say you can be both father and mother to your kid. But the truth is, you are constantly running against the tide. The pressure is tremendous, both in terms of the time you can give him and the emotional security he needs. It is like an added dimension to your life, which is stressful to begin with.” Way back in 1995, Y.B. Parikh, Chief Marriage Counsellor, Family Court, Bandra, Mumbai, commented, “If Coke, Madonna, MTV are here, can divorce, child molestation, AIDS, wife-swapping, sexual promiscuity be far behind?”

Not much is known about how the child of a single parent reacts to an environment in which one parent is missing when the child began his life with both parents. The child begins to unwittingly compare his situation with his classmate who lives with both parents. When the media gave front-page priority to domestic violence in print and on television following reports that O.J. Simpson battered his wife Nicole to death, psychologist Peter Jaffe, co-author of Children of Battered Women, found the coverage quite frustrating. “There has been such a focus on him and very little on the two victims and the children,” he said.

The growing divorce rate
Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences’ (TISS) research on troubled marriages points out that divorce rates among young couples have grown in magnitude. TISS, which receives over 50 cases a day, blames modern lifestyles, materialistic pursuits and unreasonable expectations as the three key reasons for this disturbing trend. “It is not father-absence versus mother-absence that moulds the child’s outlook, but the personality and the attitude of the parent left behind. The way the parent copes with the absence gets easily communicated to the child and determines the way he will cope with it,” says Neerja Sharma, lecturer in child development in a Mumbai college, commenting on children who have lost one parent to death.
Smita Gupta’s M.Ed. dissertation (Mumbai University) titled A Psycho-Social Study of School Students Coming from Single-parent Homes in Relation to their Performance at School, opens up a small world of information offered through similar studies undertaken by Western scholars. F.D. Breslin says that maternal deprivation can lead to listlessness, loss of appetite and retarded mental development. Inadequate mothering can lead to deficiencies in the way a child is held, fed and responded to.

Such children are more prone to allergies, emotional disturbances and poor motor or intellectual development. Agatha Bowley says maternal deprivation can lead to bedwetting in a child unless he accepts his present guardian as his ‘mother’ even if it is the father.

But given the huge number of single parents in India and growing by hundreds every day, it is impossible to draw any definite conclusions about the child of a single parent and the impact it has on his psyche, his upbringing and his achievements and failures, or neither. The family as a living, evolving social institution, is facing its most difficult challenge in the history of man as a social animal. One of its major challenges is a total redefinition of the term ‘family’ in the light of changes in marriage as the social institution that forms the very base of an integrated family unit. Apart from the death of the spouse within the first ten years of marriage, desertion, separation, divorce of both or either parent are the elements that demand a redefining of family values and a shifting of parental responsibilities towards the children. It is, therefore, necessary to respect these diversities and changes, without always questioning them without logic, and to promote concepts based on family rights and responsibilities.

Gupta laments the lack of research on the effects of parental break-up on the development of the child. “What little research there is,” says she “is largely confined to self-selected, atypical groups, namely those seen in psychiatric wards and child-guidance clinics. We do not know for example, whether it damages the child the least to grow up in an unhappy home with both parents, or, alone, with one parent where there is no remarriage, or with one natural parent and a step-parent.”


Shoma A. Chatterji

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema, twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’ among many awards. She is currently Senior Research Fellow, ICSSR, Delhi, researching the politics of presentation of working women in post-colonial Bengali cinema 1950 to 2003.