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‘Where Is the Dad?’: Single Mothers on Stigma, Stress, and Thriving Against Odds

Single mothers in India are defying expectations and stigma to provide a stable upbringing for their children.

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In the bustling city of Mumbai, Shibani Kumar sits at her kitchen table, poring over household bills. The day has been a blur — shuttling her son to online classes, preparing meals, and finishing work tasks, all while tending to her elderly parents.

"COVID was extremely tough and took a heavy toll on my mental health," she recalls, thinking back to the peak of the pandemic. As the sole breadwinner in her household, Shibani juggled a full-time job, online schooling, and endless chores.

Sleep was a distant luxury, and despite her exhaustion, she never missed a school function, milestone, or bedtime story, determined to give her son a stable upbringing, she says with pride.

However, she says, being a single mother did make the ordeal all the more challenging.

This mother's day, single mothers share their journeys of fighting against social stigma, financial insecurity, and the perpetual balancing act to protect their mental health while raising their children.

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‘Where Is the Father?': Navigating Social Stigma 

Miles away in the coastal town of Kochi, Aishwarya Radhalakshmi sits in the quiet backstage of a local theatre, watching her seven-year-old daughter practice her lines.

As a theatre artist, the stage was Aishwarya's sanctuary, where she found solace in storytelling and creative expression. However, her journey as a single mother hadn't been without struggles.

When she consciously decided to raise her daughter alone, her family scoffed.

"Where is the father? Who will take care of the kid like a dad does?" they asked, doubting her ability to shoulder the responsibilities herself.

Despite their tireless dedication, single mothers often find themselves navigating a labyrinth of societal perceptions. They are frequently perceived as incompetent or characterless, especially if they have male friends or colleagues.

Some face illicit advances from men who view them as 'available' due to their marital status.

The prevailing patriarchal norms tie a woman’s status to a male figure, making it difficult for single mothers to gain the same level of respect as married women.

Shibani says that while societal acceptance has improved, the stigma persists.

"Some family members would speculate or pass comments that hurt, but I was fortunate to have supportive parents and friends who ensured my son and I felt no different."
Shibani Kumar

Aishwarya shares similar experiences, recalling how she was criticized for consciously choosing single motherhood. She describes how her family showed no faith in her ability to raise her daughter.

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Financial Pressures and Parenting Challenges

Financial insecurity poses significant challenges for single mothers, who often struggle to support their families on a single income.

Shibani remembers how she managed her finances during COVID-19 by carefully planning each expense. Her savings had dwindled, and she had to find ways to stretch every rupee.

Being the sole breadwinner, she says she became meticulous with her finances, carefully planning for every expense.

"I started a few SIPs [Systematic Investment Plans] that came in handy whenever I needed support," she shares, explaining how long-term financial planning gave her a safety net in uncertain times.

Parenting alone creates additional stress. Shibani constantly battled 'mom guilt,' feeling that she was never giving her son enough time despite not missing a single milestone.

Aishwarya also struggled with guilt but remained unwavering in her belief that her daughter deserved a secure and nurturing environment. She advises other single mothers to be logical and honest with their children, assuring them of their love and support.

To fight overwhelming stress, she carved out small windows for herself—short workouts, listening to her favourite band, or simply indulging in an ice cream with her son. She learned to make the most of moments together, finding joy in staycations and sharing laughter over the little things.

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Therapeutic Approaches and Supportive Practice

The mental health challenges faced by single mothers in India are multifaceted.

Dr Meghna, a trauma-informed psychotherapist with a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, explains how single mothers often struggle due to inadequate self-care, sleep deprivation, ongoing conflicts with their ex-partners, financial insecurity, weak support networks, and societal stigma.

“They face bullying and manipulation due to alimony or custody issues and are often judged for their character or ability to support their children.”
Dr Meghna, Clinical Psychologist

Aishwarya acknowledges her own history of trauma but refuses to let it affect her parenting. She ensures her daughter is confident, intellectually curious, and free to express herself.

Both Shibani and Aishwarya found strength in their ways, developing coping mechanisms to handle the mental strain of solo parenting.

Shibani sought therapy, reframed negative thoughts, and managed 'mom guilt.'

Therapeutic approaches must consider individual needs.

For anxiety and depression, Dr Meghna recommends cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help single mothers challenge negative thoughts and manage stress through relaxation techniques.

For sleep deprivation or lack of self-care, she encourages delegating tasks, practicing time management, and focusing on proper sleep, diet, and exercise.

When trauma is a significant factor, trauma-focused psychotherapy can offer valuable support, while parenting-focused interventions like gentle parenting can aid in managing the unique challenges of solo parenting.

Dr Meghna also emphasizes supportive practices that empower single mothers to break the cycle of trying to do everything alone.

She recommends understanding that 'mom guilt' is a bottomless pit, making time for self-care, building a strong support network, setting boundaries, and reframing negative thoughts through positive affirmations.

"Single moms must break the pattern of doing everything alone and learn to ask for help," she asserts.

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Both Shibani and Aishwarya emphasize the importance of seeking help and relying on others for support. Shibani encourages others to ask for help when needed, acknowledging it as a courageous act, while Aishwarya advocates trusting oneself and remaining confident. “Be confident, strong, and powerful,” she advises.

Additionally, she advocates seeking therapy from licensed psychologists and joining online communities of single mothers, where emotional support is readily available

Breaking Barriers to Thrive, and Not Just Survive

Shibani and Aishwarya’s stories are just two among countless examples of resilience and perseverance.

With a combination of therapeutic approaches, supportive practices, and strong support networks, these women are finding ways to thrive and offer their children the best possible future.

Despite the challenges, their courage and hope continue to shine through, serving as an inspiration to all who are facing similar struggles

Both Aishwarya and Shibani remained committed to creating a positive environment for their children, staying confident in their decision despite doubts.

Aishwarya says she has educated her daughter on good and bad touch, empowering her to make her own decisions.

"If you're a single mom, do not listen to others. Trust yourself and your kid. Remember that you are your child's universe and give them your best," she advises, reflecting on the path she carved out despite judgment from others.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Parenting   Mother's Day   Single Mother 

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