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Everyday, My Papa PDF Print E-mail
(1 Vote)
Written by Outlook India   

Mrs Doubtfire they may not have to be, but single Indian dads don't mind double roles

Four years ago, when the marriage of Shashi Preetam, a 37-year-old Hyderabad-based film composer and director, fell apart, his biggest concern was not just the end of a relationship he had invested a lot of emotion and time in, but the prospect of being torn away from his only daughter, Aishwarya Krishnapriya. The child, then just nine years old, was as perturbed at the thought of separation from her doting dad. So, when the issue of custody came up, she opted to stay with Preetam instead of her mother. "I was granted interim custody purely on the strength of her voice," recalls Preetam. Father and daughter have ever since been a close-knit family of two, sharing confidences, discussing problems, at times arguing and fighting.... But always together.

cover_3_20080908Shashi-Aishwarya: When the issue of her custody came up, it was Aishwarya who opted to stay with dad, a Hyderabad-based film composer and director. When upset, she pens notes to him, addressed to "papa friend".

Luck didn't favour the brave Aseem Bhargava, senior client services director at Ipan. He lost custody of his son Shiv after a divorce in 2001. Seven at the time, Shiv went to live with his mother. Then, about three years ago, he walked out on her to come and stay with his father. Bhargava (who himself had been brought up by a single father) now has interim custody of him. "I guess there is an umbilical cord between him and me. He feels more secure with me," he says of his son. But whenever Shiv does miss his mother, he is free to visit and stay with her.

cover_4_20080908Aseem-Shiv: "He's in my being. I exist because of him," says the senior client services director at Ipan. His wife won their son's custody, but he chose to leave her a few years later and stay with his father.

Divorce and separation from child also came the way of 40-year-old Charan Arora, who runs Esource Global, a business consultancy firm in Mumbai. His daughter Namrata, just a few months old then, was initially in her mother's custody. Things, however, took a turn when Namrata, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, began needing multiple therapies. "The funding and logistics of the therapies made us rethink, and she came to me when she was about nine months," says Arora. Father and daughter battled it out together with help and support from Arora's sister. Today, Namrata is five and just begun school at the Podar International School. She has free access to her mother's house and family, visits them every Sunday and on social occasions. But her everyday care? That is still papa's job.

With divorce rates going up, the accompanying rise in single parenthood is nothing unusual in the urban Indian landscape these days. What's striking, though, is that a growing number of these single parents are men, despite the fact that, legally, the odds are still stacked heavily against them. Almost 90 per cent of custodial battles go in favour of the mother, considered natural caregiver for a child. "The courts are predisposed to the mother," says senior lawyer Geeta Luthra, "unless there are grounds like acute psychological disorder, financial instability, or a case of desertion." Recently, though, some judges have begun taking the wishes of the child into consideration. "Ultimately, the courts need to go into the child's psyche to make the best possible decision for him," says Luthra.But even where there is no custodial battle between a divorcing couple, there has been an unmistakable increase in recent years in the number of fathers who choose to keep their children, as also in the number of children who opt to stay with their father.

cover_2_20080908Kunal-Rashita: When their parents got divorced, both his daughter and son Ishan opted to embark on 'the pursuit of happyness' with their father, who runs a tea export business in Calcutta.

As in the case of Kunal Roy Chowdhury, who runs a tea export business in Calcutta. When he separated from his wife nearly five years ago, his son Ishan was 13 and daughter Rashita, 11. Both children chose to embark on 'the pursuit of happyness' with dad. "Perhaps they felt a greater sense of security with me," says Chowdhury. They visit their mother regularly, since the couple's parting was amicable. Home, however, is where dad is.

The growing population of single dads in India is indicative of a larger social change. It reflects how gender-attributed roles in a family are getting juggled and renegotiated, how definitions and perceptions of family are changing. A woman, traditionally the nurturer and caregiver in a family, may now give more time to her career growth than to her role as a mother. On the other hand, the father, traditionally the provider and the disciplinarian, may well discover that he is equally capable of tender loving care. "The man-woman relation, the role division, the sharing of responsibilities in a family is anyhow changing," observes sociologist Mala Shankardass. "We see men getting involved in household chores, cooking, participating in kids' studies, even men working out of home, while the wife travels frequently," she says, drawing up a profile of the metrosexual man. So the hand of the father that traditionally ruled the Indian family could just as easily be rocking the cradle and by himself, at that. "Who says a woman can love a child more and rear him or her better than a man?" asks Bhargava.

For Atanu Roy, 51, a senior executive with the UB Group, single parenthood wasn't an option, it was thrust upon him by fate. He lost his wife in a car accident in 2001, when his son Artitra was just 11. Their first thought was: "How are we going to manage?" "Then Artitra said the two of us would pull it together," remembers Roy. They did.

Earlier a single father would have the support of the joint family network, and perhaps have his mother or sister by his side to help him out; now, with the joint family dissolving, such a support system is getting rarer. "My family is scattered all over the country," says Preetam. "To expect support from them on a day-to-day basis is impossible."

In such a situation, being a single dad calls for sacrifices on both the personal and professional front, and lifestyle changes have to be made to accommodate the needs of the child. For instance, Chowdhury, who was earlier an active and involved member of his clubs in Calcutta, has now had to curtail those happy hours on the golf course, and makes sure he is home no later than 8 pm. And though as part of his job he would be expected to go abroad at least two or three times a year, he hasn't been on any foreign trip in the last two years.

Preetam's work hours are erratic and demanding, and he has had to find ways to work around it. He used to leave his daughter at home in the care of an elderly trusted male helper who also cooked for her, and also made arrangements for her to be tutored at home, since she had problems in school. But when he had to travel on work, he ensured it was never an overnight trip. "You have to make the best of any situation, you learn to swim if thrown into the water," he says.Now there is a justifiable sense of pride in his voice when he says that under his care, daughter Aishwarya's become remarkably self-sufficient and independent. "She can survive by herself in the world."

cover_1_20080908Himanshu-Raghav: "You do your best. You can't keep saying "I wish it hadn't happened to me"," says this 53-year-old senior executive at an MNC who currently has interim custody of his son.

"You can't keep saying 'I wish it hadn't happened to me'," says Himanshu Manglik, 53, a senior MNC executive who got interim custody of his son Raghav after his divorce. "You have to take responsibility and make the best of it." It requires considerable effort, he feels, to be committed to your job and your child with equal integrity. "You can't neglect either, but winning at your job has to take a backseat," he says. It means bypassing promotions, transfers and international assignments.

For Arora, managing work and a special child was doubly exhausting. "She couldn't be left at home. She'd sit in my lap as I'd drive to office. There was a small space in the office where she'd sleep while I was working," he remembers.

"You have to be the father, the mother as well as the breadwinner, it's like Sita being made to go through the agni-pareeksha," says Bhargava. "If I didn't get a call from my son every half hour, I'd be shitting bricks. There is a constant fear because things aren't fully in your control. " It wasn't until his son was older and more independent that he sent him to boarding school.

Even when there has been family support, a lot of single dads have chosen to be self-dependent. Like 46-year-old N.C. Joshi, who works with the Press Information Bureau in Delhi. When he lost his wife to blood cancer 11 years ago, his daughter was just four and his son nine. His primary concern at that time was to ensure emotional security for the kids. "The relatives and neighbours might end up pitying the child, and such sympathy can be counter-productive. They can be prying, and can scare and alarm you with their advice and observations rather than be supportive," he says. So he decided to go it alone.

It was exhausting, Joshi remembers waking up early to send the kids to school, ensuring their uniforms were washed and ironed, giving them breakfast, packing their tiffin, heading for office, then rushing to pick them up from school at 1 pm, feeding them and locking them up at home, and rushing back to office again.

And all this while Joshi was grappling with demanding subjects like parliamentary affairs and the Election Commission at work, and couldn't compromise on the job front. But he did let go of trips abroad. "You have to forget yourself, forget the past, ignore the future and live in the present," he says.

Remarrying was an option that none of these single fathers seem to have exercised. "It's psychologically scary," says Joshi. "A child may not easily accept the third person." Adds Manglik: "It can create insecurity and emotional turbulence." For Arora, the logic was plain and simple: "Which woman would consider marrying a single father with a special child?" And though relatives urged A. Suresh, a 47-year-old Chennai-based lawyer, to remarry when his wife Bhavani died of lymphoma nine years ago leaving behind seven-year-old Sushma and five-year-old Sunaini, family history wouldn't let him. He had grown up in a house where his father had two squabbling wives and he was ill-treated by his stepmother. "I did not like that situation and did not want to inflict it on my daughters," he says. So, now remarriage is a closed chapter, though he does confess to having a "good friend" for company.

Roy did consider remarriage but consciously closed the option after discussing it with his son."It would have hurt rather than helped him in any way," says Roy. But now that his son is grown up and on his own, Roy is thinking of companionship. "Children cannot fulfil your need for companionship. That vacuum remains," he says.

What helps them cope with the challenges of single fatherhood? Most of the men Outlook spoke to say it's the commitment to their kids and the determination to ensure that they don't suffer from the absence of a mother. And all of them declare that the problems have been more than compensated for by the fulfilment and joy it has given them. "You need to give children a lot of time, understand them, be patient and make it as close to a regular family as possible," says Manglik. "I'm very close to my kids and have been involved in every detail of their upbringing," says Chowdhury. As a hands-on dad, he makes it a point to attend parent-teacher meetings, interact with their private tutors, find time to teach them, keep an eye on their parties and social activities, even lay down rules like insisting they be back home before dusk, asking them to deposit their cellphones with him after 10.30 pm and putting a cap on the number of calls they make. According to him, the best way to be a good parent is to keep the channels of communication open. "I share everything with my kids. There's no alternative to talking. You have to explain things to them, make them understand the decisions you are taking, consult them even on small matters like buying things for the house, making them a part of the decision-making process," he says. Ditto for Roy: "I discuss everything with my son his friends, his girlfriends, everything."

For Preetam, the strategy has been to give his daughter all the options and let her choose what she thinks is right. "It is important to be a friend and advisor along with being a father," he says. "Whenever she has to raise an issue with me or doesn't agree with me she writes a note to me, addressed to her 'papa friend'," says Preetam. He cherishes a bunch of these notes through which she has sorted out her problems.

However, there are times when the role-playing can get difficult, and the absence of a mother keenly felt. "Women are more strict about kids' studies and keep a better eye on them," says Joshi. Then there are little things like cooking the children a favourite dish, inviting their friends over, buying them clothes that are in fashion. With the girl child the real problem comes with the onset of puberty. "It's difficult to explain biological details, but there is peer group these days, and I also got the doctor to help her out," says Preetam. Shankardass doesn't see it as a problem at all. "In India," she observes, "even mothers find it awkward to broach such topics with their daughters, so it's not just single fathers who need to overcome these inhibitions."

All the same, it is a relationship with special challenges for both father and child. The single father has to constantly strike a delicate balance between love and firmness, pampering and strictness, acting as a parent as well as a friend, yet taking care not to overcompensate for a mother's absence. All this while he is also coming to terms with the loss of a relationship. It's as difficult for the child, perhaps even more. The divorce of parents (or the death of one of them) always takes a toll on a child; it's worse if the split is acrimonious. According to Mumbai psychiatrist Anjali Chhabria, children below the age of five are 50 per cent more prone to depression in such a situation than older kids. Joshi thinks the kids can become introverts and grow up too soon, taking on too many responsibilities for their age.

Suresh says trying to compensate for the absence of a mother can also lead to problems.His motherless kids had the entire larger family doting on them and it became difficult for him to enforce discipline. When they were younger, he recalls, he used to braid their hair and dress them for school; now that they have grown up, they do things their own way. "They refuse to wear bindi to school, they want to wear skirts all the time. Everything I say is taken negatively," says Suresh ruefully. But that may well be the case with any growing teenager, whether in a single parent situation or not. Ultimately, whether you are single or otherwise, the pressures of being a parent remain the same. Only there is no other person to share the pressure with.

What it does mean is a change in the dynamics and rhythm of the relationship for both the child and the father. For instance, Suresh's daughter Sushma tends to mother her dad, often scolding him for coming late. "Who else is there to take care of you?" she tells him. "My daughter should get 60 per cent of the credit for things to have worked out the way they have. Of course, a normal family situation is what any child would want, but such extraordinary circumstances have their own ways of creating a deep bonding," says Preetam.

"Going through my daughter's therapy with her has helped us become even closer," says Arora. "She knows I care more for her than anyone else, and she cares as much for me." Says Bhargava of his son: "He's in my being. I exist because he is." Who needs a third person to 'complete' the family?

 



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