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How do men fare as single parents? PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Tribune News Service   

SUSHIL Nath can flip an omelette in less than five minutes. That is up a good two minutes from the time he started making breakfast for his 12-year-old son, Rohan, a couple of years ago. "And I’ve begun to enjoy it," he smiles wryly. When his wife of 14 years walked out on them, Nath found himself reliving the movie, ‘Kramer vs Kramer’.

Although they had domestic help for other chores, breakfast was his responsibility. Since his wife had left the city, Nath was virtually the only parent Rohan was suddenly left with. Nath had to make a series of changes in his life, one of which was stopping the school bus service and instead driving Rohan to school so that they could spend a few extra minutes together. "It is more responsibility, but more joy," he admits.

One of the biggest changes in a man’s lifestyle, when he becomes a single parent, is the loss of time — both for himself and for all that he now has to do. Apart from exhaustion, some single fathers end up feeling guilty or inadequate for not having enough time for their children.

Parenting is still gender-specific and when the equation does not tally, it is difficult, often painful, for the parent left handling the responsibilities. And this is even more difficult if the single parent is a father because, as psychiatrist and relationship counsellor Dr Sanjay Chugh says, "Fathers, mothers and courts recognise that mothers, in most cases, are better as single parents. A mother can be a father to a child but a father can’t really be a mother, generally speaking."

Muses Nath: "In our country, a father has no male role model to guide him and does not contemplate being a single parent till it happens. He has been made to believe his is the role of the provider, even when the mother brings in a neat package. There has been little mental or other preparation for him to take on a woman’s responsibilities at home, which can make it more difficult."

Nath could well be talking about Jeet Singh, whose wife left him and their younger son, taking the older son with her. "Jeet can’t cook," explains his counsellor, and since help from the peripheral family was almost non-existent, father and son depended on outside food for seven months before Jeet sent the boy to a boarding school. "Now, he lives a bachelor’s life and his son is a young friend to him," adds the counsellor.

Today’s woman, say observers, hesitates less to leave a home and child than yesteryear’s mother — even if that means leaving the father holding the baby.

With the joint family structure crumbling, single parents, especially fathers, are worst hit when they look for a buffer. Friends can seldom step in for a permanent, working solution, leaving the single father with only three options. Hiring help to keep the child home, learning to and finding time for household work, or sending the child to a boarding school. "The gender of the child is crucial and extended family support is often taken for a girl," says consultant clinical psychologist Dr Jayanti Dutta.

"Children," says a website on single parenting, "respond to loss in different ways." They can turn destructive — even self-destructive — or depressive and have to be steered back into the mainstream of life long before they "step over the edge". Some times, emotional loss can be manifested in physical ways, from stomach pain to headaches. Besides coping with the new situation himself, which never begins by being pleasant, since it is generally caused by death of a spouse or of a relationship, the single father has to help the child deal with this trauma.

"It is more difficult for the single father because society has not encouraged him to express his emotions. A man is expected to be emotionally more self-contained, which puts undue pressure on him," says Jeet.

In the case of divorce, the child often feels guilty about the mother leaving, and has to be helped out of conflict and grief. In countries like Scotland, England and America, single father groups are gradually finding a voice and websites like provide an open platform for single fathers to share problems and solutions. Single and Custodial Father’s Network is one such forum which single fathers could find useful.

Some times, the single father remarries. The reasons differ, from wanting to recreate a family set up, to finding someone to take on domestic responsibilities, or for the sake of company and, sometimes, even for love. For instance, Jatin Bose lost his first wife after she spent nine years battling a terminal illness. When his son was in class 7, he remarried a divorcee with two teenaged daughters.

Interestingly, adjustment problems seem to have a class bias. Points out Dutta, "People in a lower socio-economic situation adjust better in case of a remarriage, because their avenues are restricted. You know you have to adjust and so you compromise. Too many options create problems."

Even in the West, single fathers are often isolated by a society that feels men are not suited to be nurturing and caring parents.

Dutta, however, is optimistic. "Most fathers ultimately cope well, since inter-dependence in marriage has decreased." And that is for the best since the urban marital front is witnessing a growing number so single fathers. And as the Single and Custodial Father’s Network avers, it has been proven "time and time again that fathers are nurturing and caring". All that is required now is for more single fathers to accept this and carry on with their lives even when their partners are no longer with them.

(Names of fathers have been changed on request)WFS


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