The Single Mother | Women Uninterrupted podcast - Season 4, Episode 2

Living and loving as a single parent.

Updated - October 10, 2023 05:21 pm IST

Published - October 10, 2023 05:17 pm IST

Women Uninterrupted is an inter-generational podcast bringing you difficult, different and uninterrupted conversations about being a woman.

The story of a doctor who left her native country to start a life and career overseas, and as a single mother, brought up two children with differing needs to adulthood.

Host: Anna Thomas 

Guest: Dr Deepa Menon

Title music: Maya Dwarka

Production: Anna Thomas, The Scribbling Pad

Blog: Sex and the single mom

by Kochumol Menon, Entrepreneur, Chennai

It’s a myth that being single is equivalent to sexual abstinence. There is no such connection.

Sex is an emotional and physical expression. You could meet the right person, but you may not be able to marry him because of social circumstances. Sex can still happen and you can remain good friends later. You need not get into a long-drawn extra marital affair and cause problems for his family.

Some people are very possessive and they try to ruin a sexual partner’s family. Some people don’t. I’m the kind who wants to be single myself, and I don’t find anybody so attractive that I cannot live without him. Sex to me is being with somebody who I am comfortable with.

I never decided that I must be single, or that I hate men. Like many married women, I too had love affairs when I was young. Yet, my life moved inexorably toward singledom. I don’t know why. Perhaps no one was around to organise an arranged marriage for me, or perhaps I didn’t have the guts to love. Perhaps I didn’t find the right person. I was not against men. It’s not that I took a strong stand against marriage.

My friends and family can have no opinions on my sex life because it’s a personal matter. I don’t discuss it with anyone. I am telling you about it because you asked. Otherwise, it’s highly personal. 

Some men will take for granted that you’re free and easily available. I haven’t encountered women who assume that; only men. Once they know you’re single, the calls and messages will increase.

”Okay you’re going to be free in the night, no?”

They’ll try some such talk. Unless you’re in for it, forget it; that’s all. 

I’m not that sexually active after my son came into my life a few years ago. My priorities have changed. Sex is not a necessity for me, and even if it is, there are other ways to satisfy yourself. And sex, if you really need it, yes, you go for it. It is going to be lonely. I’m not saying no. It’s good to have a husband or a partner, but if that is not there, you make sure that you’re not lonely. Today I had so much fun in the office and, of course, my son is always there for company.

Ultimately, even if you have someone at home now when you get back at the end of the day, you won’t have that forever. You can be alone even when you are not single. 

Yes, loneliness will strike. However, it’s going to be like that for any other woman of that age. All my friends face loneliness after their children go abroad or get married. Nothing is special about me. I am not open to a long-term relationship after my son grows up. Not at all. Because you are so mature, it’s difficult to find somebody. Money plays an important role: I’m not born rich. Whatever I made today came from hard work. If somebody, in the name of love or in the name of giving me companionship, comes and disturbs my family, my son, my finances, my friends, I am not willing to part with those. 

Any long-term relationship at my age comes with strings. How do you divide his property if he has children? Why should I give my property to his children?  

When my son was small, I didn’t mind having a steady relationship. I didn’t find any man who was blindly in love with me, who could give his life for me. I think I may be past the stage of looking for romance. Maybe during my teens - even 30s or 40s - but not in the 50s.

Audio Transcript

Anna Thomas: Hello, I’m your host, Anna Thomas on Women Uninterrupted, and this episode is part of a series on women and singlehood. I have with me Dr. Deepa Menon, who is taking a break on a quiet Monday morning in Baltimore, Maryland, to talk to us about many things, I hope, but most of all about being a single mother. Welcome, Deepa, to Women Uninterrupted.

Dr Deepa Menon: Thank you. Thank you for this opportunity.

Anna: To tell you a little more about her, Deepa received her medical degree from the Madras Medical College. And she now works in the US, specialising in neurodevelopmental disabilities. Thank you for joining us, Deepa. I asked to speak with you because you have been a single parent for a long time now. And I think parenting is a really hard job. So I’m just going to ask you to share your story about how you did it over the years. Tell us about your children, what do they do?

Dr Deepa Menon

Dr Deepa Menon

Deepa: I’m now 55 and my children are 26 and 22. I was legally separated from my husband when my son was eight, and then the divorce was final around when he was 14. So since then - since when he was eight - I’ve pretty much been like a single parent. And so I guess questions can come from there, in terms of how it happened. And as I said, I’m also a physician. I was doing my fellowship, I was working and I also have a child with special needs. I was lucky in that initial part: I did have a live-in nanny for a few years when the kids were really young and that helped a lot as a single parent but there was a lot of juggling - trying to keep work, and everything, and especially working in a high pressure place, so there’s a lot of things that you had to keep up in the air to get that done.

Anna: Children ask a lot of questions. And it’s hard to give the correct answers always. What were the hardest questions they asked, you know, at the age of eight - your daughter was older - when you decided to separate from their father? Do these questions change as they grow? What are the best ways to answer them? Sometimes it’s quite hard for a woman to…when you think about separating from your partner…and one of the major questions or major worries you have is: how are we going to talk to the children? How did you do it?

Deepa: I guess when they were younger - and again, like I said, my older kiddo, my daughter, was a child with special needs and so, she didn’t have too many questions, though she did go through a little bit of difficulty when one parent was not there. But she didn’t ask questions specifically. 

With my son, I think initially I did try to be pretty protective until he was old enough where he could ask the questions. Till he was about, you know, 13-14, when the divorce came final, that’s when the questions actually started. He had some assumptions - but we really didn’t talk about it, because in my typical Indian mom view, I was like, you know, protecting him and making sure that they did continue to have a relationship with their dad, even though he was not living in the same state I did. 

My view has always been, you know, just because we as adults separate, the children should not lose their connection with their extended family. So, I always made sure that they did have that connection with their grandparents and their cousins. And so, there wasn’t too much of a change. I am a big believer in stability, so we made sure that we were staying in the same place and same house, and they were going to the same school. But later on, you know, we did have a heart to heart talk about, you know, what was going on and why, and I think by then, we both were in a position where we could actually have an honest conversation about it.

Anna: Did you have a discussion with their father? How do we discuss what is the story we are going to tell our children, about how are we going to co-parent remotely/distantly - what is the arrangement?

Deepa: Well, we did attempt, again, in the divorce settlement we did have, you know, the number of visits they would have, and how the kids would spend vacations and, you know, things of that nature were decided early on. And my ex-husband was having other relationships and did get married, and have another family on his own right now. I did attempt to make sure we at least laid down the ground rules. We both agreed that we wouldn’t talk bad about each other, and that we would approach it in the sense that, you know, we would sort of just grow apart, rather than go into more nitty gritty detail about it. On my side, I tried as much as possible to make sure that the relationship could be non-confrontational. I don’t know what he said to the kids though. That’s what we agreed upon - that, you know, we would just say that it’s because we just grew apart.

Anna: What would you say is the biggest advantage of being a single mother?

Deepa: I would say till before I got divorced, I guess, being a traditional - you know, even though I’m living here in America - I’ve sort of had that sort of traditional view of things, you know: I will do my work, my ex-husband would do the finances, and things like that. So, it was a giant learning curve when we got separated, and I had to learn how to take care of - fix things around the house, or pay the bills, and figure out how much to pay taxes. It was a giant learning curve but I think, after weathering the first few years of a little bit of hardship, I think it’s made me a lot more independent, more self reliant, and I’m at a point now where I have a good group of friends, things that I do which are not just work or just kids, I guess, finding out, rediscovering myself and figuring out my own self-worth over the years.

Anna: Who were the people you could count upon in an emergency, for instance, when you have two children sick together? Are you part of any peer support group, friends, family - who’s around? What has this experience taught you about other people as well as yourself?

Deepa: I would say, for me, my biological family, like my parents, my siblings, you know, even though while my two siblings are here in the States, but they’re in, you know, two ends of the country. But I could always pick up the phone and know that they would be there to, for me to bounce off ideas, and I guess a few people at work, you know, who also are sort of going through something similar; good friends, all the way from junior school, all the way to college and people who are really close to me: they were the people that I could talk to.

I know there are a lot of peer support groups, but again, being an Indian, that’s not something that they even talk about. So, I guess, if you’re Western, and you have this kind of support group…but here, when you’re in the diaspora, it’s not something you talk about. Like, we had the cultural groups: I’m a Malayali, and they have some Malayali groups, and some of the women - they were very welcoming, they never, they never brought it up, but they were there to support. So, any cultural festivals and so on, you know, you become part of that. And you sort of build your own sisterhood, I guess. Slowly, over the years, they’ve sort of given support, you know, because with my daughter, she had significant issues in terms of being able to tolerate a crowd and so on. But that was a place where I knew I could go and they would be non judgmental, you know, and go to one of their houses, and they would be accommodating. So those kind of things helped in the local area. 

Overall, I’ve been pretty much more sort of, I would say, self-reliant, but I would say the best would be my close family.

Anna: Is your close family in Baltimore?

Deepa: Nobody in Baltimore. So - I could pick up the phone and talk to them, or even my parents, you know, back in India, I could talk to them, but in Baltimore, per se, it would be like, my friends from our local Malayali group. My sibling - my sister - is in New York. So you know, my brother-in-law and my extended family, those who’d married into our family - all of them are also very close to me. So, we would always sort of get together every so often. But on a day to day, I don’t think - I really wasn’t part of a peer group, I guess, to discuss these things. But always, remotely, we always connected. And I think we’re very busy. So you didn’t really have time to sort of delve a lot into feelings and things at one point.

Anna: You are very busy, so how do you manage a work life balance? How - did you use daycare, did you use a nanny?

Deepa: Yeah. So, when they were really young, we had this nanny - again, an Indian nanny who had been with us from when the kids were babies, but by the time they were into their teens, they (nannies) did become older, and some of them retired. For a little bit of time, it was difficult, because you had to find a temporary nanny, and again, because of my daughter - who had special needs, and she was dropped off at a different time from school - there was a lot of juggling. There were times when I had to rush out of work, because there was nobody to receive her when she was being dropped off. Luckily, I was staying in a neighbourhood where my neighbours were a very nice African-American family who had done a lot of fostering, so they were like my alternate, like people on my street, because I’d stayed in the same place for a good 10-15 years.

So, those were a few hard years, but I can barely remember it now because it all seems like a bad dream at times. Again, it was a little expensive - having a nanny - but for my situation, it helped, because I did need to have somebody at home to take care of the kids, because I was taking call and I was working nights. Work was very generous: they gave you FMLA (family and medical leave), so you could take time off for medical issues and things like that. 

With my son, I tried to sort of build a support system for him in his school - tried to make sure that the teachers were there to support him, tried to give as normal a life as possible for him, so he could go for play dates, and try to build some friendships with classmates’ parents, so he could stay over on certain nights - things like that. 

Anna: Would you do anything differently: like, when you were going through the process of separation…I’m interested to see how it is different from India and what is the process like there. How did you start this process: you went to a lawyer together? 

Deepa: The divorce and separation started because of adultery on his part. So, I was the one who wanted separation and divorce. When we first started, the thing we realised is it’d take a lot of money, but also a lot of time. And it depends on the state you’re in. I’m not sure how it works in India. But here, each state had their own different rules. Like, if you’re in New York, you could get on with immediate divorce. But in Maryland, you had to be separated for a good year; you couldn’t stay in the same place, you shouldn’t have any relationship for a whole year, and even then it had to be like a mutual thing. 

So, even though I wanted it pretty much after it started, it took a long time, because he sort of fought me on it, but I had to get a lawyer and you go through that whole thing where they’re trying to file the papers and then trying to do some discovery, and then if his lawyers didn’t agree…so, it dragged on a few years, but ultimately, and there’s only like, a couple of reasons that you could use - and I needed to have actual proof, and it was very hard for me to do all that. And he wasn’t willing for a divorce initially. So it dragged on a little but yes, I was the one who initiated the thing. He was trying to say, well, we don’t need to do this, and we can stay together. But it had come to a point where I didn’t think it was good for either me or the kids to be in that kind of relationship. 

I think it depends from state to state; like, in some states, you can get a divorce almost immediately. Some states like Maryland very much try to do family preservation, so you almost had to prove that there was a reason and you had to have all the documents and so, there was a lot of money spent on lawyers to get all that done. I think in the end, it was worth it because my son was telling me the other day, you know, when you were going through all that, you were very unhappy and even though I was young, and you were trying to protect me, I knew something was not right.

I mean, as a parent, you try to protect your kids, but he was telling me I knew something was happening, even though you guys didn’t say anything - which was sort of a eye-opener for me because I thought I was trying to be - like, whenever we had disagreements, we were in a different place: we tried to make sure the kids didn’t hear us - but obviously kids pick up on things.

Anna: Yeah, that’s an important point. The key things which came up here were stability; you decided that you would give the same kind of lifestyle to your children; stay in the same place as they were growing up; and keeping yourself - well, you were busy anyway; you didn’t have to keep busy - keeping the kids really busy and connected. Network, having your family on your side: if all these things are there, I guess, I don’t think we’ll really have to separate single parenting from co-parenting. 

Deepa: Early on in it, my ex-husband was like, yeah, he should come and stay with us…he wanted, like, the children to come and spend some time with them. I said that doesn’t really work, especially with my daughter; she needs that real, stable kind of an environment. And even for him, you know, he was in a good school. I didn’t want that to be destabilised, so then we came to the agreement that, you know, let the kids stay with me and he would provide some support. And again, the other thing was, people always asking why didn’t you ask for more money from...all I said was I just wanted the house because the kids grew up there. But we were both sort of making almost a similar amount of money. The thing about alimony didn’t come in. But in some states - and if I really wanted to - some of the lawyers and my friends told me: why didn’t you go for more, but I was like: No, that was not my main thing. My main thing was to take care of the kids and make sure that they were not disrupted and the fighting between both of us did not sort of leech into their environment. So, could I have gotten/been more aggressive? I guess I could have, but I didn’t think that was important in the long run.

Anna: You told me that you have your daughter in an assisted facility - now she’s living away from you, both the children live away from you? Can you tell me a little more about the place where she lives?

Deepa: Yeah, sure. So in the US, you know, till the age of 21, if you have a child with special needs, the school system takes care of the children’s needs, like speech therapy, and so on. But after 21, they pretty much, you know, now they’re considered an adult and the choices are: they can stay at home with you, and then you have therapists come and work with the children - or you could do like I did now, which is like a day programme, and an assisted living facility. So I chose that because, like I said, towards the end of it, I really didn’t have a full-time nanny and I found that being at home, she wasn’t being stimulated enough because I was working full time and if she wasn’t at home, then she would only be on top of a computer, so I chose this option. 

It was a hard decision, because, you know, she was 21 and she’d been with me the whole time. But I felt in the long run, you know, this is a place which is just about 10-15 minutes away from where I live right now. So, she lives in a regular apartment complex with another girl who has special needs and this same programme, where she’s involved with, they do the day programme where she goes in the morning, from eight o’clock to about three, then she’s back home and she has a personal attendant with her. 

So, they do things, you know: they go out swimming in the community, they go shopping, they do the regular…just like a regular young adult. So I find that she’s much happier. She’s been there now for the past four or five years: started just before COVID. And they do a lot of activities. For example, just last month, they went on their annual summer vacation they do to the beach, and you know, the attendant will send me pictures of what she’s doing and they went to different things - at the restaurants and they went to a theme park and they went swimming on a beach. And so she looks like she’s very happy. You know, she’s doing activities, they do some vocational training. 

Anna: Thank you, Deepa. That’s kind of another topic - off topic. But I really wanted to know about this, because I know you were trying to find whether there were similar facilities in India…

Deepa: Because she was diagnosed when she was two, so, right from the beginning, my parents always said, why don’t you come back to India, and throughout the years, each time, I’ve always tried to see if there’s a facility. And initially, there really wasn’t. I see over the last few years that a lot more facilities have come up now. But at that time, that would have been an easier option for me, if I’d just taken the kids and come back to India, but you know, I don’t think there would have been enough for my daughter. So that’s one of the reasons I stayed on here.

Anna: Yeah, thank you. Thank you, Deepa, for sharing this story. If you have been listening, if you’re a single mother and have questions for us or to Deepa, email us at Thank you, Deepa. 

Deepa: Thank you.

Anna: Signing off on this episode of Women Uninterrupted, a podcast where we host difficult, different and uninterrupted conversations brought to you by The Hindu.

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