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Single combat

THE DAY she got separated from her alcoholic husband, Padmini heaved a sigh of relief. No more arguments at night that led to violence and tears, she thought. But her worries were far from over.

Bringing up her eight-year-old daughter, alone, was not easy as she thought it to be. "For no reason, the child would be stubborn," Padmini says.

Padmini was at the end of her tether, when her daughter asked her one day, "Why did you drive dad away?"

Divorce, unwed motherhood and separation necessitated by the spouse's professional demands have forced many into single parenting.

Being a single mother is not simple, as Jyotika (name changed) has found out, "Even mundane happenings in life can become subjects of discussion in the neighbourhood. I've had to depend on my parents and siblings for just about everything."

Undue dependence on others and the "strange" attitude of society deflate the self-esteem of the single parent. The child often bears the brunt of the parent's frustration.

All's well in the house when the father is around. But once he leaves, pandemonium breaks loose.

"The children are on cloud nine when my husband, who works in another city, visits us," says Shanthi. "The kids are a picture of good behaviour and discipline. The minute he leaves, they throw tantrums and it is next to impossible to bring some order in the house."

While housewives face financial insecurity, working women feel the pinch of time. "Work pressures and domestic responsibilities weigh you down," says Rajasree Unnikrishnan, a single mother, working with All India Radio.

A few single parents also face troubles from their in-laws and fall victims to domestic violence.

The children raised in such an environment can develop behavioural disorders. They may even feel distant from the parent. "Children can become cruelly demanding and adamant when they face such situations," observes Dr. S. K. Vijayachandran. "They can become impulsive, aggressive and angry. This can result in anti-social behaviour. In certain cases, they get depressed."

Though rare, there are cases of the dad raising the kid, on his own. "Dad was never good at cooking. He was not a patient listener either. But we got along fairly well. Once he even admitted to realising how difficult it was to be a mother," says Mary.

Psychologists say that men are better than women in coping with such situations. Men are financially less insecure. And they are not on the `hit list' of society.

The case of divorced couples is different. Divorce is usually followed by the battle for the custody of children, if any.

Says Indira Raveendran, advocate and notary: "In most divorce cases, both the parents try to win over the child, playing emotional games. It would leave the child confused."

"It's all your mother's fault," the man would say. And the woman would counter, her eyes filled with tears, "Do you know how much your dad made me suffer? I stomached all that just for you, honey!"

Addressing the sexuality of a teenager is a major problem for the single parent, "When a son cannot approach his mother with his problems, he will turn to his peers and other sources. The information he garners need not be adequate or accurate," says Dr. Elizabeth Vadakkekara, child psychiatrist and family counsellor.

"The problem is aggravated when the single parent doesn't try to understand the emotional needs of a teenager of the opposite sex," adds Dr. Vijayachandran, psychiatrist. "The worst happens when the parent tries to force his or her views, about the opposite sex, on the teenager."

The death of a parent can leave the young one shattered, especially if he is thrust with responsibilities that he is not ready for. Vivek, currently undergoing therapy, narrates his story. His father died when he was 10 years old and his mother was a housewife. "She constantly reminded me that I was the `man' in the family and should be responsible. I missed my father terribly, and was robbed of my childhood. When I got married, I was determined to be a good parent. But I couldn't be one as I never knew what childhood was all about. My wife taunted me for `being insensitive and immature'. It got on my nerves and rocked our marriage. I was too proud to understand that I had a problem, which could be traced to my poor upbringing."

Says Dr. Elizabeth, "Such people, who haven't gone through an integration process after a troubled childhood, have wounds in their sub-conscious minds that need to be healed through therapy. They don't intend to make others unhappy, but get provoked easily."

Nuclear families do not have the social support structure that cushions the travails of single parenthood. Problems are inevitable in life, but how one faces them is the issue, psychologists point out.

The right approach can make your child grow up to be a loving, well-balanced, responsible citizen, who is not afraid of facing the realities of life.

SREEJA IYER

Illustration: Manoj