A typical day for Stella Turner begins at 5 am by replying to work emails that fill her inbox through the night. She then readies her daughter’s school uniform (online classes require presence in uniform), checks her homework and assignments and prepares breakfast while juggling calls from office and clients.
“By 10 am when my daughter’s school starts, I am already feeling a bit tired. But it’s just the start to a hectic day,” says single mom Stella who is a Mumbai-based media practitioner.
Stella, 39, is not alone. Single parents (widows, divorcees, separated or single by choice) across the country have faced a trying time juggling work and children without any support from family in most cases. Also, support systems such as domestic help, schools and daycares have all shut down and many have endured job losses or salary cuts, adding to their worries.
Home alone with a child
N Shivapriya, based in Pune, says there seems to be collective blindness to the fact that single parents even exist in India. “The general assumption seems to be that grandparents are living with their children and grandchildren although nuclear families have been the norm for several decades now.”
Not surprisingly, the lockdown has been challenging for single parents and problems faced by single mothers in India are even more.
She has a two-year-old son and says not having siblings made the situation all the more difficult for him. “For my son who loves company, it has been a steep learning curve to adapt to the changing environment.”
While he was happily playing with friends and enjoyed being at daycare, he has been all alone with his mother during the lockdown. The situation is not very different for Stella, whose seven-year-old daughter has become clingier during the lockdown. “Since I am at home all the time, she wants more care and attention and does not want me to step out of the house.”
With no break from parenting and being cooped up at home, loneliness has hit single parents hard.
Dr Akhilesh Jain, psychiatrist, says the stress level among single parents is higher given their situation. “They have to take care of their own financial, physical and emotional needs and also that of the children. Sometimes their anger or frustration could be directed at the child, impacting him or her emotionally,” he says.
Pandemic heightened loneliness and fears
Stella, who endured domestic violence in her marriage and got divorced when her daughter was not even a year old, says she moved in with her parents as she was unable to afford her own place. And a salary cut during the lockdown hasn’t helped matters. “I work 10-12 hours a day and seven days a week. It would have been very difficult to manage my daughter alone and I am thankful to my parents,” she says.
Yet nothing can make up for the loneliness of not having that person to whom one can bare one’s soul. Meenakshi Iyengar knows this well, having single-handedly brought up her daughter who is now 18. “Every time I took her to an examination centre (for competitive exams), I would see both parents wishing luck to the child. And I was alone – from preparing breakfast to driving and then waiting at the centre in a mask; it was physically exhausting and emotionally traumatic,” she says.
Lockdown only worsened matters. Iyengar has driven her daughter during heavy rains to exam centres on the outskirts of Coimbatore, braved cloudbursts and spent sleepless nights as exams continued to get postponed.
Moreover, the fear of catching the virus is far more in single parents and their kids than in others.
Her fears are not unfounded. Jaipur-based psychologist Dr Vandana Choudhary agrees that the lockdown has affected everyone and cases of stress, anxiety, domestic violence, depression, panic attacks have increased during this period.
She cites the case of a mother who is an IT professional based in Bangalore with a 10-year-old daughter. “When the pandemic broke out, the mother would share her fears with family and friends about getting infected and what would happen to the daughter. The mother didn’t realise the daughter internalised all this and became so scared that she would not let her mother step out even for grocery shopping,” says Dr Choudhary.
In Iyengar’s case, it helped that her daughter is an adult and the two could discuss their anxieties with each other. And she pours out her feelings in her diary, which acts as an emotional outlet.
But it’s not the case with everyone. “If parents pass on their worry and fear to children, they will learn that but if parents reassure them and explain the situation that this is a temporary phase and things will normalise then children will be comforted,” Dr Choudhary says.
Support systems: the lifeline
A lot of mental and emotional issues can be taken care of if single parents get an opportunity to spend more time with co-workers or can focus on work as it diverts the mind away from loneliness and the pandemic.
Shivapriya says at a time when domestic help is not available and crèches are closed, organisations can help by providing ‘safe’ daycare options to employees’ children. “This will certainly boost productivity and help the economy by bringing in a larger percentage of employable individuals into the workforce.”
Stella agrees that day-care services would be a big relief for single parents. She says that going to the office provides an outlet for pent-up feelings.
Children themselves are looking for some company to break the monotony of lockdown. “The joy on my two-year-old’s face when he gets some company and the incomprehension on his face when a help (who is that one other person in the house and company for him) quits is heartbreaking. It speaks volumes about the challenge single parents and their children face,” says Shivapriya.
Dr Akhilesh Jain, a psychiatrist, says the stress level on single parents is higher given their situation. “They have to take care of their own financial, physical and emotional needs and also that of the children. Sometimes their anger or frustration could be directed at the child, impacting him or her emotionally,” he says.
But some single moms, with strong family support, have been able to navigate the pandemic better. Janice Goveas, based in Mumbai, feels the lockdown has been a blessing in disguise for her and her eight-year-old son.
Time management for single parents is of utmost importance, especially for single working moms. “I look at the lockdown positively. Earlier I would be busy with work and he spent most of his time with the nanny. But now I have got to spend more time with him and for the first time I got to cook meals for him,” says Janice who works in a public relations firm.
Janice, 42, has been a single parent for six years and could manage work and home as her son is quite independent. So she used the opportunity to turn a home chef. “My two friends and I started our food business called Helen’s Kitchen in June. Currently, we offer only one meal on Sundays and take limited orders. We offer traditional Mangalorean cuisine,” she says.
But she admits being a single parent is exhausting and has its challenges. She has temporarily moved to her parents’ place in Mangalore so she has emotional support and can ease up on her hectic schedule.
Nameeta Premkumar a Mumbai-based filmmaker has also been lucky like Janice as her parents moved in with her. “The lockdown also allowed me and my daughter to spend time together. She discovered that she is a great baker.”
During the lockdown, 47-year-old Nameeta was teaching film-making to marginalised children online. “My daughter put her baking skills to use and raised money to buy mobile phones for children who didn’t have phones and couldn’t attend my workshop,” she says.
But financially the lockdown has been tough for her as shoots are not taking place and there is less work. Clearly, while the lockdown has been tough for everyone, it has been tougher for single parents and the toughest for single parents with young kids. For now, one can only pray for a return to normalcy.
(Urvashi Dev Rawal is a Jaipur-based journalist specialising in development, gender, and political reporting)