Chennai: Reema Ahmed, a writer and counsellor, was among the first COVID-19 patients in Agra, Uttar Pradesh. She was put under home quarantine in March and suffered prolonged complications for two months. On day 10 of isolation, her 12-year-old son pleaded with her to let him inside the room. They managed a brief chat, facing away from each other. The single mother and her son had never stayed apart before.
There are 13 million households run by single mothers in the country, an estimated 4.5% of all households, according to a United Nations Women report in 2019. When the lockdown was announced, single parents, doing twice the work with half the assistance, saw their key support systems collapse – schools, daycare and the community. Through the pandemic, they have endured mental health struggles with grit and discovered fresh perspectives on parenting.
Kochi-based lawyer Laila Zafar had to leave her five-year-old son home when she went grocery shopping. Six months later, the child is used to managing himself in the playroom till she finishes outdoor errands, with a sense of independence. On odd days, when Laila did take him for a walk, she was invariably questioned by neighbours. “Loneliness has hit single parents so hard. Our situation is the same as two-parent households except we don’t have anyone to share the load. I am in solitary confinement with a kid. I haven’t interacted with another adult for so long, there are no breaks and escape from being a parent 24/7. My counsellor keeps checking on me. For single parents, both the left and right sides of the brain are constantly engaged, leaving us physically and mentally exhausted,” she said.
In November 2019, she started an online support group for single parents called ‘The Village’. Laila said that unlike Dubai, where she was raised, Indians lacked acceptance, understanding and empathy for single parents. She is planning to file a public interest litigation seeking welfare measures for single parents. “We don’t want to be pitied. In contrast, we are independent, strong, brave and happy parents who thrive and multitask every day. Our struggles can be mitigated by government policies granting child and healthcare support along with economic security,” she said.
Zafar recalled the experience with a yoga instructor who didn’t allow her child inside the classes, even though he was quiet. Her friend, a single mother of toddlers, was told by a landlord in Chennai to not bring any man to the house. When Zafar and her friends decided to log on to a dating app as single mothers, none of them received any response. “Therapists have advised me to remarry or get back with my child’s father. Single parenting needs to be normalised,” said Zafar, who is working on a single parent-centric wellness programme by mental health professionals who are single parents.
Reema Ahmed tested positive for the coronavirus amidst daily updates of death counts by her brother, a respiratory consultant in the UK. “The fear of losing to COVID-19 did worry me but above all, children are intuitively resilient and emotionally intelligent. My son became more independent and stayed in a separate room, away from my elderly parents,” said the single mother.
Single parents (widows, divorcees, separated or single by choice) face huge challenges on a daily basis. Sevanti Ghosh, an Ahmedabad-based consultancy firm employee, lost her job in May. The mother of two school-going kids battles the constant terror of being infected. “I am taking virtual therapy sessions for depression and an eating disorder. COVID-19 patients overcome severe exhaustion only by family support. Where would that leave me and the kids? Rigid family structures have put single parents in a social blindspot. We have never felt more isolated. My relatives chided me that I would have been better placed during the lockdown had I not divorced my abusive partner, but I have no regrets. My quarantined single mother friend had to leave her kids with their 80-year-old grandparents who had co-morbid conditions,” she said.
On August 27, Saurabh, an entrepreneur from Gurugram and single father of boys aged 13 and 11, was admitted to the hospital and later ICU for coronavirus. He got discharged 12 days later only to be re-admitted on October 3, when he spoke between bouts of breathlessness and drips. “Small acts of kindness like my friend sending a cake to my kids and a book for me when I was hospitalised that made me sail through. What has helped the parent-child bond is honest conversations and sharing household chores,” he said.
Latha, a single mother of boys aged 14 and 7 and domestic worker from Chennai, had no work since the lockdown. COVID-19 fears don’t bother her as much as the inability to cough up school fees for the children who have been barred from attending online classes.
“I have been denied work by reputed companies for being a single parent. One employer had asked me to assure in writing that I won’t be taking excess leaves while another gave me low rating because I used to rush to relieve my daughter from the crèche by 9:30 pm,” said Rajashree Menon, a single parent of a six-year-old in Bengaluru who has now switched to freelance content writing.
With courts shut, parents like Kochi-based hotelier Cherry Sebastian going through custody battles had been left in the lurch. Earlier, he used to meet his 11 year-old son in the church or school but since March, they haven’t spoken or seen each other even on video calls. “He stays with my ex-wife. I miss him terribly and strive to keep myself distracted by cooking,” he said.
Devender Khari, a software engineer and single parent from New Delhi, has a son and daughter who are 17 and 15 respectively. “The initial news reports showed clips from the movie Contagion. I was so petrified that when I looked down from balcony, I saw people as dead bodies. I had lost my wife to a mental illness in November 2013, following which I took professional help to overcome the grief. Over the years, I have encouraged my children to build a support system exclusive of me,” he said.
Swati Dasika, a single parent of a four-year-old and an engineer with a Dubai-based private company, said that moving to Hyderabad to live with her parents was the best decision. “Once when I was down with fever and lived alone with my two-year-old daughter in Mumbai, I requested my neighbour to oversee her while she was asleep so that I could buy milk and return in ten minutes. She bluntly refused. I was going through depression as divorce proceedings are an emotional overhaul. Mental health support must be made affordable for single parents, who are already financially hit,” she said.
Paromita Mukherjee, Kolkata-based psychologist, said that single parents are all struggling: those going to work leaving their children with caretakers and then the ones working from home with kids. “One of my patients is a child specialist on COVID-19 duty and a single mother to a four-year-old, who is homebound with a babysitter. After returning from hospital, when the mother desperately wants to nap, she has to instead engage with the child, leaving her depressed,” she said.
Dr C. Ramasubramanian, psychiatrist and founder of the MS Chellamuthu Trust and Research Foundation, Tamil Nadu said that single parents need timely help for their psychological turmoil. “There is heightened mental and physical fatigue as they wrestle coronavirus related fear psychosis and overwhelming negative perceptions, which if ignored, can lead to depression and other spiralling outcomes. Stress among kids must be addressed too. Being a COVID-19 survivor myself, I have seen my role change from a caregiver to a receiver. Unlike other illnesses, this is emotionally, physically and physiologically isolating. As far as reasonable and quality mental health care is concerned, the best options are government hospitals,” he said. According to Dr Samir Parikh, director, Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, a solid support system is the only cushion in times of a pandemic.
Luvena Rangel, a Bengaluru-based holistic health practitioner said that single parents must have a mental health backup plan and an emergency caregiver ready along with important documents. Seek help, take a break and focus on what’s in one’s control – the safety and health of children and the parent.
Please call on these helplines if you know anyone facing mental health issues or feeling suicidal.
- MS Chellamuthu Trust NGO, Tamil Nadu: 9375493754 (Operational from October 10, 2020).
- Mental health rehabilitation helpline, KIRAN, can be called from landline and mobile phones across the country at the number 18005990019.
- NIMHANS helpline: 08046110007.
- Helplines by Government of Maharashtra, BMC and Mumbai based mental health organization mPower- 1800120820050.
- Assam Police and the Department of Psychiatry, GMCH helpline: 6026901053/54/55 or 6026901056/57/58.
Nalini Ravichandran is an independent journalist who has worked with The New Indian Express and Mail Today and reported extensively on health, education, child rights, environment and socio-economic issues of the marginalised. She is an alumna of the Asian College of Journalism.