On single parenting and how two is not always better than one

So, why haven’t you written about single parenting yet, asked a reader. I didn’t really have an answer to that, except the fact that I write mostly about what I know, and I don’t think I know entirely what single parenting is all about. Because technically, I am not a single parent. This means that I have a spouse on paper, and he does pitch into the financial aspects of parenting, but for the most part, I feel like I’m parenting solo.

I once wrote that I was practically a single parent in one of my columns, and got a rather acerbic email from someone who was one and who told me I had no right to accord myself that status until I was actually one. She was right. But that got me thinking. What made me different? Just a technicality?

We all know what a tedium collaborative parenting can be, although I do know a few people who are winging it. But they are still exceptions. We have seen our parents at cross-wires when raising us. We don’t have to do the same thing to our children. Very often, two-parent households are a sham, a window display for what actually is single parenting.

Okay, pull back those daggers.

Of course raising children alone is tough, but sometimes it may be psychologically tougher in a two-parent household. I often see couples with children at malls, brunches, movie halls and holiday resorts, resentfully going through the motions of parenting while staring at their screens or avoiding eye contact with each other. And I wonder: how exactly do children benefit from this? When I see couples arguing at airports, restaurants, fitting rooms, toy and bookshops over trivial things escalating to big things, I wonder: is it worth it to stay together ‘for the sake of the children’?. When I look at my own friend circle and see robotic marriages and equally robotic kids, I know the togetherness is plastic, because even their shiny happy selfies look unreal. Because life is not Instagram.

It’s better for the children, they say, and stick around, silently killing each other and their children, every single day. When they talk to single parents, they are often looking for stories of behaviour disorders, psychological breakdowns and other lurid details in the subtext, trying to console themselves they are glad they ‘stuck it out”. But they are often disappointed to find out that the kids are alright.

Children need to see you as whole, and not just a part of a dysfunctional parental unit, which is what happens in most ‘normal’ households, and that’s perhaps why single parenting is more harmonious. Once freed of the ‘spouse’ tag, fathers and mothers have more room to be themselves and hence, better parents. Being married often comes in the way of being a good parent, because the person you married is also the person who questions and contests every parenting decision, big or small. Or whose point of view (however polar it is to yours) has to be factored in, because that makes for a good partnership. Sometimes, being a single parent might just be the thing that makes you like the person you married a wee bit more. I find that once you get past the financial implications of it, single parenting may actually be more efficient. I also know the D word is not to be taken lightly, but in today’s world where single parenting is more the norm than the exception, it might just help to say some things out loud:

  1. That doing something alone may actually be easier than constantly arguing about who does what, and then making sure the said person does it.
  2. That making the rules without having to go through the charade of having someone “on the same page” can be liberating.
  3. That unilateral choices do more good than harm in the long run.
  4. That having someone always undermining your authority is neither good for you, nor the children, in the long run.
  5. That divorce may actually be the thing that sets you free to parent solo and bring back the focus on what is important.
  6. That there is a certain distilled quality to the way single parents bring up their kids, and it comes from being able to pick your battles.
  7. That most mothers are single. They just don’t know it.

A few years ago, I read an article in Slate that said, among other things, that single mothers raise better children. While I am not qualified to comment on that, I can say without generalizing that more often than not, whenever I have met a child who is empathetic, observant, willing to take responsibility, is kind or generous— it is from a single parent household. I am sure these qualities come from a place of consciousness that frugality or a lack of abundance seems to initiate. They also seem to have come from learning to appreciate what they have and realising that not all that is a ‘must-have’ needs to be had.

While a lot has been said and researched on children from ‘broken homes’ or the rising ‘single mother syndrome” , there are almost no reports or studies that quantify the damage of ‘staying together for the children’. That perhaps explains the hypocrisy of a society which believes that dual family units (read marriage) are the platinum standard for parenting. Yes, we have all been raised to believe that two is better than one, but it might be worthwhile to ask some relevant questions.

If I have to explain it in mathematical terms, let me redefine the clichéd, “Two is better than one” by saying, “Single is more than half of a parenting pair”. Because coupledom always comes with a huge dose of parental compromise at every stage. ‘Your’ way and ‘my’ way sometimes takes a lifetime to be ‘our’ way and not everyone has a lifetime.

(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 10th August, 2015)

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