Married, But Parenting Alone
On a serene, Sunday evening four years ago, Prathiba, then 38 and a homemaker in Bangalore, was on the verge of crying in a public park. For more than 15 years, she had been happily married to a man she loved.
But at that moment, she had never felt more alone.
Earlier that day, she had been teaching her 5-year-old son how to ride a bike when he came bawling to her yet again with scraped and bloody knees.
“It was such a minor incident,” she says. “And yet, it disturbed me a great deal. I’d been trying to teach him for months, and it was very dispiriting, especially when I realized that I just didn’t have the stamina to run behind him anymore.”
Prathiba recognized her tears came from loneliness almost at once — it wasn’t the first time she had felt it. Every time she attended parent-teacher meetings alone, dealt with broken bones alone or with the aid of kindly neighbours, or overheard friends and family speculate where her husband was, a wave of isolation washed over her.
“My husband’s long hours at work make it impractical for him to do much. Even on weekends, he said he was just too tired to help out,” says Prathiba. “I willingly quit my job as a banker when my children were born, but I never dreamed that I would have to do every single thing that involved their care myself.”
Parenting is easiest – and, some would argue, best experienced – as a partnership in which both parents share the joys and challenges equally. But for many couples, that’s not always possible. The result, almost inevitably, is the woman picking up the slack. The reason for this, on an individual level, falls in the gray area of patriarchy. It’s not an unwillingness to help, says Sathish,* 42, a father of two and corporate lawyer in Chennai. Rather, it’s circumstances that put the ideal of partnership out of reach for him and his wife.
“It’s not that I feel the day-to-day nitty-gritty of managing children and a household is a woman’s job,” Sathish says. “It’s simple, really: I just don’t have the time for it. If I don’t provide for the family, how will we survive? I try to do my best, but I do admit I’m not always around for her.”
Yet the explanation is a luxury mothers seldom get.
“Thousands of years of conditioning as to what a woman’s role should be in Indian society doesn’t go away just because she happens to have a degree from Harvard or because she’s told to, ‘Lean in,'” says Sujata Potay, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Hyderabad counselling centre, Inner Horizons.
Indeed, the very messages meant to inspire women who find themselves parenting without their partner’s help are, often, simply dispiriting. When Prathiba read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead last year, she recalls feeling far more angry than motivated at the advice to get back into the workforce.
“It made me very dissatisfied,” she says. “Even though a part of me acknowledged that someone had to be around for the kids, I irrationally wondered if I was wasting my life. It alarmed me that I felt jealous of my husband. Despite our challenges, divorce is out of the question, because I still love him, even if there are things in our relationship that I might like to change.”
Bearing the brunt of parenting can be just as stressful as a single-minded focus on career or trying to juggle both work and raising kids, says Brinda Jayaraman, a psychologicst and family therapist in Coimbatore. And it can put a strain on the entire family structure. The solution, however, lies somewhere between soldiering on silently and jumping into divorce.
“Instead of angry outbursts, confrontations with your spouse or shouldering all responsibilities on your own, it helps if you discuss the situation calmly,” Jayaraman says.
Potay agrees. While in an ideal world spouses would recognize their partners need help and step up their family involvement voluntarily, unprompted changes of heart and routine are rare.
“Women must be more proactive in asking for help and involving their spouse in parenting,” she says.
Instead of dwelling on negative feelings, Potay advises lonely parents to think of their situations as an opportunity for introspection.
“Understand clearly what you expect from your relationship and take small, positive steps to encourage your spouse to participate,” she says. “Above all, be patient. It takes time for mindsets to change.”
It’s an approach that has helped Prathiba. After explaining her feelings in an initial conversation that took her husband by surprise, the couple now talk regularly about his involvement. She says she has noticed a change.
“He is taking a more active interest in the kids of late,” she says. “He’s now helping with homework and making an effort come home earlier and spend more time with them before dinner. I’m hopeful that I may have company to the next parent-teacher meeting after all.”