My family thought that now that I have become a mother, I would reconsider my decision of filing divorce,” Mehak Ikram* is a primary school teacher who lives with her six-year-old son in Karachi’s bustling FB Area. “Truth be told, my son was the reason I took the step.”
Mehak got married in 2015 to the person she thought was ‘the one’ for her. But it wasn’t long before she realised how deceptive some people could be. As soon as she got married, she had to deal with her mother-in-law’s extremely inappropriate behaviour. And her husband turned out to be even worse. His emotional abuse dented her self-esteem to the point where she began praying for her life to end right then and there.
“I have spent hours crying on the prayer mat, looking for a way out. I don’t know how it happened, but when I found out that I was pregnant, I decided that I wouldn’t be putting another life at risk.”
When a woman gets pregnant, she starts thinking about how she can take care of her health so she has a healthy child. She will think about all the ways she can decorate the nursery or when is she going to start the baby shopping. Having to raise a child alone, all by herself, is probably something that would never even cross her mind. A death or a divorce is not something that you can plan or be prepared for.
In the year 2019, over 40,000 cases of separation were filed in the courts, implying that children of these families may now be living with a single parent. According to global averages, one in every seven children lives with a single parent. For many women, the decision to walk out is challenging. They find themselves entrapped in a rollercoaster of emotions. On the one hand, there is fear and sadness about the end of relationship. On the other, separation seems to be the only plausible decision.
“It hurt a little when my husband didn’t try to stop me or my child, but I think it was all for the better. At that time, I wasn’t working; I reached my parents’ house and told them that I couldn’t do it.” Mehak paused for a second – as if regaining the energy to recall the horrors of the past – and added, “The first few months were torturous. My extended family would tell me that I was making a wrong decision and that my child would need his father. There was emotional blackmailing too about how I was forcing my child to be deprived of his blessing.”
While Mehak was facing a hard time, she was determined to provide her child with an environment that didn’t affect his mental peace. “My son meets his father and I have never stopped my ex-husband from coming over. But I don’t think that my son would have liked it had he seen me getting abused by his father.”
Talking about the role of a single mother in a patriarchal society she admits that there were times that made her question her decisions. “I had to go to the passport office to get my son’s passport made. I was supposed to get my husband’s ID card and he gave me a really hard time. He said that I would run away with his child and that he wouldn’t let me get the passport made,” she grimaced. “On that day, I felt insignificant as if my country too didn’t care about me. But I had some good friends who helped me out and finally we got the required documents. I try not to talk about these things in front of my son as I want him to respect his father, but I think he is also getting a hold of the situation. He is six, and now he asks questions from his father as well.”
“Raising a child is a never-ending journey. For now, I am happy that I am raising a strong and confident son who loves his ‘mumma’ unconditionally,” she said while simultaneously trying to hide the tremor in her voice.
“The other day, my son asked me to get married,” Javeria Farooq*, an accountant at a private auditing firm, laughed out loud. “My son is 10, and I got divorced when he was two. He had a tough time adjusting to the new environment, but as they say all’s well that ends well.”
Talking about her experience as a single mother, Javeria elucidated, “As a single parent, I have faced a lot of problems – although I don’t like to talk about them. But, yes, there are problems, and it is not easy. This society keeps reminding you that you are single and that you have a big responsibility on your shoulders. Your child asks you why you aren’t living with his father when all his friends live with their parents. I have also seen my relatives going silent when someone mentioned how my son might have adopted a particular trait from his father.”
“Then, your home can be toxic as well. Your siblings can get easily irritated, and you constantly have to be on your toes, ensuring that your child doesn’t ‘offend’ anyone. Getting a place of your own isn’t easy in Pakistan, and that process has its own set of problems. For many women, staying at their parents’ home is the only available option,” highlighted Javeria.
While being a single parent has its own obstacles, sometimes you come face-to-face with ‘what-ifs’ of your relationships which can affect you. “Sometimes, when you see your former husband with his new wife, you feel a twinge of pain in your heart. There are many ‘ifs’. There was a time when my ex-husband would take my son and his new wife to dinner, and I would think why he didn’t try to keep me happy. But I think this is life – it is a series of unfortunate events for a few.”
Javeria’s son now wants his mother to get married and she finds it endearing that her son cares for her in his own innocent way. “My son now wants me to get married, and it is bitter-sweet. I wish my son stays the same; the world is scary and I will need him to pass through all the storms.”
Women who have financial independence are able to brave the toughest period in a relatively better way. Maria Shirazi, a journalist, is a single mom to an 11-year-old daughter. When asked about problems faced in our patriarchal society, she said that she “cannot think of something.” She explained, “I have a strong support system and I have been working for quite some time now. It has been two years since I separated from my husband, and so far, I have not encountered any problems as such.”
Maria acknowledges that she is one in a million of women and that there are single moms for whom this role isn’t easy. “The people around me are supportive; my family is well-educated.
“Yes, there are some empathetic looks, and people try to sympathise with me. But since they know that I am financially strong and independent, they know that it is not a big deal for me.”
No one in the world is saved from encountering the ‘unexpected’. Some women become a single parent when the world turns upside down for them and they lose their partners. Nida Kamran* could barely control her tears while talking about the sweet memories of her husband. “When my husband died, I felt as if part of me had died too. He was a big support system and for weeks, I lay in my bed all day long. My youngest was three, and his cries would kill me. It was unbelievable that my children would grow up without a father,” recounted Nida.
“My eight-year-old son once came up to me and said that his father would be angry with him. When I asked why he said, ‘because I can’t make mama to stop crying.’ That was the day I realised that I had to be strong for my children and that I couldn’t let my grief destroy their childhood. I had a big responsibility. I was their mother and father. It used to get difficult; because I had to make sure that I was strict as well. We are a big happy family, but when I see family pictures, my heart looks for my husband. The vacuum his death created is still there,” shared Nida.
Over the years, many women have observed that Pakistani society is not ‘women-friendly’ especially when it comes to vulnerable women. “Our society is not very supportive. There are people who will cross mountains for you, but then they will expect you to listen to whatever they say. My children and I cannot be dictated, so it gets a bit difficult to do things on our own,” explained Nida. “But we have to try. At the end, we have lost part of our family and we have to go through it on our own. I keep telling my children that we will have to be for each other and we cannot turn our backs on each other – no matter what.”
While the society may be adjusting to the idea of single parents (albeit at a snail’s pace), there are no support groups that would help these women get a handle on things. “There are no ‘support groups’ for single mothers, I think Pakistan needs that,” emphasised Bushra Javed*, mother of two daughters. “This is the first time that I am actually talking about the fact that I am a single mother. I have always just assumed that my husband has gone abroad to earn and that we cannot communicate with him because of his job,” she smiled.
However, Bushra believes that children have an innate ability that gives you strength regardless of your situation. “In our society, widows get sympathies – not support. People love to show their concern, but they are not there to listen to them. And then there is an army of men who want to ‘support you’. But, trust me, children give you a lot of strength,” enlightens Bushra. “I used to be a sensitive person who would cry at almost everything. And now, I am quite strong. Frankly, even I am amazed at my strength.”
These stories of resilience makes one wonder about the boundless courage and strength with which mothers take on any role required for the sake of their child. “Mothers are unique creatures; they love their children unconditionally. Sometimes, I think that I am the chosen one as I have to perform the roles of the two most important people in a child’s life – a father and a mother’s,” concluded Bushra.
*Names have been changed to retain privacy.