“The simplest analogy I can use to explain the journey of single parenthood is that of a video game. You start at the bottom, with zero defense and no sense of direction or a concrete plan. Slowly, you build a world around yourself, and with subsequent levels, you’re able to learn, heal, grow, and become better equipped to deal with the challenges.”
Laila Zafar, a single parent, and lawyer based in Mumbai recalls her experience navigating the pressures, challenges, and stigma associated with single parenthood in India, given how there’s been a lack of socio-economic support and legal awareness amongst the masses. In a candid interview with That Sassy Thing, she opened up about starting The Village for Single Parents - a community and safe space for Indian single parents that help them with psychosocial and legal assistance.
One look at their thriving Instagram feed, and you’ll know exactly why The Village is doing a commendable job at destigmatizing, normalizing, and platforming narratives of single parents coming from various walks of life since 2019. Interestingly, as per a 2019-20 UN report, about 13 million households in India are headed by single mothers who live alone with their children. And even today, there’s still not enough social infrastructure in place to help inform and empower single moms in India. Laila elaborated upon the same, “The struggles of being a single mother in India are very real, and it’s SO hard. Because, you’re challenged not just systemically, but gender-wise too. For starters, people don't take you seriously. The picture-perfect happy family ideal that we all have been conditioned to look forward to our entire lives has suddenly evaporated. You’re now being accused of ruining that image, and stepping away from that life, even if it’s on your terms. Then, we’re talking about the wage gap. It’s no joke that suddenly you’ve lost this huge source of income that was coming from the male partner (because they’ve been getting paid more for years altogether). So now, you face a major downward spiral - the quality of your life is under attack, which can mean anything from changing schools to residences. I know I’ve done it, and many other parents have. These are just some of the things that sadly a lot of single mothers, especially, have to do to survive at some point in their journey. At workplaces too, you’re immediately judged and typecasted as someone who will not be able to work long hours or will take multiple leaves - just because you’re a single mother. ”
“But, these challenges are not limitations, you’re not restricted there”, added Laila, “There is light at the end of this tunnel. You will grow out of those circumstances, and you will find people within the system to help you. Fighting the system is an uphill, constant battle that one person alone cannot take on alone. You just have to make peace with the fact that there are some challenges, but there are also good people who are willing to walk that mile with you. It takes time, energy, resources, and effort, but step-by-step, you’ll get there.”
Coming from a deeply disturbing place where everything seemed like nothing, and looking back brought about a lot of painful memories, Laila was determined to make it through and see her single parenthood as a second inning in life, to put it subtly. With the Village, she hoped to create a space for single parents that she herself was looking for back when she separated from her then-partner. Being a lawyer, she even had the expertise to provide legal aid to parents going through divorce proceedings and settlements by breaking down the vernaculars and simplifying the process.
“In India, people are all about marriage. It’s a big deal and a huge party! But, once that party comes to an end for one partner or either of the partners, we’ve not been educated as a society to deal with what comes next. When it comes to filing for a divorce or separation, most people don’t even know where to start. And, when they do, the legal parlance is such that you don’t have the bandwidth to understand each and every aspect of the case. I have seen a lot of single mothers struggle with that. There’s already so much chaos inside and around you, it can be a mammoth task to see the end of it.”
Laila emphasized the importance of self-empowerment that helped her and many women she knows to go through the toughest of times whether it’s for battling custody or even getting back into dating. “Do your homework, read books, listen to podcasts, talk to people - professionals, lawyers, experts, and even your friends and family who can provide the kind of support you’re looking for. Understand what options are available, how you’d like to go about a certain situation, and give yourself the space to figure things out in your own good time.”
When asked about the ways single parents rekindle intimacy and seek connections, especially after they’ve suffered and survived a loss, Laila described some of the experiences of mothers who’ve been part of The Village:
“Many of them often come with a different understanding of themselves, their bodies, sexualities, and pleasure. When you’ve been in a long marriage, in a heteronormative environment, it’s difficult for a lot of Indian women to be able to fully acknowledge and embrace their intimacy needs. Unfortunately, we do live in a world where even today, many of the single moms I know have to date or have romantic/sexual partners in secrecy - sometimes to escape that fear of judgment and shame by those around them and the others to avoid having that conversation with their children since they might be too young."
There are also times when internalized misogyny shows up in the form of codependent bonds and seeking male validation. "In a strictly patriarchal arrangement, women are taught to seek their husband's approval and so, it's understandable to fall back into old patterns. It's important to remember that you deserve to be with a partner who can understand your needs - be they physical, emotional, or sexual. That is absolutely a requirement, because now as a parent, you have a child or children whose needs come into the picture as well. Take your time, and explore the different ways you can seek pleasure. Go out with your friends or with yourself for a nice meal, maybe go watch a movie by yourself or treat yourself to a toy! There are so many ways you can build that intimacy with yourself, as you try to put yourself out there."
Laila recognized how living in the age of social media has bolstered accessibility to communities and safe spaces that provide support (whether online or in-person meetings). From where she comes from, The Village for Single Parents laid the foundation for discussions around the different aspects of being a single parent in the Indian context - from sociolegal perspectives to the bodily-emotional facets such as mental health, intimacy, relationships, body image, and pleasure.
"As we take up more feminist conversations, it's crucial to include the voices and experiences of people of diverse ages, stages of lives, and relationship orientations. That's how we move forward as a society", Laila concluded.
Laila Zafar is a Mumbai-based lawyer, and the founder of a support group and community called The Village with the aim to normalize conversations around single parenting in India.