Gayatri Jayaraman is a Mumbai-based single mom, senior journalist and editor. The author-journalist has been a single mom for last 16 years to a now 17-year-old. She’s here to tell you it never ends. SheThePeople.TV spoke to her about her journey.
I would have fallen apart and lived on junk food and alcohol if it wasn’t for my having a kid to fend for. -Gayatri Jayaraman
Where do you derive your strength from?
I think where all mothers derive their strength from: the fact that there is no choice. You do what you have to do because there is a child depending on you. Some have asked, would it have been easier without a kid? I would have fallen apart and lived on junk food and alcohol if it wasn’t for my having a kid to fend for. In many ways, kids save us from ourselves. They are essential to growing up and putting someone else’s needs ahead of your own. I think all mothers understand this. It’s not us, it’s them. People are always telling you that you’re ‘brave’ as a single mom. I tell them I’m just Jerry with a chunk of cheese running from the anvil Tom pushed over. It’s just survival.
Is it perfectly okay to be a single mother in the more connected world we are in today?
I think it’s brilliant. When I started out 16 years ago, I used to look online for support and joined a foreign single mother group. I used to take a day off regular work to get a day to myself, to visit galleries, museums and watch a film. Today there are groups on WhatssApp, Facebook, there are Tweet-ups and dating, there’s fests, open mics, to express yourself, and abundant options for daycare, play dates, car-pooling. The connections today not only make it easier, but cooler to be a single mom. It’s become a lifestyle choice. In terms of work, it’s made me more focused. I cut out all the networking and nonsense that are only distractions. If you pare it down to bare essentials, you get your work done, and then get to pick your indulgences. It’s a leaner mode of living.
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Being a single parent, how do you teach your child that gender roles are beyond social constructs?
I believe kids learn from who you are and not what you say. I know an IITian and IIMA-ian who ticks all the right boxes on feminism but goes home to being waited on hand and foot by mom, wife and two daughters, whom he will not allow to marry outside caste. I know an LSE grad who swerved the car when I casually suggested I’d have no problem with my son being gay, if he turned out to be so. I know a Brown Univ grad who demanded a Cartier watch as dowry on the eve of the wedding.
Far too many people pretend to be what they’re not. You aren’t liberal, you aren’t feminist, you aren’t gay-friendly, you aren’t even a decent human being, and your kids are watching and becoming. It’s all you.
Do you think others’ make it a big deal if you are a single parent?
I think a majority of people think they’re supposed to feel sorry for you and try to. But if you’re not the kind who works well with pity, they don’t know how to react. They don’t understand why you don’t feel like you’ve missed out on anything. They don’t understand that you don’t actually envy their life. That you don’t need a plus one to that party. That you’re not looking to ‘hook’ every man you meet. That you actually have better, more enriching things to do. That you’ve made choices that make you happy. They expect single mothers to whine, complain about their exes and generally hate men, and seek to settle down with ‘the right man’ soon enough. They’re quite thrown if you don’t seem inclined to those things. I avoid all those people on principle.
We function as more than two people, as the whole family sometimes, and we are not going to meet all the needs that entire ecosystem provides.
What is left incomplete when one is a single parent?
I think single moms first have to learn to accept inadequacy. We function as more than two people, as the whole family sometimes, and we are not going to meet all the needs that entire ecosystem provides. You are less than adequate, and that’s necessary. Kids without fathers need a male influence, but they also need their father’s influence. Sometimes that dad isn’t going to teach the child what you’d like taught or in the way that you would do it. Sometimes a friend’s dad is going to be the male figure he takes to for advice and bonding. And you’re going to think, ‘Am I not providing enough?’. You can’t provide enough. Biologically, physically, mentally, you can’t. Too many women are driving themselves and others nuts trying to do that. Building barriers against fathers and families that you’ve divorced. You don’t have to like him, but you have to allow his influence on your child, because it’s his child too and the only biological father he has.
Accept your inadequacy to be everything. Allow a child to grow beyond you.
How do you survive the society as a single parent?
Ignore it entirely. Society is us. I am also society. I refuse to allow society to be bigger than me.
How do you build emotional support systems?
People look at single mothers (and feminists) as home breakers. We don’t break families, we redefine what a family is supposed to be. My family is not what you dictate it to be. My family is chosen, hand-picked and a deliberate influence on my child. It’s relatives that I choose to allow in, friends, and has a smattering of maids, helpers, elderly, neighbours, former teachers, bosses, colleagues, exes, ex in-laws, dogs, and other animals. It’s people who genuinely care for each other and give you what you need.
As a single mother, you have very limited bandwidth for emotional drama. You need to get things done, work, home, chores, extras, your own life. Cut out who doesn’t work, keep who does. People aren’t family just cos they were born to it, they are when you say they are.
Being mother and father – what’s the hardest part?
Money. Earning it and spending it. Children look at fathers who earn and see them as successes. Children look at mothers who earn and look at them as neglectful. Because, the primary role of the mother, especially to children-and we spend a lot of time discussing what working mothers look like to spouses and partners but not to children-is the child. The father’s neglect he can stomach, he even expects it, the mother’s wounds him.
From the other side of this, when the mother is the breadwinner, we think we are doing something extraordinary to put down the basics. Things we take for granted when men do it. Pay rent or EMIs or electricity. We don’t expect or express gratitude to men for doing these things. But when you do it as a woman, and it is hard to do consistently, we are praised for it and we expect gratitude for it and are stunned if it is not forthcoming.
As a gender, just as we expect men to start thinking about looking after themselves as a basic part of growing up, women need to look at earning for the basics as no big deal either. When we do that, we will be able to teach our kids of both genders to achieve that fluidity as well.
Gayatri Jayaraman is Writer at Large with HT, and author of ‘Who Me, Poor?’. and the forthcoming ‘Who Me, Feminist?