I met Naima when she was in her early 20s; smart and stunningly beautiful. A holiday romance with a visiting young man led to a hasty marriage and two children. Shortly afterwards, he left for his home country – alone.
After a few months, even the phone calls stopped coming. There was no financial support either. As bitterness set in, she tried hard to force him to support their children, but it didn’t work. Eventually, she gave up and focused on educating her children alone. Twenty years later, her children are now graduating from university and she is still struggling to support them. Life never stopped being tough. It only got tougher. There are millions of Naimas out there. Single women trying to do their best.
Today I celebrate single mothers. Many are single mothers not by choice, but due to circumstances beyond their control; absentee fathers, divorce, fathers who died and various other reasons. There are few women who choose to be single parents. There was a time when single mothers were looked down upon. Some saw them as women of loose morals who got children after the mistake of promiscuity.
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Today, society is more understanding, but the single mother is still looked at by other women, particularly married ones, with a certain suspicion. She is seen as a predator out to snare their men. Single mothers have to walk a fine line with their married friends for fear of being unfairly accused of having designs on their men.
It is not easy to bring up children without a father. The father provides financial support, he leads by example and provides family leadership that children (particularly boys) can look up to. Sometimes you need a strong hand to lead and to discipline.
In various social studies on delinquencies, schools dropouts, drug abuse and even sexual abuse, the absence of a father often leads to these issues and contributes to problems in the family. Malcolm X, the revolutionary African American leader, blames the decline of black American families on the prevalence of so many single-parent homes in the black community. Social studies confirm Malcolm’s assertions. He blamed white racists of having done this deliberately to emasculate the black community.
Life thrusts all challenges on single women, to love and provide, to comfort and sometimes to play the bad cop and impose discipline. It is difficult to explain to young children the whereabouts of their father when they see their neighbours with their fathers and wonder: where is ours? How do you explain this to the kids?
Single mothers have to hustle between jobs and wondering what the kids are up to at home. A friend lived in constant panic as she balanced her work and the never-ending fear that her son was likely to be molested by other boys. Only a woman can understand this. Life is a never-ending series of crises between school, home, clinics and hospitals, and balancing paycheques.
There is the loneliness of being single and the challenge of figuring out whether the man in her life is a hyena looking at her as a lonely victim or a potentially viable partner. It’s tough out there. They struggle to bring up upright children and keep them away from drugs, pregnancy, bad friends and keep them in school. All these challenges make the woman more fragile and temperamental. They have to be tougher on the children to bring them up properly. Very often, a silent resentment starts to grow in the children who think that 'mum is too tough on us. She is always shouting'.
Most parents will have a good cop-bad cop approach to raising their children, where one parent will be the tough one and the other the softer – but supporting – disciplinarian. More often than not, when the children grow up, they begin to appreciate the sacrifices that their single mothers made. But in some cases, the silent resentment erupts into permanent fractures that never heal. Imagine the pain of the single mother who gave her youth to raise and protect her children only to watch them grow up resenting her.
There is a silver lining to single parenthood. In most cases, the relationship between the children and the single parent become extremely close as the children grow up. They become fiercely protective of their mothers. While they will often tend to be more sensitive and emotionally vulnerable, many will also grow up to be strong, independent, ambitious and self-driven. It is no surprise that three former American presidents are the children of single parents: Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon. Who knows? You too could be raising the next president.
Mr Shahbal is chairman of Gulf Group of Companies. [email protected]