In India, When Mothers Live Without Their Children

The stigma around so-called "non-custodial mothers" has prevented us from expanding our own imagination of what motherhood can, or does, look like when it is practiced by non-residential mothers

A mother cares for her child on the outskirts of Srinagar city in India
A mother cares for her child on the outskirts of Srinagar city in India
Pritha Bhattacharya

NEW DELHI — Three years ago, Shalini*, a 35-year-old media professional based in Bengaluru, gave up custody of her daughter. Her child grew up in a joint family and she was very attached to her paternal grandparents. Shalini couldn't imagine taking her child away from the people she loved. Still, Shalini went through severe mental health challenges after her separation; it took her several years of therapy and counseling to adjust to the new parenting arrangement. But she is now on the path of discovering a new relationship with her 8-year-old daughter.

"I interact with my daughter like I am her friend," she says. "When she comes to live with me during the weekends I enjoy it fully without taking any unnecessary pressure of being a "mother" around her. In fact, I feel my relationship with her has significantly improved because I am a happier person now than I was before my divorce."

Shalini is one of many women in India who are defined as non-custodial mothers, those who either decide to or are unable to live with their offspring. Despite the social stigma of giving up being a daily presence in their childrens' lives, many parents make the choice based on what they believe is best for their families.

"As an adult, I knew with time I would adjust, but I could not put her through the trauma of leaving the people she cared for," says Shalini.

Available information at the national level such as census data on female-headed households provides some clues into the number of existing single mothers in India. But these statistics do not reveal the full picture, as most single mothers continue to live with their extended families. A 2019-2020 report by UN Women attempted to fill this gap, highlighting that in India, the number of "lone mothers' is rising, with 4.5% (approximately 13 million) of all Indian households run by single mothers. It also found that around 32 million single mothers are estimated to be living with their extended families. Unfortunately, the report failed to include single, non-custodial mothers in its sample design, suggesting as if to give up or lose custody of one's children is enough to render someone a non-mother.

"I could not put her through the trauma of leaving the people she cared for."

Feminist scholars Joyce A. Arditi and Debra A. Madden argue in their work on non-custodial mothers that the negative stereotyping and belief that non-custodial are somehow "unfit" or "defective" originate in the cultural image of the "good mother." This is someone who not only engages in intensive mothering practices but also makes continuous personal sacrifices for her children.

Gazal Raina is the founder of Milaap, one of India's only support groups for non-custodial parents. She says, "It is very difficult for a woman to explain why she does not have her children living with her; it is still easier to tell people that your children were snatched away from you than it is to tell them that you voluntarily gave up custody."

Among non-custodial parents, there is a distinct moral hierarchy between men and women. Gazal remembers at one support group meeting, a woman shared that she was a non-custodial mother and that she voluntarily chose that arrangement. The moment she finished speaking, one of the fathers present jumped in with a barrage of questions and said, "What kind of a mother are you? How can you give up your child like that?" Gazal had to quickly jump in to diffuse the situation.

Both mothers and fathers are affected by the patriarchal ideology that promotes mothers as nurturing, selfless caregivers and fathers as peripheral providers. Sociologist Jackie Krasas argues that the horror that underlines the negative reactions to non-custodial mothers partly rests on our low opinion (and expectations) of the capabilities of fathers. It is a commonly held notion that non-custodial mothers are putting their children in harm's way by choosing not to live with them. Nevertheless, women are increasingly resisting these ideas by leaving unhappy marriages and, in some cases, by either giving up the physical custody of their children or striving to lead a full life in spite of losing custody.

Neetu*, an aspiring image consultant based in Bengaluru, decided to give up the custody of her two children due to her poor financial condition at the time of separation. She says, "My marriage with my ex-husband had always been difficult but I could not leave because of a lack of familial support. But after the passing of my mother, my brother and bhabhi (sister-in-law) in quick succession, I realized that life is too short and that I don't want to live an unhappy life."

After voicing her decision to end her marriage, Neetu made the difficult choice of moving out of her marital home, letting her children stay with her ex-husband. She says, "People around me said I should think about marrying again, and hopefully I will find a good man who accepts my children. But I went against everyone's advice and decided to let my children stay with my ex-husband till the time I am financially able to look after them."

A woman and child sit together in Qutub Minar, New Delhi, India Photo: Unsplash user Sarthak Kwatra

It is important to note here that on most occasions, the circumstances in which women either give up custody or lose custody have profound ramifications on their subsequent relationship with their children. Gazal, the founder of Milaap, ended her marriage after experiencing domestic violence for several years. During her separation, she also decided to give up the custody of her 16-year-old son as a way to honor his choice to live with his father.

"I believe my son chose to live with his father to have access to better opportunities in life. I understood his concern and willingly accepted his decision," she says. But life after giving up custody was not easy. Her son decided to live with his father but people around her assumed that she must have done something wrong to drive him away.

"My closest friends would ask me, 'What did you do? Why doesn't he want to live with you?" As a result, I started to believe that maybe it was my fault; maybe I should have tried harder to convince him to live with me," she says.

Unfortunately, in the months following her separation, Gazal experienced complete estrangement from her son. In the beginning, she wrote many emails to him begging for forgiveness and trying to explain her reasons for letting him go, but he never responded to any of her messages.

"At a time like this, it is the other parent's responsibility to ensure that the child gets to enjoy the company of both parents," she says. "Unfortunately, brainwashing the child causes alienation and removal of the non-custodial parent."

Non-custodial mothers often report that their ex-spouses have used their children as bargaining chips either to punish them for ending the marriage or to get them to stay in the marriage. There have also been instances where mothers felt that they were wrongfully denied custody by judges who, they believe, were working hand in glove with their ex-spouses.

Rajini, a home decor designer based in Mumbai, lost the custody of her two children after an acrimonious divorce proceeding. She knew her 14-year-old son wanted to live with his father in Sweden and she accepted his decision. But she was shocked when in the high court, the judge gave custody of her 24-year-old disabled daughter — who technically does not even fall within custody laws — to her ex-husband on the pretext that in Sweden she would have a better chance of acquiring a job.

Non-custodial mothers are constantly in the process of re-imagining their role as mothers.

Rajini says she was granted only limited visitation rights based on the convenience of her children, who are presently living in Sweden. She strongly believes that the reason why she lost custody of her daughter despite having a strong case was because the judge was in touch with the team representing her ex-spouse. Naturally, the journey toward forging a steady relationship with her children has been difficult.

"I feel my son somewhere felt responsible for the pain I was in for losing my daughter; that guilt prevented him from opening up to me for several years," she says. "My daughter, who has selective mutism, is very uncomfortable around mobile phones, so she refuses to have a conversation over call. It's only recently that I spoke to her on FaceTime after many years."

Despite these challenges, non-custodial mothers are constantly in the process of re-imagining their role as mothers. Gazal says, "Redefining what motherhood means to us begins as a coping mechanism but gradually it provides the opportunity to rediscover ourselves, and our abilities."

Neetu, who is now living in rented accommodation a few kilometers away from her children, meets her sons every day for a couple of hours. She says that in the beginning, it was difficult not to be around her children 24/7 but with time she realized that what happened, happened for the best.

She says, "I have been a full-time mother to my children for many years but now I need to also focus on my career, and my happiness, to show my sons what strong women look like."

Gazal, who remains estranged from her adult son, believes her prayers for his well-being have always reached him, which in turn has brought her to a place of peace and helped her start support groups like Milaap: "From being guilty, miserable and heartbroken, I have found a way to use my experience to create a life of meaning and purpose. I am hopeful that when the time is right, my son and I will re-connect."

*Note: Two of the names have been changed to protect privacy.

*Pritha Bhattacharya is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. She has recently completed her master's degree in women's studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Her previous work, covering issues of gender, culture and politics, have been featured in Firstpost, Down To Earth and Feminism in India. You can find her on Twitter, @prithawrites.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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