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
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.