For Estranged Mothers on Middle-aged Dates

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Yesterday at dinner, we were sitting next to a couple in obvious dating mode… and that was quite unusual, since this is India, and the couple were in their late 30s or early 40s. The woman, it transpired, had two sons in Dubai, living with her former husband, a native of the land. She had been denied custody because, among other things, she decided to move back home after the divorce. Now, I can’t quite imagine myself a parent, but if I did have children, I wonder how I would have felt, living in a different country and unable to visit or see them for legal fucking reasons. Certainly, life as a single person is easier than life as a single mother, but would I be able to hold back from leading a doomed revolution for legal reform?
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When I posted this on Facebook, people quite reasonably asked if this case was perhaps not an exception, since custody was usually loaded heavily in the mother’s favour, and even if it wasn’t, there would certainly be visitation.  Now, this is certainly true. Not in the case of extremely patriarchal theocratic states, perhaps, but more generally. However, first, should one overlook individual cases of forced separation because they’re unimportant blips on the statistics radar? I think not. Most people who have cared for children in a parental capacity – even those who are not biologically related to said children, just so we’re clear – would, I imagine, be teeth and claws if someone told them dismissively their trauma didn’t matter in the bigger picture, because they were statistical outliers.
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Second, if one accepts that custody disputes usually favour the mother – and one must – one also accepts that it is biased against the father. Why? Well, one would say, because we’re socialised to think of mothers (and grandmothers, and aunties and older sisters, and female cousins) as the primary care-givers, and in a debate, would instinctively hand over the child to the female and the bill for its upkeep to the male. And “instincts” are not about to change unless there’s a social upheaval, and we become passably all right with gentlemen nurturing the fruit of their loins while also earning the bread, the way single mothers do (and let’s keep in mind that some of their estranged partners drift away without child support, too).
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But what then, though? At least now, women are socialised to want to be the primary care-givers, while men accept that visits and financial payments are probably a more practical solution for them. If we manage to uproot this gendered tendency, won’t we have even longer custody battles, even more scarred children, and even more hurt all around? With both parents being equally invested in primary parenting, and neither being encouraged to just weekend with the kids, people might just start wishing for the old ’50s model.
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Kidding. No one with self-respect wishes for the old ’50s model.
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But here we are then, in a world which disapproves of single fathers and intensely scrutinises all mothers, listening to a woman desperate for the children she was torn away from her by law and vengeful intent, trying to find a niche of love for herself in a society that looks down upon divorced women, doesn’t yet acknowledge mid-life dater, and treats estranged mothers as an abomination.
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Now you tell me if that isn’t tragedy wrapped in hope, on a bed of courage and defiance.
In the comments below are responses to my Facebook post about the encounter.
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One comment

  1. Somdeb Ghose Wouldn’t she have visitation rights? If she did go back to Dubai, she should still be able to see her kids. Custody is a different ballgame altogether.

    Me: She possibly legally can. But when your children live in a different — very patriarchal — country with a presumably acrimonious ex, legal rights is the smallest part of possible visitations.

    Poorna Banerjee A friend of mine has gone through the same problem, and no, she is denied visitation rights and yes, is now living in another country.

    Ruma Chakravarti A lot of Islamic govts do not give the mother any rights esp if she is a non-citizen. Malaysia is the same. As in dear, friendly Malaysia, shopping destination etc..

    Somdeb Ghose And of course, in a patriarchal country like UAE, a mother realistically cannot also hope to have legal custody of her children, especially if she has emigrated. Your revolution will die a very premature death in such countries. Elsewhere you might have a chance. Unless I am mistaken though, elsewhere it is a lot better for mothers. Not aware of the statistics, but in a country like the US, say, where the divorce rate is quite high, isn’t custody awarded to either parent with more or less equal frequency?

    Me Actually, I know of two cases in the US where the mother was denied custody, one because, and get this, the father claimed that as a stock-broker, she would be an “unfit” mother, and he could take better care of the children. Then, citing a fight between them while the children were in the house, he also had her visitation curtailed to one holiday — Thanksgiving or Christmas. (I mean, I’m not sure if the judgement was that specific, but that is how it worked out.) I suppose this happens to men too, but men are — sort of — socialised to “move on” to a greater degree than women are.

    Me It’s sad. A couple of my friends had wonderful stepdads they loved, but these men had little or no connection with their own biological children. They became attached to the children of the women they were with. Exceptions abound, I’m sure, but it’s sad this sort of thing should happen at all.

    Gautam Benegal Tough titty sounds about apt here.

    Dipali Taneja Ditto Gautam:(

    Somdeb Ghose Rimi “men are — sort of — socialised to ‘move on’ to a greater degree than women are.” : Is this is a general statement, or does it apply to a certain demographic/nationality etc? I ask because I do not understand what this means.

    Sunayana Roy Rimi, whatever the socialisation, I find men do not in fact move on at all. If anything, there is little actual social support of fathers who have little to no contact with their children. By that I mean that while the men aren’t penalised for not being with the children, nor is their deep sense of loss usually acknowledged. The loss I’m seeing is deeper than I would have expected ten years ago. Now of course, having watched Vicky as a father I understand just how wrenching it is.

    Me I would agree. What I meant, perhaps somewhat callously, is that men are not socially crucified for not being hands-on or even close-by parents as women are.

    Me Having said that, and this is in response to you, Somdeb, I think perhaps a case might be made that greater attachment to offsprings in women come from (a) socialisation of motherhood, and (b) physical entwinement with them from womb to early childhood that fathers cannot biologically experience. Also, theoretically, a father may father multiple children in the same period that a woman may mother only one (or a finite number that her womb can hold), which might make paternal attachment somewhat more dilute than the maternal. Your personal experience, Sunny, might be different, as mine certainly is, but statistics does support there are far, far more single mother families with no support from the father, than there single father families with no support from the estranged mother.

    Somdeb Ghose I see. Never mind personal experiences. But yes, thanks for the statistics. As I said before, wasn’t aware what the actual picture was.

    Sunayana Roy “statistics does support there are far, far more single mother families with no support from the father, than there single father families with no support from the estranged mother.” No arguments with that. I was commenting on that single line of yours, because I’ve met a couple of divorced fathers recently, who did not get custody for various perfectly understandable reasons, but were obviously devastated nonetheless.

    Ritobroto Sengupta A friend’s wife has gone through the same experience some time back and has coped. So.

    Me What choice did she have? Lives must be lived. But I doubt she’s “moved on” from the separation. Perhaps she waits for possible reconciliation?

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