The Indian ideal of sanctity holds the traditional family unit above all else in society, but the truth is that there are thousands of step-parents around the country who take the same roles and responsibilities in the lives of their step-children as traditional parents. As one of these parents I find the social and legal aspects of stepparenting are much harder to navigate than the emotional.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.
It was an outdoor event in January and no amount of whiskey coursing through my veins could do anything to dissipate the cold. At the far end of the garden I saw a group of familiar women sitting around a fire, I made my way over and asked to join them. They were discussing the various challenges of parenting, and for a while I listened quietly as they listed the emotional, physical and financial issues that surround parenting.
“It’s true,” I said finally, “As much research as one does, you cannot anticipate the extent of responsibility that parenting involves until you are one.”
An acquaintance who knew me more by reputation than conversation looked at me and began to speak.
“How does it matter to you?” She said, “At most you only have to teach him, it’s not like he is your child or your responsibility.”
I decided whiskey was probably a better defence against the cold when the fire came with a pile of ice and left the conversation. However that conversation wasn’t the first (or last, really) time someone felt the need to hurtfully exclude someone else from the covenant of motherhood. I am sure she felt, like many other people I have encountered do, that I am not a “real” mother because I didn’t give birth to the child I parent. The child I parent is my 10-year old stepson. My partner had him with his first wife. I didn’t give birth to him, I didn’t change his diapers, I didn’t drop him off on his first day of kindergarten. I didn’t even know him them. I first met him two-days after he turned eight and twenty-days before I turned twenty-seven. He also moved in with us that day after my partner got permanent custody of his child and his mother got visitation rights. That’s how real-life when it is governed by real Indian law works. It’s not an illegitimate child your husband brings home unannounced whom you start to love the first time he falls sick and no one gives a fuck about the paperwork or where the mother is like they show in the movies.
In reality, divorce is gnarly, custodial law in India is primitive at best and its execution into real life is a hotbed for confusion that can only be tackled by a judge you will never get to see. Parenting, however, is the same thing no matter the configuration by which you become the caretaker of a child. Like a “real” mother, I was pretty unprepared for what taking care of a child would entail. I got his room ready in anticipation for his arrival. I bought him some clothes I wasn’t sure he would fit in and I hoped for the best. It never occurred to me to see the child of my partner as a liability and while raising a child wasn’t ever part of my plans, I learnt from loving my partner that the guilt of feeling like you have abandoned your child because you couldn’t make it work with his mother is something that eats at you constantly. When that parent finds out that they can actually have their child in their life, their joy is so profound that it is impossible to see that child as a liability to your relationship. Which is not to say I was not scared, I was terrified. Until then my lifestyle had not really been conducive to children. I travelled for work a lot, cursed a lot, didn’t own a television and thought of coffee as the most important thing the world. I wasn’t sure I could be a good influence on a child or even a consistent one. While most of the people in my life expressed faith in my abilities to nurture and that sounds very nice and idyllic, I also had to ask myself some questions that you aren’t allowed to discuss out loud.
I had to ask myself: Will I feel too old too soon? Will I have the same relationship with my partner? Will we ever have the time to be just free and without responsibility? How much is this going to cost me? Will I be compromising on having my own children if financially it is always only viable to have one? How much of my lifestyle should I change for a child that.. isn’t even mine?
These questions are real and uncomfortable. They are also questions that someone in this position should ask and answer. Some of them might sound cold and unlike the image we build of a mother. They aren’t necessarily gracious and sometimes overly pragmatic, but they are important questions to ask. I decided that if I was going to live with a child, I was going to be there to really take care of him. I couldn’t say for sure whether we would grow to love each other, but I could say that I would provide for him at par with his father and as any adult caretaker of a child should. Was I trying to gain the role of his mother? Not really, I don’t particularly covet other people’s things, and I don’t think of people in terms of possession. I never needed the child to be mine to care for him. I never needed a title. Those things don’t matter to me. I decided right then that I didn’t even need reciprocity to continue doing my duty towards the child that would be in my care, even if I loved him and he never grew to love me back, I was determined to allow him that freedom.
Of course, emotionally speaking, it didn’t turn out as dire as any of that. We grew to have a great relationship with each other that developed on its own. Somewhere between enforcing bedtimes, teaching subtraction twelve-times and playing with the cats, we grew to love each other. We started doing our own thing. We started going to lunch together on Saturdays and sharing stories of mischief. It was a deeply emotional experience to open myself up to a child and I imagine equally emotionally fraught for the child to do that for me, but it was also wonderful to learn to connect with a child. It was wonderful to learn to open myself up to a relationship that changed so much about my life. With that alone in mind, it doesn’t matter whether I am mother-enough, the essence of love in any form is the experience of it, and not what you call it.
However, legally and socially speaking, there is a lot wrong in India with how we treat a step-mother. Perhaps part of it is how staunchly we as a country protect the traditional family unit and its sanctity, and the entire situation of stepparenting inherently means that the traditional unit broke down somewhere. Believing that a loving stepparent could exist flies in the face of the reasoning that marriage itself should be preserved for the sake of the children. A modern agreement in terms of parenting where even three or four parties exist in the role of parent is possible, if the parties involved co-operate with one another, but for society to concede this is possible and often even healthier for the child it would also have to admit that marriages end sometimes, and it’s okay. Since we stand firmly against this idea, people like my acquaintance at the cold party, feel comfortable openly attacking people who take non-traditional parental roles. It is because it cannot be imagined that such a situation could actually be normalised enough to create healthy well-adjusted children instead of what we expect from “broken homes”.
However in reality I could argue that I take as much responsibility with regard to the child as any “real” parent does. Emotional connection is one thing, but real-life adult responsibility is a tangible measure of good parenting. In that, I cannot say I have ever failed. I provide for the child just like a parent. I feed him and wash his clothes. I talk to him about his feelings and fears. I teach him math, help him with projects and scold him when he lies. I arrange my life around his schedule and plan my trips in accordance with his school year. I pay his school fees and buy his sweaters. I take him to the doctor and repair all the raquets he breaks. I experience the same emotional processes associated with being a parent as my husband. I feel sad when he lies to me. I feel worried when he seems emotionally or physically unhealthy. I feel guilty when I think I am neglecting him for work. I feel excited when I see something I know he will like. However all of that has less bearing because I haven’t been close to the threat of episiotomy.
And that does matter.
It matters because even as the face of traditional familial structure changes in India, in our heads and in our laws, stepmothers continue to be evil. We continue to have no rights or claims to the child. Even though we are given the responsibility of doing just us much for a child under threat of similar consequence to the child, we are expected to just accept any and all social or legal treatment meted out to us, because after all, they are not our children. We just help raise them. Why should that mean anything?