While preparing an introduction for an event at school my stepson was told not to reference his stepmother because it is “inappropriate” to do so. In India we encourage secrecy about everything that deviates from the norm but teaching children to hide divorce hurts them more than you realise.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
I have a ten-year old stepson. While the arrangement is rare, my husband has had permanent custody of the child since he was seven. For the most part, in India, custody is retained by and favoured to the mother but in their case, she chose to hand it over and my partner wanted it. So a few years into our relationship, his son came to live with us. There are no Bollywood-style twists in this story; I didn’t have to overcome my anger to “accept” the child, he didn’t hate me and then start to like me a little, I didn’t dislike him and then start to feel concern when he was sick one time. None of that stuff happened. None of that stuff is an accurate or real representation of anyone who might find themselves in this situation. That’s not what we have to protect our children from.
Let me tell you what kind of situation may arise in real life.
A year or so ago, right before the pandemic hit, my stepson was graduating from junior school. I don’t think that’s actually referred to as a graduation but I don’t know what else to call it. As part of the process, their school organised a farewell party. At this party each child was required to say a few words about themselves. The kid wrote his introduction. It read,
‘My name is Slow Eater (named changed). I am 9-years old. I live in Hell on Earth (name changed to be more accurate) with my father and my stepmother. In my holidays, I enjoy visiting my mother on the farm. I like football, cycling and playing with my cats. My favourite book so far is the St. Claires series by Enid Blyton (because I am young, and I don’t see the racism in it yet : that wasn’t actually part of it but warrants saying).
According to him, what he had written was extremely ordinary, and I agree. I corrected the grammar for him and helped him practise his introduction. The next day he was supposed to practice it at school with his classmates and teachers. When he came back he told me that his teacher had asked him to re-write his introduction because it was “not appropriate”. Apparently she had told him there was no need to mention his stepparent because that was private. He asked me why having a mother or father wasn’t private, but having a stepmother was, and to be perfectly honest, I do not have an answer to that question that makes an iota of rational sense. Until that point we had been raising him to understand divorce but never feel like it made him less than others. We talked about why marriages end and how sometimes that is the better path than an unhappy life for all involved. We taught him that love was most important when it came to marriage and without that, it’s not worth the lifetime of unhappiness. Most importantly we taught him that it was normal, and the legal process to attain a divorce existed because it was normal to want to end a marriage that wasn’t working. We wanted to shelter him from the stigma but also to remove the stigma. We decided right at the beginning that we would never hide any of this as many people encouraged us to do. I would never “pretend” to be his mother and we would never keep our lives so secret it starts to control us entirely. We thought that was a solid strategy aimed at ending the shame and healing from the trauma.
That day, however, we had to teach him something different.
Obviously, our first response was to contact the school and the teacher. See, I get it, she isn’t used to this. I get it. I get that even today in India the divorce rate is 1% and having a classmate with divorced parents (and auxillary parents) is extremely rare outside of urban clusters, and even when it isn’t, people hide that information and teach their children to do the same. I understand that she may have been taken aback by my stepson’s shame-free admission of his parental situation. She expected him to know he should hide that, and maybe she assumed he hadn’t run it past an adult who would have taught him why to hide that, and she believed it fell to her to teach him the shame. She apologized immediately once we explained that we had a problem with what she had done. We explained that she had introduced to the child a feeling that he wasn’t normal, and that his living situation wasn’t normal either. By telling him that admitting to his parents divorce was inappropriate, she had made him feel like his existence was inappropriate. Her reception was generally kind, compassionate and apologetic, however her explanation was less so. She said,
“I understand you want to protect your child, but we also have to protect the other children.”
Now, our kid isn’t doing drugs, he isn’t acting violently, he isn’t bullying other students, all he did was say he has a stepmother. She wanted to protect other students from that information. That’s part of the agenda of the conformist nature of Indian normalcy. We love to believe that things like divorce, pre-marital sex and live-in relationships only happen in the West. That is “Western” culture and it is in direct contradiction to Indian culture. When faced with real-life Indian examples of these things we feel a moral responsibility to hide them because we believe in doing so we are preserving indian culture and keeping the outliers where they belong, in the fringes of society. It didn’t go so well when I explained that to the teacher, but when I suggested we speak to the principal she agreed to let our kid do his speech as prepared. The next day he went to school ready to practice his speech, when he came back I asked how it went and he informed me that they had cancelled that part of the event.
I don’t know for sure that they cancelled it to avoid the situation of letting him refer to his divorced parents in his speech, I cannot prove that they did, but I would believe it. It’s very Indian to call the whole thing off because one tiny detail offends our sensibilities. That’s not the point though. The point is that in real life, where we often say that partners who are unhappy with their marriages should stay together for the sake of the children, we also conspire to make things worse for the children who do actually find themselves with divorced parents. The social punishment is applicable to all and is often applied so thoughtlessly. Other times, it is applied as concern. For instance, at our wedding. My partner and I got married several years after we started living together, and eight months after we started living with the child. It just made sense to us that everyone involved have the opportunity to really get to know each other. It’s not just a lifetime commitment between the two of us when there is a child involved, you’re also making thay promise to the child, and that shouldn’t blindside them. Of course, as a result of him knowing me well and living with us by the time we got married, he was at the wedding. People were concerned. My family is extraordinarily familiar with me and they know anything can turn into a socio-political rally on the spot so they would never say things to me outrightly. Instead I heard,
“There’s no need to go out of your way to tell people that is your husband’s child. He’ll be there, he’s a member of our family, but you don’t need to broadcast it to everyone.”
See my thing is that I never broadcast things, I reference them too casually for the people of our country. That’s not okay with people. If I presented my stepchild as a shameful revelation it would gain me more sympathy than how I reference him like he’s real, actual part of my life on a daily basis. If I kept him secret, more people would understand than they do now. However, the one who suffers there is the child. We pretend we do this because we care about the child but children internalise how people treat them, and when a child feels like they or their parental unit ought to be secret, they feel ashamed of themselves. That shame grows up with them alongside a longing for a detrimental normalcy. I could never do that to a child. You shouldn’t be able to do that either. The truth doesn’t hurt, deception does, and persevering the Indian sensibility is not worth hurting my child. If that’s inappropriate to you, close your ears to the world around you and continue hating on the West. See if that protects you.