Tales of resilience and courage: Single mothers reflect on raising their children alone in Pakistan
Motherhood is the unpaid labour that is rarely acknowledged, never has a day off and almost always taken for granted.
When women carry a baby in their womb, the nine months are mostly spent incessantly planning, decorating and stocking up on supplies they'll need for their little ones. The one thing that isn't planned though? A death or divorce.
When you're pregnant, no one prepares you for the possibility of being a single parent. There are no YouTube tutorials, no influencers talking about it, few grief support groups, and certainly no crash courses offered on single motherhood. So when it hits you like a rock, how do you navigate life, ensuring that your children are loved, cherished and wholesome human beings ready for the world?
This Mother's Day, as an ode to single mothers (or warriors as they should be called), I got in touch with some women for an insight into what motherhood is like through their lens.
The unexpected turn
Widowed at 22, Meher Khan* told me that for the longest time after her young husband passed away only three years into their marriage, her presence — coupled with that of her one-year-old — made people uncomfortable. It was either a pity party with hushed conversations about the difficulties of remarrying with a baby, or the way she had suddenly aged, grieving the loss of her only companion, knowing full well that if given the choice, he would've wanted to be around for every one of their daughter's milestones.
Amongst the misery and the mess in her head, "the biggest fear is ending up making a wrong decision," she said, revealing how difficult it was finding herself in the role of a single parent.
“In shared parenting if you mess up, you know there’s someone who can share the blame, give you a pity pat on the back and move on with the encouragement that you at the very least, tried your best with pure intentions. But when you're all alone, deciding what to do is so sensitive and critical," she confessed, "simply because if things go haywire, you will have only yourself to blame."
Of course, support systems, especially when you're living in a close-knit family in Pakistan, are helpful in providing you with guidance (and lots and lots of opinions), but at the end of the day, the decision is yours alone. It's made much tougher in fact, because you didn't fathom that sole responsibility knocking at your door.
The stereotypical divide
As unfortunate as it is, there is great disparity between how people regard single parents who lose their spouses, and single mothers who are divorced in Pakistan. This is because despite the fact that mothers are often the sole caregivers in household settings, a lack of male figure makes them and their children vulnerable, and therefore, open to criticism.
Probing questions ranging from "why don't you get married again," to "who will accept her with someone else's kid" are part of the problem. From taunts at home to children being bullied at school, these women are often on the receiving end of not only emotional abuse and unwarranted attention, but also derogatory comments and unsolicited opinions.
This is because in Pakistan, nuclear family settings are the norm. Anything else is not just different and taboo, but in some cases, even 'unnatural' and deserving of censure.
However, while this may have been a naturally frustrating tipping point for mothers before, the new generation is making sure to raise their kids happily and on their own terms.
The new natural
"I decided to be my son's mother and father because I promised myself to give my kid the best life possible," said Mesha Hassan, blogger and mother to handsome little Ali. "I did not want him to miss out on a normal life, I guess? A few months into being a single mom I realised I didn't have to play that role. I didn't leave that void. It wasn't my spot to fill," she said.
"My son's normal is having a mother only. That's probably the hardest thing to accept. My son has a single mom. Yes, he has men around him who are father figures, but trying to fill that void is stupid. For him, there is no void. For him, he only has one parent. Not two. That's his normal and I had to reprogramme. I told myself I will continue to be his mom, the best version of me."
She added that there was stigma attached to parenting, which is why falling prey to society's norms and set definitions was often a slippery slope.
"No one can dictate how you have to be with your kid. No one can tell you that your kid doesn't have a 'normal' life. This is my kid's normal life. And I have nothing to change!" she proclaimed with unmatcheable grace.
Like Hassan, many other mothers said the important thing was to raise your child to be a decent, loving human being, and that it was better being fatherless than being brought up in a dysfunctional environment which would be harmful to both — the parents suffering in the relationship — as well as the child who would have to witness constant bickering, unhappy faces and, in some cases, even violence and abuse.
The normal versus the dysfunctional
"In Pakistan, the people around you will tell you that it's impossible. You will start doubting yourself at a point, but don't fall for this trap. Be your own hero and your child's too," said Varda R Mirza, who, apart from juggling a full-time career, is also raising her son Subhan.
"I think of my son being brought up in that toxic environment that I had left 12 years ago and I thank my lucky stars that my son isn't like them. He stands out in a crowd MashaAllah and people around me always come saying, "hum namazon mein dua kartay hain ke humara bacha tumhare bachay jaisa ho, suljha hua, laiq aur tameezdar. [We pray that our son turns out like yours. Decent, capable and well-behaved.]"
She told me she studied while she was pregnant and separated, and with just a six-month break, and continued even after she gave birth. Naturally, her son grew up to see her as an independent woman who built everything from scratch.
"Today he is 11 years old, confident, and running his own YouTube channel. Every night before sleeping he tells me how proud he is of me, and that he will make me proud one day too. Little does he know, I'm already proud to be his mom. He's my best friend and my strength, and so am I his saviour and his hero," she said with her heart full.
She admitted her journey was far from easy, "but at the end of the day, all worth it." She is now happily married to a man who is younger than her and accepts her son wholeheartedly. From fighting and winning her own case in court, to raising her son to be a wonderful child, Varda is undoubtedly the backbone of her strong, proud and independent family!
Another such wonder woman is Sumbul Tabani, a freelance digital marketing consultant and CEO of Lamour World, who was a teenage mother. She married at 16, gave birth to her first son at 17 and eventually left a luxurious life in Dubai to move back to Pakistan after her second child was born.
"I was a very, very young mother. I have two boys who are now 17 and 14 — and it was very very difficult to raise my kids," she confessed, adding that the tough process of juggling motherhood was only possible because of her amazing family and support system.
"Initially, the process of the divorce was very ugly and tough. Being alone with two children, society brings you down," she said, revealing that when she came back, she felt isolated. "The kids also went through a lot of pressure. We moved cities so obviously they felt a change," she said, disclosing that the advice she received included leaving the children with their father if she ever wanted the option of remarrying.
Single fathers rarely face the same pressures, with many families hesitant to accept a woman's children from a previous marriage, even today.
"But I wanted my kids in my life," she protested. Thus, despite coming from a well-off background, Tabani taught at a school in Karachi so her children could look up to her and learn, knowing they had a mother who was capable of doing everything. The transformation from a sensitive girl to a strong woman was immaculate.
Not only is Tabani financially independent, but as an influencer and owner of a shoe brand, she believes women can do anything. "After you give birth to a kid, the sky is the limit," she said, adding that women just need to put their foot down and work towards their goals.
As a mother, she is building her career, raising two teenage boys single-handedly and looking back on her journey proudly. Walking out of a life of misery for the sake of your children's happy futures is a selfless sacrifice that takes immense courage and Tabani knows she has come a long way.
However, as easy as these women may make it look, being a single mother in Pakistan is not just daunting in terms of financial stability or harsh criticism from society, but also in terms of the helplessness the woman in question is made to feel due to red tape at official levels.
Sana Sattar, a single parent to a pair of one-year-old twins born in 2009, confessed how people were hellbent on making matters more difficult than they already were. "I had not one but two toddlers to raise on my own and people were quick to point out all the negatives of being a single parent," she said.
"I've had to endure doctors at leading hospitals imply that since the father is not available, I might not be financially capable of bringing my children to their facility, to the passport office refusing to issue the children's passports till their father also came in, even though I had a Supreme Court letter stating I was legally allowed international travel with my children," she recalled.
"The initial years were difficult, to say the least," Sattar said. "Overwhelmed, petrified and even ashamed all seemed like understatements. Growing up, family meant everything, and yet I seemed to have failed in giving exactly that to my own children, at least in the conventional term — and that made me label myself a failure as a mother," she said.
But now that years have passed and she looks at her 11 year olds thriving, she realises how horribly wrong she was undermining her potential and doubting herself.
"Not only did I not fail as a mother, I too have thrived with them, because of them and despite all the hurdles I faced," she said proudly. "My children gave me a purpose when life felt purposeless, forcing me daily to be a better version of myself."
In them, Sattar understood the purest meaning of unconditional love.
After speaking to so many powerful women and learning about their experiences, I reach a forgone conclusion: we collectively let single mothers down by observing them with a critical eye.
On days like these, I wonder if these supermoms have children who treat them like the royalty they are — despite every decision they make scrutinised by society, they continue living their lives, composed, full of grace and unmoved like the queens they are.
Then, I wonder if they reflect before going to sleep at night on their boundless courage, strength and ability to single-handedly bear responsibility for a tiny human being that they never thought they would be raising alone.
I wonder if they realise that we might not get to choose a lot of things in life, but we do get to choose how we tell our stories — and by narrating theirs with so much grace, I hope they know how tenacious and wonderful they really are.