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What happens to the child when a couple breaks up? How do Indian parents manage the challenges of co-parenting when they do it successfully? 3 ex-couples show us the way.
Parenting is not easy at the best of times.
As anyone with children knows raising a child, involves a multitude of decisions – from the relatively easy ones like what to eat for breakfast to the harder ones like the kind of parenting style to adopt, the schools to send them to, the extracurricular activities to nudge them towards and so on and so forth.
So what happens to these decisions when couples decide to separate? When the responsibilities of child rearing have to be divided up as fairly as possible with minimal impact on the child? In India, where divorce is still a word people gingerly skate around, co-parenting post separation becomes a whole new minefield. Yet, many do manage to find a fine balance and here are three sets of co-parents sharing their journey with us.
Anil & Maya
Anil* and Maya* have been co-parenting for eight years.
Maya says that she was apprehensive in the beginning as Anil wanted to obtain custody of their daughter.
“He is very attached to her. But this meant that he and our daughter would be living in Malaysia where he works and she would continue her schooling there. She would spend holidays with me in Kerala. I worried that my relationship with my daughter would weaken and that she wouldn’t get the care she needed. We had an understanding that I would leave Malaysia only after a good caretaker was found. She was about 5 years old when we parted ways.”
Anil says that it was fairly easy to settle into their routine once they found their rhythm. “Readjustments were made and I am grateful to my company for accommodating my schedule. They helped me figure out my morning duties. I am able to tutor my daughter in all her subjects except for her language class rendering redundant the need to send her for extra tutoring!” he says.
Maya says that their daughter coped very well.
“She had a caretaker and her father would spend a lot of time with her adjusting his work hours accordingly. Whenever he had to go out of town I would go stay with her. In the earlier stages of separation we had some bitter feelings against each other, however we soon overcame that phase and have been sharing a very cordial relationship. I could talk to him and my daughter anytime and get regular updates on her. I thought the distance would separate my daughter and me emotionally but the truth has been quite different to my surprise. My daughter was very clear and vocal about the fact that for her he was her father and I was her mother, no matter whoever came in our private lives. Her faith in us as her parents strengthened our bonds further.”
Maya adds that her daughter is adopted. “She is aware of it. It was difficult for her to accept everything at a certain point of time, but she slowly realised she has a good life. She knows that she doesn’t have an ideal family but she knows she is loved and taken care of more than most of her friends and she is able to be a strength for her friends who face difficulties in their life.”
The fact that Maya and Anil communicate regularly about their daughter has also made their co-parenting a success. “We share our perspectives, fears and joy of her growing up,” she says.
To other couples on a similar journey Anil says, “Soldier on and there will be a way.”
*Names changed to protect identity
Bodhisatwa & Divya
Bodhisatwa Dasgupta and Divya Nair have been co-parenting their eight-year-old Meera for five years now.
“Both of us put Meera’s needs first, and build a routine around that. My ex-wife plays a much larger role than me here, since Meera lives with her, so she does most of the heavy lifting. As a dad, I try and support her in whichever way I can,” says Bodhisatwa.
Divya says that time management according to the legalities of the custody took a bit of getting used to.
“But gradually we would decide that he would spend more dedicated time with Mimi (Meera) by taking her out on his birthday to a resort, he would take her out for lunches and dinners whenever he and she would decide. Also, because by virtue of us living together, he gets comparatively less time with her. And I really didn’t find it necessary for me to go by every point in the legal book because I believe it’s Mimi’s birthright to have an individual relationship with her father and it’s entirely up to her as to how much of him she wants in her life. As a mother I feel, Mimi chose to come to me, however she isn’t my property to dictate terms and conditions to,” she says.
Putting a co-parenting system in place too took a while. Divya says that that they both decided that their daughter’s routine was of utmost importance.
“We also had to be sensitive of Mimi’s mood swings about the family unit and parents loving and being together or having another sibling, or whether it was out of a school experience or something that she watched on the internet or the television. We had to constantly tell her that we love her no matter where we stay or are as individuals. We had to ensure we presented a joint front in her school activities and stand by her when there have been incidents in school which disturbed her. Sometimes it takes a bit of talking and reassuring for a kid from her parent to understand that it’s normal to be from a divorced home, that it’s okay to have two happy parents apart than one set of unhappy parents together.”
Bodhisatwa feels that despite all the management and systems in place, one never really settles into this way of living. “There are many, many hiccups along the way as the child grows up. But yes, we have struck a rhythm of sorts,” he says.
Divya says that she found the situation scary in the beginning. “I personally had financial worries. I worried how I would raise my kid alone, how I would juggle between work and my kid’s demands etc. However, gradually I started paving my way through by saving extra every month…by having all sorts of conversations with Meera… answering all her questions on why baba and mamma aren’t together, yet reassuring her on how we love her the most and wouldn’t compromise on that ever… by taking her to my then office after picking her up from her day care and sitting on the floor in an office cabin next to her working while she slept, attending meetings with her in my lap.”
Bodhisatwa acknowledges how co-parenting is always fluid by talking about how they have to align themselves with how Meera is doing from year to year.
“I’ll give you an example – ever since we got divorced, Divya and me didn’t really hang out together around Mimi, because we thought that would be unfair to her (in the sense that, she may think we were getting back). But a month or so back, we decided that Mimi was old enough, and we decided to take her out to lunch together, not as husband and wife (the construct she was used to), but as two people who cared for her deeply – cared so much in fact, that we let our personal differences take a back seat. This was an important life lesson for her – it was our way of making her understand that sometimes relationships evolve, and a divorce doesn’t necessarily equal to hate,” he says.
“Our focus as co-parents needs to be the kids, not our egos, not our pride nor our one-upmanship,” Divya says to others who might be on the same crossroads that she once was at.
Bodhisatwa wraps up by saying that co-parenting is both easy and hard. “It’s easy if your first priority is your child. And if you can let your personal differences be, and concentrate on what’s good for the child, co-parenting can be a lot of fun. But it’s hard as well, because there’s no ‘book’ you can read that tells you what’s right and what’s wrong. You just have to wing it, make mistakes, hopefully learn from them, tweak things here and there, and try not to make those same mistakes again. The hardest part is getting out of the ‘box’ that society has put us into – the fact that families must be THIS way, and parenting must be THAT way. In reality, there is no this way or that way. It’s your way, and it’s going to take time, but you just have to figure out what ‘your’ way is.”
Alice & Kevin
Alice* and Kevin* have been co-parenting their ten year old daughter for a year and a half now. However, Alice explains that their system is slightly unusual.
“Kevin works for a drilling company abroad and works on a 30/30 rotation basis. Which means our schedule is based on when he is back. He takes care of her and her routine when he’s here. And when he isn’t I juggle between everything like most single mothers. Our system works on the basis of communication on a daily basis – since I run a business which has no fixed schedules, and he needs his breaks since the 30 days back is actually a time off from a 30 day work period which has no breaks or holidays. This constant communication helps in not putting pressure as much on the other person because there’s better understanding.”
She says that when he is back in station they have been living together in the same house so that he can maximize his time with their daughter, but that this does not make things easy.
“Living together has been a temporary solution to the fix. The challenge is to not get comfortable with the ease of it. And as of now we have set unsaid rules to probing about each other’s personal lives and we have made it crystal clear that if an argument is of the past and has no value to the future – then it’s not worth arguing about. Easier said than done though, but we try.”
Alice says that despite their hurt and anger, they have always tried to focus on their daughter. “She has done nothing to deserve what others call ‘being raised in a broken family’. This has been said to our faces. We may be separated but she will have two parents that love her fiercely and put her needs first in this challenging time. Most of our family and friends expect us to be bitter and resentful but we have moved on from that stage and are better off as individuals who come together to raise a child in the healthiest manner we know how, for the moment,” she says.
To those traversing the same path, Alice says that it is not easy. “Being separated or divorced by itself isn’t easy as an Indian because there’s still so much stigma attached. Learning to live separate lives while you have a child to raise together makes things even more complicated. But it’s doable. We have to always keep in mind that because of our children, our ex-spouse/partner will always be in our lives as well. Read up or watch as many videos as you can about Co-Parenting, see a therapist for yourself if you have to, do whatever it takes for you all to be in a healthy state of mind. Prioritize that more than anything else.”
Indian society still struggles with the concept of co-parenting. Even as these parents forge their own paths to move onward and upward, there is judgment around every corner. Even in articles that purport to tell their story, the language used is harsh and accusatory, calling the children ‘victims’ and blaming the adults for their ‘inability to make the relationship work’. Little wonder that many co-parents, even those who have settled into a routine that works for them, baulk from sharing their story.
Ironically, it is honest narratives like these that will help others make the decisions that work for their family. It is stories like these that will redefine what a family unit means in our modern times. It is these voices that will counter judgmental opinions and open the way for true inclusion.
Header image source: Bodhisatwa Dasgupta & Divya Nair
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Shweta Ganesh Kumar is a Writer and Travel columnist.
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