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December 26, 2016

Double Duty Dads: Decoding What It Means To Be A Single Parent

Text by Amishi Parekh. Illustration by Soosh

Families come in all forms and sizes, and for some men, matrimony is no longer seen as a necessary step to starting one of their own

On June 27, actor Tusshar Kapoor posted a rather unusual photo on his Instagram account. In between the typical irreverence that marks his usual posts appeared a blue teddy bear with the message: ‘I’m thrilled to welcome the greatest source of joy in my life, my son Laksshya Kapoor — Tusshar’. To the disappointment of many tabloids, this wasn’t some secret affair kept under wraps waiting to be unearthed. Kapoor openly announced that the baby had been born through IVF and surrogacy, and he had chosen to become a single parent.

In 2015, another single father had already made the news. Twenty-year-old Aditya Tiwari from Indore became the youngest single father in India to adopt a baby. For him it was love at first sight, and not even the fact that the baby boy was born with Down’s syndrome and a hole in his heart could deter him. Until last year, the legal age for a parent to adopt was 30. It was lowered to 25 years last August, and Tiwari’s persistence must have had something to do with it.

Single moms such as Sushmita Sen and Raveena Tandon are now old news, although at the time, they were breaking norms. These days society may not balk at a single woman wanting a child — we reserve terms like ‘maternal instinct’ and the proverbial ‘biological clock’ to explain this — but a single man wanting a family still causes a stir.

Digging deeper, the single dad is not such a new phenomenon. Devdutt Pattanaik cites single fathers from Hindu mythology such as Matsyendranath, Vishwamitra and Dronacharya, saying that ‘these tales open our minds about alternative forms of families, where fathers can have children without a wife, and children of single fathers grow up to be healthy adults’. Or just watch Akele Hum Akele Tum, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, the classic Sharmila Tagore-Dharmendra starrer Anupama or the more recent Piku for a glimpse into how portrayals have changed over the years. Where earlier, on-screen fathers were either divorced or widowers, in the last few years, more and more men off-screen are coming forward and finding unconventional means to having children, such as adoption and surrogacy, that circumvent the traditional path involving marriage.

Baby comes first
Is marriage dead? Not really, but our ideas about relationships and family are expanding. As Kapoor mentioned in a television interview, there are times when the stereotypical family of husband-and-wife falls apart, and the child is put through more trauma than if one parent takes on both roles. Psychologist Dr Rajesh Parikh, director of medical research at Mumbai’s Jaslok Hospital, says, “Over the past 35 years that I have been in practice in India and the US, I have witnessed considerable change in social attitudes towards marriage and childbearing. The most dramatic change has been the delinking of the two. This evolved from the gradual breakdown of marriage as an institution and studies of children brought up by single parents.” Its department of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics, led by his wife Dr Firuza Parikh, helped Kapoor have Laksshya, and is among the leading practices in the country.

Dr Firuza’s office is lined with plaques and letters from ecstatic parents whose impossible dream she and her team have helped come true. She has observed that, “Sometimes we see men who are angry with women for whatever reason — they’ve been in a bad relationship, things have not worked out. The people who come to us are not flimsy, they aren’t coming to inquire and then say, ‘No, no, this is not for me’. They are confident; they have the means — both emotional and financial — and social support. I met with a man whose wife had died of breast cancer and both of them had been trying for a baby. He told me, ‘I promised my wife that we would have one, so I’m going ahead.’” Of late, they have begun to see men in their early 30s, who are more or less settled in their careers and who are able to support a child. She refers to Kapoor, who told her that he definitely wanted a child even though he hadn’t found the right partner, something he was willing to wait a little bit longer for. Marriage works for some and not for others, and people do it for a variety of reasons, and while the pressure from society may have eased somewhat, it’s certainly here to stay.

Father, dear father
Bringing a child into the world is a huge responsibility, but it doesn’t end there, does it? In India, we benefit from close familial ties and extended families who are ready to pitch in. It is critical that doctors assess the resources a potential candidate has at his or her disposal when evaluating the person for surrogacy and parenthood. Prior to going ahead with any treatment, an interview with the individual and family is conducted to ascertain the reasons for parenthood, the support system available and whether they are able to provide the time and finances to raise a child. This is followed by a psychological evaluation and additional psychometric tests.

Experts try to identify how powerful and genuine the need to be a parent is. New Delhi-based Dr Rita Bakshi, who runs the International Fertility Centre, explains, “A lot of times in a vulnerable state people may say they want to have kids, but afterwards realise the challenges associated with it and change their minds. We are in no hurry; we make them come a few times so that we know that they are really willing to go through with it. We also see their whole support system. For example if a man comes to us, we try to find out how they would manage if they have a female baby. Most of them bring their sisters or mothers along with them, who will help take care of the child, and we also make them go through psychological tests.” Additionally, centres also run a police check.

Speaking to one of Dr Bakshi’s surrogacy clients, Akshay Gupta (name changed on request), who had been married for 11 years before getting a divorce, that entire experience had left a bitter taste and getting remarried was no longer on the cards even though having a child was. “I’d only read about surrogacy on internet forums and heard about celebrities who have done it. I contemplated my decision for over a year. I thought there was a lot of acceptance today towards single parents. I’d spoken with my family, parents and a lot of friends and though everybody was supportive they also cautioned about how difficult it is to be a single parent and raise a child without a partner.”

Power of one
Dr Bakshi recounts the story of a single father, a chain-smoker who gave up smoking as soon as his daughter came into his life. “She’s eight months now and he has not had a single cigarette. If somebody is willing to change that much, then his need must be strong.” She finds that single fathers are just as involved as single mothers or couples. “I’ve seen that they take fantastic care because the urge to parent is so strong in them that it does not make a difference.” Gupta is getting ready for the arrival of his baby. “I’ve made a lot of changes. My parents will look after the child when I’m at the office. I’ve already enrolled in some classes on childcare that will start in the seventh or eighth month of the pregnancy, I’ve been reading a lot of books about babies. I’m trying to prepare as much as I can for when the baby comes.”

However, not everyone agrees that single parenting is the way to go. In October 2015, a renowned charity came under fire when it ended its adoption services in India after new rules allowing single and divorced people to adopt children were introduced. While the decision itself can be debated both ways, it was encouraging to see many prominent parents voice their disapproval. After all, adoption in India is a tedious process mired in paperwork. Denying an orphaned child a home on baseless fears of ‘encouraging homosexuality’ seems out of sync with the times.

In some cases of course, the choice is made for you. Gulshan Grover, the famous Bollywood baddie, raised his son Sanjay single-handedly after he and his wife divorced. In an interview with a leading newspaper, he said, ‘Single parenting is never by choice. A child definitely needs both parents and it’s extremely unfortunate when a child has to grow up with only one for no fault of his. When my wife left me, my only request to her was that she let me keep Sanjay. This was something completely unheard of at that time. Even the magistrate was surprised when he saw a mother willing to give up her four-year-old child. But she told him that she knew Sanjay would be happier with me.’

Gupta believes, “Genetically (or societally) women are more oriented to handle a baby. But I think basically if you want to become a single parent, there is no choice and you have to cope with it. I have to play the role of both mom and dad, and manage the baby as well as I can.”

Internet, increased interaction between people (both online and off) and awareness of the world are changing our societies, and emboldening people to make brave choices. As Dr Firuza explains, “Tusshar is just one example. He’s iconic because he’s a film star and he’s Jeetendra’s son, so it draws attention, but surrogacy and single parenthood are something that have already been happening.” Perhaps it’s about time we let go of our stereotypes and embrace a more modern idea of family.

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