Fatima is a 41years old Bank Manager whose husband had been emotionally and financially abusing her over the 12 years they stayed married. She had 3 girls and the inability to give birth to a male child was one of the frequent sources of emotional harassment from him and his family. He was critical of everything she did or did not do….from her dressing and fashion style, to her cooking, her parenting of their daughters, etc. Her career progress was belittled and referred to derogatorily, as making her less of a good wife and a good mother.
Over time, she gradually became less confident in her decision making and her choices. She started second guessing her every decision and wondered if she was truly not good enough for him and his family. When she complained about his harsh critical comments, he would switch to the cold treatment and stop talking to her completely. After a few years of marriage, she had become reclusive, and had started treatment for depression. After several episodes of depressive illness, it was when she finally started therapy sessions that it dawned upon her that she had been experiencing emotional abuse which had taken its toll on her mental health.
The therapist invited the husband for couple sessions, but he refused. He insisted that there was nothing wrong with him and that she was the one that needed fixing. She eventually concluded that for her peace of mind, she needed to be by herself and she filed for divorce. And that’s when all hell was let loose. Family delegations from her side as well as his side, trooped in. Their Imam/Pastor weighed in. etc.
Unfortunately, single parents and children raised by them are prone to higher rates of emotional difficulties. These are worsened by the frequently hostile and judgemental attitude of many in our society. Oh, she must have been arrogant and proud. Or she was wayward. Otherwise, why couldn’t she get someone to marry her? Or why didn’t she stay married?
Common emotional problems among single parents
These include Feelings of guilt, self doubt and self blame, anxiety and worries about parenting alone, mood disorders such as Depression and low self esteem and feelings of inadequacy. Others include loneliness and poor social support network, financial difficulties, societal stigma, discrimination and pressure, as well as emotional and physical exhaustion. It is even more difficult when there is a child with special needs
Common emotional problems in children
These depends on the age of the child at the time of the separation/divorce/death of one parent. Children may experience feelings of guilt, resentment – against parents and envious of other children with both parents and a ´normal´family life, anger and frustration at an unfair world, insecurity about their place in the world etc. Others include poor academic performance, low self esteem, anxiety and mood disorders, substance use disorders and risk of sexual and physical abuse.
What should we be doing to help?
- Stop societal shaming and discrimination. Stop judging others when you don’t know half of their story.
- Show empathy, and understanding. Don’t offer unsolicited advice about needing to get married and/or staying married.
Single parents should:
- Build and strengthen their social support system
- Take time-outs so you dont burn out from emotional and physical exhaustion
- Avoid and resist the temptation to unburden on your children and complain about their absent and irresponsible father/mother
- Do not rob your children of their childhood innocence. Do not place adult burden of responsibility on them….they still need to remain children, who can play and be carefree
- Bond closely and spend time to ensure they appreciate that they are unconditionally loved.
- Once they hit teenage years, begin to give them some space.
- Have honest conversations with them and admit your mistakes and errors. You are coaching them for their own life in future…not seeking to win a popularity contest.
- Your life must not revolve around them to fill the void of not having a partner. It is good for them to see that you have a life/career and that you are happy and self assured. It does wonders for their self esteem too.
Marriage is a popular tradition that society places a high premium on. However, we should recognize some marriages may not work and a divorce may be the end result. This by itself is a very tough decision, with a lot of emotional challenges and harsh realities to deal with. The least we should be doing is to show empathy and understanding. Or simply let them be. We should stop the shaming and discrimination against persons who have had cause to end their marriages. Or those who were never married for one reason or the other.
Dr Jibril Abdulmalik
Tribune Article for the column “Your Mental Health & You”
Thursday, 23rd June 2022