Most of you know journalist and writer Sandhya Menon as someone who was among the first to help women call out repeat sexual harassers by sharing their stories on social media, leading to the #MeToo movement in India. The past few months have been personally challenging for Menon, a single mother to two children, as she had to cope with financial crisis amid other challenges such as suffering from bipolar and borderline personality disorder.
Menon shared her story in her blog recently, adding her children may have to discontinue school since she could not afford the fees. What followed was a crowdfunding initiative, where people came together to raise money for Menon. Express Parenting got in touch with the single mother to know more about her story. Here are excerpts from the interview:
What challenges do you face on a daily basis as a single mother?
I have been a single mother since my second child was four months old; he is nine years old now. And my older child is 10. It’s pretty much been the only experience I have had as a parent.
I can’t really say how hard it is. There are some days when I feel the lack of a co-parent. That’s on days like when I have to step out of the house for some work, considering I work from home. Other times, I feel it’s hard being a single parent in terms of monetary needs. I am the only one who earns for a family-of-three. Another way I find it hard is while taking certain decisions, from simple to life-changing ones like change of schools or moving cities, for instance. I think it was harder when they were younger because I had to be around them constantly. Now, they can do a lot of things on their own and I get some time off.
As a single mother, I have to do everything. Essentially, sometimes I am doing two people’s work. So, on a daily basis, that’s fairly challenging sometimes. I get really tired. I cut down on a lot of other activities; I can’t meet friends or go out in the evening. So, my social circle has reduced drastically because of this situation. But those are not really challenges.
You mention in your blog that you have bipolar disorder. When were you diagnosed and does it have an impact on parenting?
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder in 2013. Did it have an impact on my parenting? I don’t really know because this is the only parenting I know. I think it is such an indelible part of my personality and way of being. When I look back at how my parents did it, I can see some levels of differences. And then I read parenting articles and books which talk about a set of rules on how you should parent, and I can’t seem to fit that mould. I think one of the biggest challenges with mental illness and as a single parent is the issue of temper. Sometimes, you need someone to take charge of your life when you are mentally ill. My kids get yelled at a lot. That would tend to get in the way a lot when they were younger, but now I can talk about things and sort of figure it out. I also get stressed out very easily. So, in the morning when you are even five minutes late to get to the bus stop, I stress out. It’s not very comfortable or easy for my children. Sometimes, when I am overwhelmed or extremely anxious, my support of them becomes very cerebral. It is not a warm emotional response, which is what children need. So, I tend to worry about what that sort of thing does to children.
The positive aspect is that I don’t seem to have the usual hang-ups that other parents do and I tend to be a lot more honest with my children about our lives. And I am game for whatever they want to do and explore. That, I think, comes from being slightly free-thinking. I myself have seen the advantages of following what you are good at instead of doing what you are supposed to do. In the good times, which is a lot, I tend to be energetic enough for them to really spend time with me and have conversations.
Are your children aware of your mental health condition? How did you make them understand?
I told my children about my mental illnesses about three-four years ago and I explained it to them in a very basic manner. As they grew older, they asked more questions and I have had to explain how it affects me. But they are very simple conversations. When you explain to kids, they tend to be more aware and understand. In many ways, they can see that I am not like other mothers.
How do you cope with emergency situations?
My parents moved back to Bengaluru a year-and-a-half ago. Since then, life has been a lot simpler. My parents love my kids and vice versa. My kids like to spend as much time with my parents as possible. For the past year, my kids have been spending a lot of their time at my parents’ house. During emergencies, I either have my mother come over or I send my kids off to their house. Before my parents shifted here, I have turned to all kinds of things for support-my ex-husband, domestic help and my friends. My friends are quite supportive.
How do you talk to your kids about financial issues?
I don’t have a set rule to talk about financial issues with my kids. When I have no money, I tell them that I can’t afford stuff. My son and daughter, for example, have been asking to join a gymnastics class for a long time but that was expensive. So, I had to tell them that I am the only one who earns and it is not really easy for me. Those are the conversations when they need something or they waste stuff. I tell them they need to be aware of wastage and take care of the things they own. I don’t tell them numbers or how much money I have. But I have come to realise that children need to know how much something costs and how I get that money.
Have you spoken to your children about the #MeToo movement?
My kids happened to see me on TV at one of their friend’s homes. Some of their friends also told them that they had seen me in interviews. They saw me in magazines and newspapers at my parents’ place and asked about it. I had to again simplify the explanation. I have had the talk about consent, about menstruation, and safe and unsafe touch. So, I connected the discussion around #MeToo with that and simplified what sexual harassment is, as much as possible. So far, they have not asked too many questions but they fairly know about it.
Your advice for single moms?
When you get help, take it. Don’t worry about your pride. Yes, some people might offer help out of a sense of obligation but that need not be the reason for you to reject it. The other thing is have a backup plan for finances. Even if you have to borrow to set up some sort of savings, do it and pay it back at a time when you can. Also, just involve the kids with as much honesty in your life as possible. Shielding them from pain, feeling there is something lacking in their lives, is not a good idea because children respond to honesty in a way that we never, ever imagine. So, first rehearse a conversation in your head and then explain it to kids.
Would you like to comment on the crowdfunding initiative?
The crowdfunding was not my idea at all. I have turned it (offers of money) down every single time without even thinking twice about it. But then it got to a point when I had nowhere to turn to. And since June onwards, I have not had a steady job. I have been living on my savings, which were exhausted by December, after which I had to borrow money from a close friend, through the next few months. It was at this point when the school said that they won’t be taking the kids anymore. I couldn’t really take it anymore. That’s when friends reached out and I couldn’t find it in myself to fight it. It was my pride that was making me say no, but that would have been at the cost of my kids not going to school. To be completely honest, for the past few days after this happened, I haven’t been emotionally stable. I have actually been crying since the time this happened. I am so grateful my kids have gone back to school. I will never forget the kindness of so many people, the solidarity, and for telling me I am not alone.