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Many of my friends are single mums. In fact, I have more single mothers as close friends than I do married women like myself. I think this has a lot to do with my mother. My mother is the strongest woman I know, and she’s a single mother. It must be an energy thing - like attracts like. After 30 years of a difficult (understatement) marriage, she called it quits, and her decision left an indelible mark on me. I witnessed, first-hand, how a mother can keep her kids afloat through the most turbulent of storms, and still come out smiling. With kids intact. I asked her how she raised six children and her reply was, “I don’t remember!” Ah, the gift of selective memory.
I am bewildered and incensed by my friends’ ex-husbands who don’t pay child support, are not involved in their children’s lives, or are pretty bad examples when they are involved. I’ve seen the worst of what marriage can offer, and that makes me appreciate the good side. Every marriage has its ups and downs, but after hearing about what my friends have been through, and continue to go through - it could always be worse.
I can speak about being a friend of many Muslim single mums. Divorce is still stigmatised in the Muslim community. Divorce happens, and it’s permitted in Islam - in cases of abuse, it’s outright obligatory to get yourself out of harm’s way - but cultural hang-ups make everything messier. A close friend of mine recently got divorced - good riddance to bad rubbish, I say -- and she was surprised to see that a lot of happily married Muslims have had their own divorce or two, before finding ‘the one’. I call it a learning experience in a community that does’t encourage pre-marital relationships. But once kids are in the mix, it’s a lot harder to bounce back.
Battena Shafei is a very brave single mum. Battena and her lovable daughter, Haleema, feature in “Life At Seven”, the ABC program. It takes courage for Battena to publicly talk about what it’s like raising Haleema on her own, when parts of the Muslim community struggle with admitting that yes, divorce happens to us too. She’s been brave enough to tell her story, and that of her daughter, on national TV. I see in her yet another example of a strong woman doing everything she can to raise her daughter, despite the obstacles she faces.
Another one of my close friends is a working professional with four small children. Every single day, she juggles her demanding work schedule while figuring out child-care for her children. She didn’t ask to be a single mum. Her ex-husband just packed up and left. So now she’s left picking up the pieces of her life, and although it’s a far better one without him, it’s still hard. For instance, a sudden decision by her babysitter to quit her job threw a spanner in the works, and she was left floundering for days, scrambling to find help. That one incident goes to show how her balancing act of juggling work and children is so easily thrown out of whack. To add insult to injury, her ex-husband has remarried and has just had another child - and no, he’s not paying regular support for his existing children. Every dollar she earns goes to feeding herself and her children. The man who directly contributed to the existence of her children is, on the other hand, not really giving her all that much. If you’re not paying child support for your own kids, then don’t make any more. Surely this isn’t rocket science?
There’s a particular sub-section of the population of Muslim single mums who have it really tough - the converts to Islam. These are the single mothers who often don’t have easy access to their families of origin, for different reasons. Some of their parents live overseas, while others weren’t really that happy about their conversion and keep their distance. These single mums don’t have the option for grandma to bundle the kids into the car and drive them far, far away, so she can get her sanity back. Grandma isn’t around, or isn’t interested. For the grandmas who do care enough to be involved and help their daughters raise their kids - kudos to you! It takes a village to raise a child. It probably takes several villages to raise more than one.
If you’re a friend to a single mum, then keep being her friend. It’s a long and lonely road sometimes, knowing that you’re raising your child, or your children, alone. Some days feel impossible, and other days are easier. But it’s never a walk in the park. Even the thought of remarriage isn’t something that’s on the table. It’s not as simple for single mums to remarry, compared to the average single or divorced person.
“Kids change everything,” Leila* told me. “Companionship would be nice, and I miss that, but I have to think about my children first. Whoever I marry has to be extraordinary enough to love my kids like his own. That’s a hard ask.” Does he exist? I sure hope so. But if he doesn’t, then my friend is happy living her life raising her kids on her own. It’s not an easy path, but it’s hers, and I applaud her for her courage to keep striving forward.
I don’t know what it’s like to be a mum. But it must take an extraordinary amount of courage to wake up every morning and be responsible for these small life-forms that soon grow up and make their own way in the world. From my experience, I can think of a few practical things you can do to help your friends who are single mums:
1) Call her to see how she’s doing.
2) Message her to let her know that you’re thinking of her.
3) Visit her to show her that you care.
4) Ask if she needs help with her kids, even if it’s for an hour so she can leave the house.
5) When you visit, bring some food - it gives her one less thing to worry about.
6) Encourage your husband, father or brother to be mentors or role models for these kids who don’t have a father in their lives.
7) Help out with the endless handyman stuff, and ask the men in your life to help out too.
8) Give small gifts to your friend (massage vouchers) and her kids.
Because single mums are the unsung heroes who work so hard to keep their families going, against the odds, every single day.
* name has been changed