Single Motherhood

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Single Motherhood Gaining Relevance

*) Solita Sarwono and Santo Koesoebjono

Change in the global economy, lifestyle and societal norms have affected women throughout the world. More women are rejecting the traditional way of thinking, namely to get married after completing school, have children and be a devoted mother and housewife.

Compared with women 20 years ago, women today are better educated, more independent, mobile (traveling, moving, changing jobs), marry at a later age and take a job after completing their education, postponing the birth of the first child, even to live alone and remain single or become a single mother, pursuing their careers. This trend is observed in both the urban and rural areas. This trend is also evident in Indonesia as a result of the increasing level of women’s education and modernization.

In industrialized countries, women (and men) are losing interest in marriage. Men-women relationships need not lead to marriage, even when children are born from the relationship. Divorce and single parenthood are no longer taboo and the rates for both are increasing.

To illustrate: in the United Kingdom almost 25 percent of children live with single mothers (there are two million single parent households, an increase of 17 percent since 2001); in the United States there are 11 million families headed by single parents (an increase of 12 percent in the past decade) and in the Netherlands the increase is 27 per-cent, reaching the number of almost 500,000 families. One-third of single mothers in the Netherlands are immigrants from Suriname, Antilles, Morocco and Turkey.

Why single mothers?

There are several reasons why women become single mothers. Many divorced, widowed and teenage girls with unwanted or unplanned pregnancies, are unwilling to commit to marriage. Some women want to have children without the intention of getting married and forming a family. Some choose to get pregnant using sperm donors, leaving children to be raised solely by mothers.

Moreover, in this era of globalization, socio-cultural norms and innovations are spread out across the oceans. Indonesia is no exception. The spread and transfer of new things and ideas are facilitated by advance (tele)communication technology. Social media is increasingly popular among the young and old, reaching many people even in the archipelago’s remote areas. From Sabang to Merauke, and from Jakarta to remote islands in Maluku, everyone has a cell phone and/or a Blackberry. The devices have become a primary need, as they are essential for obtaining information about the world.

Diminishing appreciation for religious teachings and loosening of parental and social control facilitate the spread and transfer of everything consid-ered ‘modern’ and ‘fashionable’, ignoring the possible ‘clash’ with the local socio-cultural and religious norms.

Freedom in male-female (sexual) relations is an example of the new trend adopted through the social media and the mass media. Traditional societies in the villages of Java and other islands also learn from the modern world that single motherhood is ‘normal’ and no longer a shame.

In addition to single mothers, there are single fathers, too, raising children on their own. The number is smaller than single mothers, since in cases of divorce, usually the mother gets custody of the children, freeing fathers from childcare responsibilities. Most men remain single not for long, especially when they have to care for young children. As a contrast, many wom-en do not remarry and raise the children single handedly, while earning money to support the family.

Public response

In many traditional and religious communities in big cities as well as in rural areas of Indonesia, people still value marriage as a scared institution. In those communities single motherhood is regarded as a shame to the family, especially when the condition is a consequence of unwanted pregnancy or divorce. Only widows with children are accepted and even pitied by the community. In order to conceal the family shame, often times the child is removed from the family by ways of aborting the unborn child or giving away the baby for adoption. Sometimes the grandparents take the infant and raise it as their own, claiming the baby as adopted child. Even before birth the child has been labeled ‘unwanted’.

Single mothers are still stigmatized in many places throughout the country, also in Jakarta. The stigma hinders young women from seeking new partners. Men (single or widower) also are sometimes hesitant to develop serious relationships with single mothers although the women are very attractive. This may stem from the reluctance to raise another man’s child(ren), or from the fear of facing prejudice among his family in relation to the woman’s past. But when a woman (never married or single mother) is asked to marry a widower it is expected that she would have no problem taking care of herhusband’s child(ren).

Modern societies in Jakarta and other big cities are less rigid in maintaining social and religious norms and appreciate gender equity and are beginning to be more accepting of single mothers. Without the social stigma those young women get more freedom to continue working and to start a new relationship.

In the West, divorced men usually maintain contact with the children, being aware that child rearing is not the responsibility and right of mothers alone. The fathers see the children on a regular basis as agreed by both parties (mother and father). In Indonesia, however, contact between the children and their father is very limited after divorce. Most mothers forbid the children to see their father. The contact with the ex-husband is broken. Even the families from both sides break contact with each other, treating the other party like enemies. Little attention is paid to the importance of a father’s love for the children’s character building process.

Single mothers’ condition

Besides being rejected and socially stigmatized, single mothers also receive economic sanctions. These mothers seldom receive child support from their ex-husbands or partners although it is required by law. This situation forces many single mothers to be overworked.

Unfortunately, many women do not get good education. Like in most developing countries, in Indonesia (especially in rural areas) education is not a basic right but a privilege for women. With low education and gender bias, many women get low-paying and part-time jobs. Single mothers with low education face the extra burden of social stigma and alienation that can drive them into poverty.

In the United States and United Kingdom, for instance, the number of single mothers living in poverty is higher than single fathers. Poverty affects the health of the mothers and children. Lack of nutrition deteriorates the children’s physical and intellectualevelopment.

With lack of attention from the mother who works long hours and little supervision from the family, children grow up raised by the people around them. Such a situation is often not favorable for the children’s development.

Given the difficulties for single mothers to provide care, education and love to their children, we need to praise the ones who have succeeded in raising their children single handedly until they become useful and respected members of society.

*) Solita Sarwono is a psycologist and public health educator
     Santo Koesoebjono is an economist and demographer.

Pubished in Tempo, February 24, 2013

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