How much is too much? Where do you draw the line? Kids, and parents, are navigating their way to new normals when it comes to privacy, consumption, and even how the family evolves after divorce.
The word that Charu Sharma* is most afraid of using in front of her parents isn’t an expletive. It’s ‘stepdad’.
“Two years ago, fighting about a curfew, I said he couldn’t tell me what to do because he was just my stepdad,” says the 21-year-old mass media student, giggling. “I was just saying it to get my way, but it became a whole thing. Dad and mom sat me down to explain why that word doesn’t apply to us.”
The truth is, Charu adds, she would never use the word ‘step’ in seriousness. “I feel closer in some ways to my eldest brother, Abhinav*, than my younger blood sibling, because he’s 34 and is very protective of me,” she says.
Charu now lives in suburban Mumbai, with mom, dad and her brothers from her dad’s earlier marriage. Her younger brother lives with papa, her biological father. The entire family meets on special occasions.
Part of the reason for the harmony across the extended family is that Charu’s parents made it a point to involve the children at every stage of its evolution.
“My brother and I saw a counsellor during the divorce,” says Charu, who was 15 at the time. Two years on, when Charu’s mother fell in love with her current husband, she made sure Charu got to know him and approved.
“We would meet for lunches and go to movies,” Charu says. “Papa even came with us a few times because he wanted to show me that there was no disloyalty in having a good equation with dad.”
The Sharmas’ unconventional family situation is finding mirrors across the country as divorce rates in India soar — from about 1 in 1,000 marriages ten years ago to 13 in 1,000 today.
As their parents remarry, children are finding themselves with a sort of new-age joint family, made up of multiple parents, twice as many grandparents, new uncles and aunts, and half-siblings from new parents’ previous marriages.
Many of these kids are finding that, with open communication and counselling, the new format has gone from being potentially traumatic to emotionally fulfilling.
“There are three factors that have led to kids handling multiple families so well,” says Delhi-based child psychologist Mina Ete. “First, parents are much more sensitised to how conflict affects children. Second, counselling has become normative, which means that children have experts who can guide them through this process. Third, though there is still a lot of stigma attached to divorce in Indian society, there is a movement in both popular culture and real life to focus on love marriages, second chances, and non-conventional families. So I’ve had young patients who say that sure, it’s unpleasant to have their family split up, but their parents deserve a chance to be happy.”
Clinical psychologist Seema Hingorrany adds that parents who consistently set their personal issues aside have the best success rates in helping children adjust to extended families.
Chennai orthodontist Pratikshit Gupta*, 27, for instance, is still haunted by memories of his parents’ acrimonious divorce when he was 16. “For five years, it was awful,” he adds. “I felt disloyal to my father when I spent time with my stepfather. It was only when they began to get along that I felt I could breathe again.”
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By contrast, Hingorrany has a 14-year-old Delhi-based patient, a girl, whose parents separated when she was 10. “They brought her in for therapy right away. She now has step-siblings, extended relatives and so on but has adjusted wonderfully. She bakes and goes hiking with her stepmother, a bond that is encouraged by her mother. This kind of attention and effort is appreciated by children,” she says.
So it was for Saurabh (last name withheld), a 20-year-old BCom student, after the death of his father when he was five.
His mother remarried two years later, but his father’s family still considers him part of their tribe too. “I recently went to a trip to the US with my paternal uncle and grandparents and all my cousins,” he says.
While lawyers and counsellors say young children and adult offspring find it easiest to deal with divorce and remarriage, with teenagers finding it the most difficult, they add that it is possible to ease the transition no matter what age the child is.
Hingorrany, for instance, says the turning point for her Delhi patient came when her entire family, biological and step, came together for a Christmas dinner.
“She came in for her next session beaming,” she adds. “It was slightly awkward, but they played games and were together as a family, and that was all she had really wanted.”
(* Names changed on request)
With inputs from Anubhuti Matta
DOS AND DON’TS: NAVIGATING THE REMARRIAGE MAZE
1. Ideally, leave a gap of at least two years between the divorce and the introduction of a new parent.
2. Don’t get carried away by a new relationship. A child who has been through a divorce will need time to adjust to the idea of a new family.
3. Make space for your kid/s to spend time with the proposed spouse or family; let them experience what life together would be like.
4. Don’t dismiss or belittle dissenting opinions. Let your kids be heard. If they raise issues you cannot resolve, involve a counsellor.