When Gazal Raina and her husband got divorced few years ago, it was tough. But what added to her suffering was the estrangement with her adult son. “As a mother, I won't give up on making efforts to contact my son. But it's not easy when your child doesn't respond. Sadly, no one can really understand how damaging estrangement can be to one's sense of self,” she tells TNM.
It was a lonely experience, Gazal recounts. And that’s what made her realise that so many others like her would also be in need of support. And so, in April last year, the Chennai-based working professional formed ‘Milaap’, a support group for non-custodial parents and also parents who are estranged or separated from their children.
Milaap presently has a chapter with 10 members each in Chennai and Delhi. The Facebook group, Milaap - Community of non-custodial families - is a modest group of 45 but also has some members from other countries.
“We have people who are divorced or separated from their partners and don’t have custody of their children, or are unable to spend enough time with their children or see them as often as they like. But it’s the cases of estrangement that are the hardest to talk about,” Gazal says. “A lot of times when I talk about my own estrangement, people will often message me later and say they are in a similar position. It’s very traumatic when your child just does not want to talk or communicate with you.”
The lack of social support
According to the members, Milaap has become a place where they have found support that was lacking in other social circles.
For instance, one of the members, Shikha*, says that Milaap made her feel understood and supported when she made an unconventional decision while going through her divorce in 2018. “My daughter is very attached to her paternal grandparents and the whole environment there. I didn’t want to uproot her from that just to massage my ego,” she tells TNM.
And while Shikha’s friends and family strongly told her otherwise, she chose to give up the custody of her daughter so that she could continue living in the household that she was more comfortable in. “Those were some very tough months, because I was not finding empathy or support for the decision that I wanted to make,” Shikha says.
“The whole world was saying that I was wrong in giving up primary custody of my child as a mother. But I knew that in this group (Milaap), I would find support. My story would be empathised with, my choices would be supported, and that would give me some strength,” the 30-year-old adds. She joined Milaap in May 2019.
While Shikha has access to her young daughter, she has her own fears and insecurities about parenting. “As my daughter grows up, she will also have questions. She will be moulded by the social narratives about ‘normal’ families. Even now, she asks me, ‘Am I not your friend? Is that why you are away from me?’ I can deal with these fears better when I have a support group like Milaap,” she says.
Milaap also provides members with access to counsellors – who do video streams, allow members to ask anonymous questions, give tips on grieving, handling their communication and relationship with their former partners and so on – which members like Shikha appreciate.
The support group has more men than women in the group. “Because even in the eyes of the law, women are seen as natural caregivers compared to men. So, a lot of times, the male partners may lose custody of the child,” Gazal says. She also points out how being disallowed from seeing a child becomes a reason for people to become more embittered with their partners or spouses.
A case in point is Sumit*, another member of the group. He separated from his wife in 2018. However, what really hurts him is that ever since the separation, he hasn’t been able to meet his schoolgoing son more than thrice.
For Sumit, Milaap has been a place where he has found support as he tries to be there for his parents, his son, and himself. Separation, and the ongoing proceedings for the divorce have been hard on everyone. “People assume that I have done something wrong. If Gazal and the support group were not there, I don’t know where I would be now. It helps knowing you’re not alone… It helps when some of us are down, the others give us their positivity and motivation,” Sumit says.
Finding support and empathy
Gazal explains that one of the most common feelings they see in their members is that of failure. “The sense of being a parent or a spouse becomes so intertwined with your own identity. But a difficult or failed relationship does not make you, as a person, a failure. We try to focus on the healing, moving on from the past, and reinforcing the idea that just because your child no longer lives with you, does not make you any less of a mother or father.”
At Milaap, the members have found camaraderie and empathy that they haven’t been able to find elsewhere, Gazal observes.
Milaap’s goals are to firstly, normalise its members’ experiences, and secondly, to promote the idea of co-parenting. Co-parenting is where parents, even when they are not romantically involved, decide to share the responsibility of bringing up the child. This can happen post separation, estrangement or divorce as well.
Divorce or separation of his/her parents is a difficult experience for any child. And Gazal argues that despite this, it is a child’s right to have access to the love and care of both parents. “Except in cases where it is proven that there has been abuse or violence, cases where the court has put a restraining order, a parent too has the right to see, talk and their child. Being deprived of it is a form of emotional abuse for the parent and the child both,” she argues.
“We do try to focus on issues like having the members recognise their own contribution in the failure of their relationship with their partner. But they get pretty mad at me when I bring this up,” chuckles Gazal. “It’s a tough journey. Accepting what has happened and moving forward is not easy – that I have realised in my own journey in itself. Hopefully we can all help each other down this path.”