When Saeed Ahmed Khan’s wife passed away in 1996, he had to step into her shoes and raise their eight children by himself. The youngest was only one and a half years old at the time of her mother’s death, and the eldest was 18. Khan chose not to remarry.
He and his wife had moved to Karachi from a small town in Punjab soon after their marriage, seeking the best education and future for their children. Despite constant family pressure to return to his hometown, Khan stayed in Karachi in order to materialise the dream he had dreamed with his beloved wife for their children’s success.
The infant, Kiran, is now 27. A journalist and travel guide by profession, she has a special bond with her father. Her sister Madiha says, “When Kiran steps inside the house after returning from work, she starts calling out, ‘Abbu ji! Abbu ji!’ until he comes out to greet her.” Madiha says with a laugh, “I haven’t seen her missing our mother or going through her picture albums. That is how beautifully Abbu jan has filled the void [our mother left behind]. We all are indebted to him for his selflessness.”
Life changes when you become a parent, but more so when you are a single parent. Adapting to this role is never easy because it changes one’s priorities, choices and identity, according to another single dad, 40-year-old Muhammad Ali Rehman. When you are a single father in a society that, by and large, still adheres to traditional gender roles, you may strike people as somewhat of an oddity. You are taking on the responsibility of raising your children, something which our conservative society sees as the job of a mother.
Fathers who raise their children on their own are often easy targets of criticism as they take on a role that does not gel with gender stereotypes. However, the commitment of and sacrifices made by some single dads are heart-warming
But are single dads a rarity? Do men shrug off their responsibility when they find themselves alone, with children to raise? The dedicated father and husband Saeed Ahmed Khan believes otherwise. “There are many single fathers who are proudly raising their families single-handedly,” he says. “People just don’t know about them. They are the unsung heroes.”
However, Rehman has not met that many single dads like himself. The journey to fatherhood changed him and his life completely. It has clearly given him a new identity in fact.
“When you become a single father,” Rehman says, “you do everything that once seemed impossible. You can function without sleep, change diapers within seconds, potty-train your kids like an expert, and shop for hours for matching outfits. You become a cook, a teacher, a fashion designer, a home-remedy expert, all at once,” Rehman elaborates.
Rehman’s wife parted ways with him in 2014, leaving behind their two sons, Muhammad Izaan and Muhammad Usman. Rehman left a lucrative job in Saudi Arabia to be with his children in Pakistan. He became a stay-at-home dad in the initial years so that he could give sufficient time and attention to his sons.
When people start a new chapter of their lives after marriage, they expect it to be a happily-ever-after tale like the ones they have read in their childhood or watched in movies. However, reality is more complicated. Sometimes, the relationship does not work out; other times, couples are separated by death. Hence, when one finds themself all alone as a single parent, it is overwhelming to accept and adapt to this new way of life.
Divorce is hard and has long-term effects, says Rehman. It does not only disintegrate a family, but breaks every member of the family individually, he adds. While he was coping with his own pain, he realised how badly his older son, Izaan, had been affected.
Izaan, who was then four years old, became quiet. He lost his appetite, focus and interest in everything he used to like. It was alarming to see. “That is when I stood up for my children and vowed to raise them like warriors, and not just survivors,” Rehman says.
Javed Khan, 72, stepped into his wife’s shoes when she was diagnosed with chronic liver disease and was bedridden in 1991. His daughter, Zarin, tells Eos, “My father not only looked after his three young children, he was also the sole caregiver to my mother throughout her illness. He also managed his job, tuitions and house chores all on his own,” she says.
When Zarin’s mother passed away in 2000, her father became a better version of her mother. “We never felt the need to tell him when we were feeling low or sick. He somehow knew it magically. We are still surprised at how beautifully he stepped into our mother’s shoes.” The biggest sacrifice Zarin thinks her father has made is staying single and raising his children like a “2-in-1” parent.
Her father maintained a perfect equilibrium in his work and family life. Zarin says she and her siblings never felt neglected because of his work commitments. “Since my father was a teacher, he used to reach home by 3pm. We were busy in our lives and studies. In fact, he was the one who was neglected. There were times when I felt he needed the attention of a partner,” she says.
Zarin laments that society is ruthless to single fathers. They encounter discouragement and demotivation frequently. “People watch single fathers with a critical eye and start blaming and shaming them if something goes wrong.” Zarin, however, is grateful and proud for the opportunities Javed Khan afforded his daughters.
“My mother wanted my elder sister to become a doctor. Today, she is a famous paediatric oncologist abroad. My father faced many hardships, but ensured that her dream came true. Whatever we are today, is all because of our father,” she says.
Yet Javed Khan still thinks that he has not done enough. Experts call this innate fear ‘dad-guilt’. It comes from within, but is amplified when a father is faced with shaming and criticism. Many fathers are unable to appreciate themselves because of society’s finger-pointing.
Our society generally lacks compassion, and single parents are no exception.
Atta Qazi, 58, was taunted for taking a long leave from work after the sudden death of his wife in 2013. “When I returned to work, my boss said to me, ‘No one dies with a dying person. But, it seems like you have died with your wife.’”
Qazi quit his job and raised his three children with the support of his relatives. His daughter, who was then seven years old, went through great trauma after her mother’s untimely death. “She used to say that she is connected with her mother through Wi-Fi. It was so difficult to bring my children back to life.” Qazi shares a great bond with his children and is grateful to his family for sticking by his side in his time of need.
When fathers assume a bigger role in parenting, they also assume the risk of being shamed for their style of parenting — criticism is not just limited to mothers. Single fathers, who are adapting to a major change after losing a partner, may try different methods of parenting and will face criticism for their choices. Rehman has been a victim of dad-shaming but he says it never bothers him. “People will always find a way to criticise,” he says, “so I turn a deaf ear to them.”
Fathers such as Rehman focus on the positive aspect of their parental role. He believes he is the luckiest person to have become the ‘default parent’ of his children and receive their love, care and respect. “Not everyone gets a chance to enjoy pure love,” he reckons. “It is a wonderful experience watching [my sons] grow so closely and achieving all their milestones,” says Rehman.
Both Izaan and Usman, growing up under the care and supervision of their father, are witty, cheerful and imaginative boys. They see their father as the kindest, most caring and selfless person who fulfils all their wishes even when they are not communicated, as if he were a magician of sorts. “They get surprised when I already know what they are about to say or want,” Rehman laughs.
The packed lunches the boys’ bring to school are quite popular among their friends. Rehman wakes up early in the morning to prepare his kids’ favourite food so they never feel left out during lunchtime. “My friends get surprised that those delicious goodies are made by my father,” shares Izaan. “It feels good when they compliment Baba for being an amazing cook.”
The close-knit family of three makes special arrangements for occasions such as Eid and birthdays. They wear coordinated clothes and choose a theme for each of their birthdays, while their daddy bakes the cake and decorates the house.
“I am a pastry chef by profession, thanks to my kids,” Rehman chuckles. “My children used to ask me to cook their favourite dishes. This random cooking improved my skills. I did a professional course and opened my own home-based bakery, Fraiche, so I can be with my children all the time,” Rehman tells Eos.
Zarin corroborates the positive impact of single parenting on her. She has inherited the perseverance and can-do attitude of her father. “I think I am much more confident and resilient because of the way I was brought up by my father,” she says. “I remember when I had to attend a meeting abroad, I was a little reluctant. But my father encouraged me to go and explore the world.”
“Since ours was a male-dominated household, maids were reluctant to work,” Saeed Ahmed Khan’s daughter Madiha tells me. Saeed used to perform all the domestic chores himself with the help of his children, while caring for Madiha’s youngest sibling, Kiran, simultaneously.
Contrary to common perceptions about children of single parents being shy and less confident, Madiha believes that being raised by a father alone has had a tremendous impact on her personality.
“All of us five sisters have the qualities of a man,” she giggles. “We are strong, fearless, confident, problem solvers, decision makers and career-oriented. While women worry about society and are stuck in the ‘loag kya kahein ge?’ [what will people say?] loop, we defy the odds like queens,” she says.
Saeed Ahmed Khan, now 79, looks back at his long journey as a single father and says, “The last 26 years feel like a long, thorny path which I have walked all alone. I fell, brushed myself off and stood up again, pushing myself every day to be a supportive parent for all my children.
“Now that they are all grown-ups and accomplished, I am so relieved that I did not give up.”
The writer is a freelance journalist. She tweets @Tanzeel09
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 5th, 2022