‘Amma, do you love Uncle P?’ Imaad asked me one day when he was nine. Uncle P was one of my closest friends at that time. ‘I love him as we love friends, Imu. He is very dear to me,’ I replied. ‘No, I mean do you “love” love Uncle P?’ he persisted. I wasn’t sure what to say. There was definitely more than mere friendship between Uncle P and me (in hindsight, I can say that we were deeply in love with each other), but I was surprised and unsure about how much to tell Imaad.

I asked him why he wanted to know this. He replied, ‘Amma, I’m asking because I love Uncle P. I really wouldn’t mind if you wanted to marry him. I think we would be happy together, all three of us.’ Despite my child’s innocent hope, Uncle P and I never worked out and we parted with a lot of unnecessary bitterness which affected Imaad as well. We were able to resolve some of that bitterness and float back to a place of familiarity and friendship after a year of silence, some awkward conversations, a few non-date dates and some brutal honesty with each other.

Most of the work back to friendship was done by Uncle P, to be honest. I was too emotionally shaken to be calm about the whole thing. It is much easier now. We meet once every few months, have a cuppa chai when he’s in town or we catch up on the phone. He still makes me laugh a lot.

I learnt a lot from that experience as a thirty-five-year-old single mother trying to find love again. One of the things I learnt was that whenever I felt like I had found or lost love, I wouldn’t be the only one finding and losing it. My son would feel it almost as acutely as I did.

His yearning for a father figure would probably always make him hope and that hope would bring him as much sadness as it would bring me when the dream faded. Adults tend to believe that children don’t understand things like relationships and romance, that they are too innocent to notice. I feel that it is this intuitive innocence, which is natural in all children, that makes them acutely aware of any changes in relationship structures around them, anything that is new or anything that has ceased to be. And when they feel and know so much, it is important that we talk to them as honestly as possible.

Yes, we cannot always treat our children as our friends and confidantes. It is too great a burden to bear for them. But we can ease their worries, answer their questions with appropriate truths and most of all, we can show them how to be graceful in love and loss. And none of this is easy to do. The way we transmit, translate and share our thoughts about relationships pretty much depends on our internal frame of reference.

Although this is not a book for single parents, I believe that the way single parents navigate their relationships and unique challenges in general does have an impact on their children. Perhaps if we consciously monitor ourselves as we ford the crosscurrents of relationships, we will help provide some degree of clarity to our children as they observe and absorb.

Single parents often become the locus of their children’s lives and by virtue of that, whatever they do is in the full glare of the spotlight. With that in mind, I want to share a few things I have learnt in my nine-year-long career of dating as a single mum.

After a big breakup, divorce or death of a partner, please take time to heal and introspect For the longest time, my internal frame of reference about relationships was an either/or frame. That if one has a steady romantic relationship, it is everything or nothing, and it can only be good or bad. And by translation that also meant that a life where you had a good relationship was beautiful, perfect and somehow complete. And when that relationship broke or changed, life itself became damaged or derailed. And this frame didn’t belong to me alone. It has been passed down to me through family, through popular culture and media where romantic relationships are considered a sign of personal success, as something that makes us who we are.

Naturally, one grows up wishing for that kind of love and fulfilment and anything less, like a breakup or a divorce, feels like a personal failure. Reading about anything is like looking at a picture, any picture, and noticing all the colours and shapes in it; but reading about it is a far cry from actually being in that picture. If we were to somehow become a part of that picture, we’d experience the heat or cold, the warmth or lack of it on our skin. I would read about self-worth issues around relationships and just see those sentences, those lines without internalising their full import.

Experiencing tremendous pain in my marriage and then going through divorce was like watching a documentary about Antarctica one day, and the very next day, being in that documentary, surrounded by raging blizzards, severely underprepared, freezing cold and feeling the threat of death at every second. In retrospect, I am glad that by the time Imaad was old enough for me to talk about relationships and dating, enough time had passed for me to process my own pain around my marriage and divorce.

The work that I did also allowed me the long-lens vision to look at the other factors that contribute to young people feeling especially vulnerable and at the mercy of their emotions in relationships. Pain in relationships is like seepage in a room where the source of that seepage lies hidden in some obscure pipe embedded deep within the walls of a house. But the damp and rot of it is felt by all the people in the room. It touches the objects, furniture and even clothes with its dank musty smell.

Everything we experience in relationships in our childhood goes on to influence our role or the way we behave in adult relationships. The way we recognise love and relating, the way we express tenderness or anger, how we perceive conflicts and respond or react during them, how we communicate positive and negative feelings in adult relationships – all of this has roots in the primary relationship between our parents or any other close relationships we witnessed in childhood.

Some of these relational patterns imbibed in childhood are not necessarily healthy. A lot of families may be used to not addressing conflicts and concerns openly while some may avoid addressing them altogether. In some families, parents may extend love and care only when children display complete obedience to parental desires. Some parents are not expressive at all when it comes to affection or displeasure while others may regularly resort to anger and violence as corrective measures.

How we have witnessed our parents perform their roles towards each other and us go on to create a unique sense of how we experience ourselves in a relationship and how we behave.

I grew up in a family where love entailed supreme sacrifice. Love wasn’t something you chose for the sheer joy of it but because you had committed to the idea of it. The story of my parents’ marriage is not mine to tell – at least not yet. But being a minor character in that story, the idea instilled in me was that one kept at relationships and marriage as long as one was alive, that love requires the relinquishing of one’s personal dreams and projects and that the partner, particularly the husband, came first, and the wife needed his protection and care – all of these were like the tag lines of a story in a children’s storybook. And this minor character was watching from the sidelines with wide-eyed wonder, silently lapping up this wondrous tale of love. By the time I was a teenager, the story of love had become the very axis of my being; an axis that was way bigger than I was and bigger than everything else in me.

My tastes, my talents (which I thought were none at all at the time) and reality itself, did not matter as much as this idea of love. One could say that this was a natural hijacking of my personality by my teenage hormones. But, as I look back, my hormones continued to hijack my personality well into my thirties. Even now, I have to fish out the tattered remnants of my personality with the help of all the healing techniques and tough-love friends I know and put myself back together when there is heartbreak.

It has been difficult to treat love or romance as only a part of me and not all of me so that it doesn’t eclipse my work, my child, my family.

I think a large part of my being a hopeless romantic was because I had suffered abuse as a child, which had deeply undermined my sense of self-worth, and I kept looking for approval in relationships. When one grows up with low self-esteem, feeling like a piece of garbage that attracts hurt and disgust, it is hard to love oneself. This is why one tends to seek love and validation from others.

We rely on the way we are perceived by others, their compliments and admiration to make us feel good about ourselves, because nothing else does. And if you add a predilection for romantic poetry and fiction, coupled with the generational stories around love, relationships and marriage, that fictional world becomes one’s ideal. It is a potent and magical mix, that dream partner who always remains just beyond our reach. We see reflections of this in so many fairy tales in which a prince in shining armour or the sleeping princess are the solutions to unhappiness who will change our sorrows into joy and create the life of our dreams.

Excerpted with permission from Unparenting: Sharing Awkward Truths with Curious Kids, Reema Ahmad, Penguin eBury Press.