And so it is evidence of our limited imagination alone that “normal” defines us so rigidly. Even a divorce, when we do swallow it, must adhere to some semblance of this normal. As Priya puts it, “The concept of sole custody is alien. I have to carry my divorce settlement and flash it in everyone’s face.”

This is a situation she faces in every mundane transaction, which she sums up in good humour, “There’s the practical aspect – school admissions, passport renewals, Mahindra holiday lucky draws – basically everything, where you’re asked for your husband to show up. If he’s dead, you’re off the hook. If you’re divorced, it’s like they don’t understand and can’t assimilate the information. Surely he can come for school admissions; he has to sign off on your child’s passport papers.”

And then there is the social aspect. “It is assumed that since I have a child in tow, there must be a husband somewhere. When I say I left him a while back, I get many different reactions. There will be some who’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry’ in the tone you use to pay condolences to the dead. Some will immediately start talking about how divorce is becoming so much more common in India and it’s largely due to the split up of the joint family system and women wanting to work and have independence.”

The single mother syndrome haunts Priya in downright absurd ways. When you hear her talk, you find yourself really listening to the sound of our collective cultural shame. Like when she deconstructs the single-mother-as-hunter trope, “I find that people often think single mothers are on the lookout to get their babies new fathers. That is usually far from the truth.”

Or an attempt at sympathy gone madly askew. “Another strange thing I encounter is that women often start telling me about how they are also almost single mothers, because the husband is so busy. This really annoys me, because they have no idea what single parenting entails. No financial support, no emotional, moral or physical support. You’re a friggin’ one-woman army.”

But nowhere does the gender imbalance affirm its ugly head as when single mothers are compared with single fathers – the men in Priya’s situation. She minces no words. “Single fathers are seen as poor stray puppies that need to be looked after and taken care of. They aren’t expected to do it all alone; they need to find a partner to take care of them, and their children need a mother. This might have nothing to do with how the single father himself behaves or wants things to be, but it is how society mostly responds to them.”

This connects with the “inequity in parenting” that’s prevalent in any case, Priya feels. “Over the years I have been astounded by it time and again. The mother does it all while the father’s life goes on as usual. In the few cases that that’s not true, the father is nearly applauded as a superhero for being so involved. The burden of parenting is rarely split evenly. And hence, I do feel this image of perfect motherhood is glorified everywhere so women can fall into the role and keep the show running. I feel like it’s definitely a patriarchal construct, the ever-loving, ever-sacrificing mother. And women who do motherhood differently, or also take their own needs into account, face a fair amount of judgement.”

Srila, author, academic and professor at a university in Johannesburg, and mother of twin girls Mira and Salome, whose father she divorced, nods along on the judgement part. “When I say that I’m divorced in India, the reaction I always get is, ‘Oh, poor girls. They have to grow up without their dad.’ And I just nod along sadly. ‘Ya’. If I were to explain the whole thing – that they’re with me four nights, and with him, three, because that’s the arrangement we’ve worked out – it would be even more bizarre for them to process. When I tell the desis I meet here [Jo’burg], they’re always like, ‘What? How could you have ever agreed to that?’ The sense I get is that I must obviously not be a very invested mother, because how else could I have agreed to this arrangement?”

Srila goes on to share her humour-laced coping mechanism too. “I always say things like, ‘Oh, he fought hard for it.’ Or if I’m in a funny mood, I just say, ‘It’s great, actually, because I get three nights on my own.’ I mean, I might as well, I’m being judged as a bad mother anyway. There’s no winning here!”

On the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, which maps stressful life events in an adult’s lifetime to the possibility of illness linked with stress, divorce occupies spot number two, second only to the death of a child. And yet, in our culture, we continue to think of divorce as some kind of cop-out option taken in haste by selfish individual(s) – all for the sake of the eternal “log kya kahenge” rhetoric that is unarguably the most self-defeating line of argument in the history of arguments. If you’re sane, you would do everything in your power to avoid a life-threatening stressful event. As Priya did. “You convince yourself it’ll work, right?”

It takes a lot then, for a woman to come to the conclusion that it’s now her only option. In Priya’s case, this “lot” was equated with becoming a mother. “I recall the exact moment I took the decision. My then-husband had been in Mexico and he told me he was with someone else there. I still told him to come back, that we’d work it out, and he agreed. He got back and Arhant had pneumonia; he’d been missing his father terribly. [After he had returned,] one night, Arhant woke me up asking for his father, who didn’t seem to be around. When I stepped out of the room, I saw him Skyping with his girlfriend back in Mexico...I don’t get angry very fast, but I went into a mad rage then. I had a flash of our future where this was bound to happen again and again. That’s the moment I decided I needed to leave him for good, that this was over...It’s so weird the reason has to do with my being a mother, because I hadn’t felt a connection to Arhant at all, initially.”

With the turmoil that was going on since his birth, Arhant was almost two by the time Priya felt like a mother in that very visceral way; and again, she recalls the precise moment. “I was doing everything that was required, because all of that is so inbuilt, isn’t it? Doing what’s necessary, getting the job done – from the functional bathing, feeding – to the needs of physical cuddling required. But I was not all there emotionally for him. I would also be resentful of him because I had seen women walk out of marriages, no strings attached, and here I was with a baby I didn’t want in the first place...This one time, my middle sister advised me to pursue what I had wanted to all along – I have had this dream of moving to Mumbai and being a full-time writer ever since I was a child – telling me not to let the presence of the child hamper that. [I] could even consider having my parents as legal guardians. I could be a long-distance mother and be involved only as much as I’d like.”

While this was all in the realm of the possible, and Priya even considered them as choices, she felt a pang she couldn’t name. She would relate with what Anne Enright paints as “The Moment” in her motherhood memoir Making Babies, when a mother decides to leave but she cannot – “You might as well try to walk away from your own arm.”

For Priya, it was in this moment, spread across many a moment when she had considered leaving, even that ultimate exit of suicide. She says, “I think that’s when the switch happened for me – that I cannot leave him and go, that I was unable to do that – I felt very strongly that since I had brought him into this world, the least I can do is try and do the best by him. And the best cannot be leaving him. That’s when it became like a team, or a unit in my head – him and me. We would have support – my parents, my sister and her family – we’re very close, but the unit was him and me. It still is, it always has been.”

Excerpted with permission from Momspeak: The Funny, Bittersweet Story Of Motherhood In India, Pooja Pandey, Penguin Books India.