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The parent trap: govt forms won't allow me to be my mother's daughter

Deepa Kumar | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:16 IST

It's a tiny item on the inside page of the paper for most people. For me, it's a reason to pop the champagne.

The Supreme Court today ruled that an unwed mother can be appointed sole legal guardian of her child without the consent of the father. What's more, under certain circumstances she is not required to disclose the identity of the father in the guardianship petition.

For me, it started with my birth certificate.

After carrying me in her womb for nine months and a painful day in the labour room, Mom went to the ward office to have my birth certificate prepared.

'Father's full name', they asked her first. She answered.

'Mother's name', they asked her after. She answered.

She was irked because my father was absent - from the labour room, and increasingly from her life - but there was no choice. The forms demanded it. On that day, it was decided; I was first my father's daughter, then hers.

Six months later, a tiny shift happened. My parents got a divorce and my father was now officially absent. Ever since, he has been insignificant in my life. The only place he's omnipresent? On all my documents.

On the day I was born, it was decided: I was first my father's daughter, then my mother's

My early years in school were strange. Parental roles tended to be fairly simple back then: fathers paid the fees and mothers squabbled over marks. As a six-year-old, when I saw my mother do both, I was confused. I quizzed her relentlessly. She explained our circumstances but she didn't quite know what to do about my anger. Anger because our family functioned differently from 'normal'. Anger also because I was disappointed in him; the man whose name I diligently wrote out in forms and diaries even though I didn't know him.

It took a few years for the anger to ease. It became customary to write his name without a pang. During my teenage years both society and I grew up a little. I began to understand my mother's battles, and realised that neither my father's absence nor his name's presence was her fault. There was something more fundamentally warped in how society functioned.

Over a few years the default went from 'women stay at home' to 'two salaries make a home'. People who had made snide remarks about my mother wanting to work now lauded her for singlehandedly running a household and raising a child. The only thing that didn't change? My name would still belong to my father.

The day I graduated from college, my mother's eyes were filled with tears of joy - I had come a long way because she had come a long way. She chuckled when she looked at my certificate, the absentee father's name immediately following mine, hers only coming in third. The injustice was glaringly apparent, and constant. She paid for my trip abroad but my passport carried his name. She paid for my driving lessons but my driving license carried his name. Why was it this way, we didn't know; no-one had questioned it so far.

But then I did. I've waged a small personal battle ever since. I've questioned the need to fill his name every time I've been given a form with a mandatory 'father's name' field. I have asked why. I have asked nicely, bickered and even fought to understand the logic.

The answer I get is unsurprising - and it is that there is no answer.

She paid for my trip abroad but my passport carried his name. She paid for driving lessons but my license had his name

No official in any government or other department knows why we follow this rule. No one has explained why my mother is a lesser parent. "It's always been like this," they say.

The answer, though, is everywhere.

Women may be leaders, breadwinners, protectors, enablers - but in public perception, those roles are secondary to their status as daughters, sisters, wives, mothers. What this black-and-white breakup of roles doesn't account for is reality, always grey. There are families where either parent or both carry their weight. Children who owe their lives to one parent more than the other - and that parent isn't always dad. The dynamics of family life don't always subscribe to society's notion of how things should be. Reality is complex; it's now time for this intricate reality to reflect in our procedures as well.

Today's Supreme Court judgement is one such. Last June, the Women and Child Development Ministry of the Maharashtra government issued a resolution allowing children born in the state to use either parent's name in official documents. It's not about her name over his; it's my right to identify myself as I feel is true to me. We fill forms to reflect our unique identities - and choice needs to be factored into that identity.

Today, I can choose who I want to be in many ways, gender included. What I can't? The right to be identified as my mother's daughter. And till that right is mine, I will write my protest on every form I fill.

First published: 6 July 2015, 11:41 IST
Deepa Kumar @dipaah

Bred in Bombay, breaking bread in Delhi, Deepa is the founder of GrassRoute India - an independent, non-partisan organisation that enables dialogue between Members of Parliament and citizens. A former LAMP Fellow, Deepa tracks and writes on Indian legislation and policy. If not found online, Deepa will be lost travelling through India.