Six years ago, I suddenly and irrevocably found myself single and very much alone with four young children aged three months, 18 months, three years and barely five years.
Here I was, in Australia, my home away from home for nearly 14 years, with no family and minimal support. Most people in my wider Muslim community had no idea of my circumstances. I went on the Sole Parenting Pension for a year while I tried to cope with my new life circumstances.
I was in the final stages of training as an Obstetrician and Gynaecologist (O&G) and with no help. I had to make the difficult decision to leave O&G and switch training programs to General Practice full time, placing my eldest in school and the other three in long daycare.
My days began at 5am, we were out the door by 6:30am and I was at work by 8am. I learnt to batch cook on weekends so as to feed us all on arriving home, before getting the children into bed, washing up and sitting down most evenings to study for two to three hours for the impending GP examinations. I did it as best I could – alone.I still do.
During this time, well-meaning friends offered advice such as "Don't leave it too long to marry again, these kids need a father figure" and "You aren't getting any younger!"
In the early days, I had a man contact me about a work related issue, which turned into an "I'd like to get to know you if you're single" chat that turned to "Oh you have kids?" to "How many? Four!?" He backed away soon after.
Another time, a friend texted me to ask if I'd be interested in meeting her brother, as he had noticed me. I had to laugh, I'd have cried otherwise. There I was, exhausted from working full time, caring singlehandedly for my four children 24/7 and barely coping - the last thing on my mind was meeting someone. Instead I said no, politely.
A year or so later this friend convinced me to try dating websites. "Where are we, as practising Muslim chicks, going to meet men?”, she said. “At bars???" She kept sending me links to guys she thought were potential matches, and threatened to create a profile for me until I finally agreed to try it for a month.
Needless to say, there aren't many Muslim specific sites, especially not observant Muslims. And most weren't from Australia.
The first guy I thought might be genuine turned out to be a scammer and asked for money after the initial airy fairy stuff.
The next guy was nine years younger and told me "age is just a number" etc. He lived in the U.K., but said he was willing to move. It all fell apart when he told his mum about me and she vetoed his choice of a single mother of four. So he ghosted on me. I was gutted and after having buried myself in work, kids and life, he contacted me out of the blue six months later to confess that he couldn't stand up to his parents, he had just gotten married and apologised. I decided I had better things to do with my time, and moved on from online dating.
It all fell apart when he told his mum about me and she vetoed his choice of a single mother of four. So he ghosted on me. I was gutted.
Non-Muslim colleagues and friends would ask if they could set me up, and ask "does he have to be Muslim?" and "What if he was willing to convert to be with you?" Others suggested casual sex and Friends With Benefits (FWB) options, and said that the Islamic tradition and religious requirement of celibacy outside of marriage was "abnormal" and "cruel". My non-Muslim, gay and straight friends and I had many debates over these issues, and it forced me to re-examine my chosen values - could I do FWB? Could I do casual hookups? Was Islam the wrong choice for me? Being faced with these challenges and debates, I realised that Muslim or not, FWB and casual hookups weren't my values and never had been, and so it wasn't my faith that was the problem.
Last year, almost three years after the UK man, I did meet someone quite unexpectedly - Muslim, similar age, established, local. Over some months he kept initiating brief chats but wouldn't take it any further until I finally asked him if I was meant to read something into it. His response? "...I can't see myself being a stepdad to four kids". Although I initially took it at face value, he ultimately bailed.
The statistics seem to indicate that single parent families, mostly single mother families, is a fast growing demographic yet we as a society seem slow to accommodate or to revise our view of "them" all as destitute. The men often move on with their lives, re-partner and sire more children or use care in the form of paid nannies or female relatives while mothers are left with career sacrifices, financial disadvantage and children who may end up growing without appropriate male role models. Many single mothers are victims of abusive marriages and ongoing trauma to them and their children from it, while trying to make ends meet and raise the children as best they can.
In media we have snide comments such as those by David Archibald about "lazy and ugly single mothers unable to keep a man," while on the other hand we have stories about single mothers choosing poor partners who may have groomed them to access their children, or who end up harming their children in other ways.
Most of the single mothers I know are anything but lazy or ugly. We don't have much time to navel gaze, or to sit and complain, so we simply get on with life and with doing the best we can. We cry sometimes from the sheer overwhelm, the isolation while surrounded by the noise and chaos that is kids without a break, the loneliness of having no loving, vested adult to share our children's accomplishments with, to worry over our children's struggles with … so we share them with each other- in solo parent groups. We commiserate and we share our triumphs and tribulations. As I like to call it, we sit on our pity pot briefly, and then we get up and carry on. When people say "I don't know how you do it", I say I don't have any other choice that is acceptable to me.
I don't have time to waste and any man who can't appreciate that and value it, doesn't get it and won't get it. Move on.
Over the past six years I’ve learnt a few things, especially as a single mum in a minority group:
* I don't have time to waste and any man who can't appreciate that and value it, doesn't get it and won't get it. Move on.
* Blended families are hard work; men without kids of their own are probably equally hard work, in a different way so there probably won't be a honeymoon period.
* The relationship/marriage isn't about the kids, it's about you and your partner, long after the kids have grown up and it's just the two of you; so if the two of you aren't strong, it won't work.
* The kids will take up 80% of your time, so you need someone unselfish and service oriented
* If he's into you, nothing will stop him pursuing you, not your kids, not it being "inconvenient" etc.
* Kids grow up faster than we can say boo - just because it's hard now doesn't mean it'll always be this hard
* Rather than "settle", I'm better off in my current situation. A man would have to add to our lives to be worth it.
The last few years have been some of the hardest in my life, my children have had to make many sacrifices and deal with changes they didn't want - a mother who wasn't there much, worked "too much" and always seems to be tired. At the same time, they've also learnt, I hope, grit and resilience. They've had countless opportunities to see, I hope, that in order to succeed, you have to keep showing up. They've learnt that relationships take a lot of work and that love is a doing word.
Dr Imaan Joshi is a guest on this week's episode of Insight, which asks why being single is on the rise in Australia.
A version of this piece originally appeared in Mamamia.