Single parents changing Korean society
“A taxi driver asked my daughter where her father was,” said Ms. Shin, 45. “She didn’t reply fast enough, so I said quickly that we were divorced. The driver said I was shameless to speak so quickly about divorce.”
According to the National Statistical Office, Korea has an estimated 1.2 million single-parent households, defined as divorced parents, widows and unmarried mothers with children under the age of 18. The number of parents of children born out of wedlock is estimated at 120,000. Women are particularly prevalent: Single mothers outnumber single fathers by a margin of four to one.
About one third of single parents are divorced, according to Hwang Eun-suk, the head of Single Parent, an organization for single parents. “The divorce rate has been rising for more than 10 years,” she said. The economic crisis in 1997 contributed to a wave of divorces ― men lost their jobs, and the strain broke many marriages.
Despite their social stigmatization, single mothers are increasingly making themselves noticed. They’re also coming together for mutual support.
Ms. Shin divorced in 2003 after six years of marriage and five years of raising her daughter, Seo-yun. A writer, she has since published a book about her experiences, called “Single Mom Story.”
Asked why she wrote the book, Ms. Shin said, “I wanted to share my courage with other single moms so they could have a free and bold life.”
While she was writing her book, publishing poems and working all day at a nearby college library, Ms. Shin left her daughter with a municipal daycare center. The center was open until midnight, but she sometimes worked later than that and needed someone at home to care for her daughter. “I went to a cafe near the school and asked students if they could help,” she said.
One of her biggest worries is the prejudice her daughter might face. She says she tells her daughter that a person’s life is as individual as her face, meaning she shouldn’t be ashamed to be different.
Obviously, money is the biggest concern for most single mothers. Many divorced mothers from conservative families cannot rely on their parents because the social stigma has poisoned their family relationships.
But it’s the small stuff, the comments and stares, that have a cumulative effect.
“I heard that when you move, if you don’t have any men’s stuff the movers will look down on you,” said one 40-year-old single mother, “so I borrowed my brother’s suit and shoes.”
Another single mother who gave her name as Ms. Jeong, 30, said she suffered from depression after she heard that she was rumored to be somebody’s mistress.
The social stigma against single mothers has been somewhat ameliorated by a slew of television dramas that show the mothers in a more understanding light. The drama “Yellow Handkerchief,” which stars Lee Tae-ran as a single mother, is one good example, though not the only. Other dramas to touch on the subject include “Only You,” “Wonderful Life” and “Single Again.”
“Single parents made a difficult decision to raise their children by themselves and thus are responsible for their children,” said Ms. Hwang at Single Parent. “If the society helps them a little, they can have a healthy family.”
“Go ahead and print my real name,” said Kim Min-ju, 28. Ms. Kim, a single mother, lives in a shelter called Aeranwon, which caters to single mothers. “I work harder than anyone else. I want to survive and change people’s perceptions of single mothers.
“I have a 26-month-old son. I think about him all the time. My child’s only hope lies in me. I can do anything,” she said.
Ms. Kim said she couldn’t bear to abort her baby, but when he was born she considered giving it up for adoption. “In the end, I couldn’t give him up,” she said.
Last year, a beauty product company launched a project to help single mothers; Ms. Kim was fortunate enough to land a spot as a trainee to become a hairstylist.
“I’m not well off, and I might not have a bright future, but I have a dream,” she said. “I could have just gotten a job at a restaurant, but I wanted to invest in my future.”
According to Aeranwon, the percentage of single mothers who chose to raise their babies by themselves among the 200 single mothers accepted in the shelter shot up to 30 percent last year from 3.6 percent in 1993.
Though single mothers are perhaps more noticeable, the number of single-parent fathers is also growing, and with it increased social attention.
Son Yeong-cheol, 35, is a single father of a 19-month-old daughter. He’s also the operator of an Internet “nursery cafe” with 4,700 members. He writes posts daily on the site and shares information with other parents.
Another single father gave his name only as Mr. Kim, 40. He divorced his wife five years ago, saying it was because she was addicted to Internet chatting. He now devotes himself to taking care of his two children, one of whom is a third-graded and the other an eighth-grader.
He says that every year he has to explain to his children’s new teachers why he, and not their mother, is overseeing the children’s care. The teachers are unused to dealing with a child’s father.
“The divorce left me seriously wounded, but I gained something, too,” he said. “I realized how precious my children are to me.”
by Lee Ji-young, Limb Jae-un