A Difficult and Brave Decision

In 2014, Holt’s content manager had the opportunity to talk with a group of Holt-supported single mothers and their babies. Read about her time spent with these brave mothers who chose to parent their children against all odds.

Seoul, South Korea — At the Clover House, a government-subsidized apartment built over shops in a charming, contemporary neighborhood in downtown Seoul, four women live with their babies — three of them boys, and one girl. They share a kitchen and common area, and each have their own rooms. The apartment is bright and airy, though sparsely furnished, and has a big central playroom for the babies and a neatly kept kitchen with a table for four. The women divide chores equally and take turns caring for each other’s babies while the others run errands or go to class. On the weekday afternoon that we visit, two of the moms and the director of the Clover House are home.

One of the moms circles the play area rocking and cooing one of the other mother’s babies, a pudgy little guy in a striped onesie with wild black hair and dark, lively eyes. He wants his own mama, but she does her best to comfort him. A college-age girl with shoulder-length hair and delicate features, she is friendly but has a sharp edge. Moving with purpose, confidence and exuberance, she is not at all the poster image of a teenage mom — exhausted and scared and unsure what to do with a newborn. Here, she receives counseling and support post-delivery. She also has the opportunity to participate in vocational training to gain skills she would need to earn an income and support her child. Mostly, the shelter offered her a safe place to stay with her baby — without having to worry about diapers or food or where to sleep.

“I love him so much.”

single mother about why she chose to parent her son

“I love him so much,” the young mother says when asked why she chose to parent her son. It seems the answer any mom would give when asked such a silly, obvious question. But in Korea, it’s not an unreasonable question to ask.

The stigma against unwed mothers in Korea is so pervasive and powerful that should they choose to parent, they will likely face discrimination in all areas of their lives. They will struggle to get jobs or go to college. Their families may shun them — as is the case with all of the women in this story. “None of their mothers support their decision,” explains the director of the Clover House in Seoul, a warm and spirited woman whose job is mostly administrative, but who seems a surrogate mother to the four young women and a grandmother of sorts to their babies. “In most cases,” she says of the women, “they lose contact with their families.”

The young mother I meet shares that once she earns her high school diploma, she plans to become a nurse. “She would need to get a scholarship,” says DJ You, the Holt Korea staff member who accompanies us on our visit. “She needs to figure out a way, but it will be hard.” Most likely, even an institution as progressive as a university would discriminate against her for being an unwed mom. “They will immediately think, ‘Oh, bad girl,’” DJ says, “even though she may be a better mom (than a married mom).”

Even the four babies will likely face discrimination growing up as the children of unwed moms in Korea — a country whose entrenched Confucian beliefs place great emphasis on bloodlines. Without a father, these children have no identity — no family, no heritage, no place to belong. So no, for these women, the decision to parent is not at all easy. It is exceedingly courageous. And in many cases, love is not enough.

As I study the face of the young mother who is so graciously sharing her story with us, I think her son will grow up like her — strong and brave when confronted by prejudice, confident and assured in his decisions. But I worry about where other young moms like these women would go without the support Holt Korea provides.

So no, for these women, the decision to parent is not at all easy. It is exceedingly courageous. And in many cases, love is not enough.

Fortunately, today, Holt continues to operate homes like Clover House — providing free housing for mothers who choose to parent their babies. Holt Korea’s top priority is empowering women to parent — even offering vocational training and education so that they can independently support their children.

 “…If single moms can raise their children, that is a happy thing for the adoption agency,” explains another Holt Korea staff member who works in the international adoption program.

The Clover House director with a child in care.

Today, Holt Korea operates four Clover Houses, in Seoul and Dajeon. “Free housing is a huge benefit,” DJ says, “especially in Seoul. It’s very expensive to rent an apartment in Seoul.” The mothers will still have opportunities to receive vocational training and stay for a minimum of two years. If they are not ready to be independent after two years, they can stay longer. Once they have a stable job, they can apply for free housing from the government — easing their financial burden.

Although finding work will be difficult, Holt Korea can help them find jobs with companies sympathetic to single mothers. One Mexican restaurant run by a Korean-American couple with a heart for single moms offers excellent benefits and a flexible schedule — and the pay, DJ jokes, is even better than that of a social worker like her.

As we prepare to leave the Clover House in Seoul, two of the young mothers return home carrying shopping bags. Giggling, they stampede up the stairs of the apartment building, kick off their shoes at the door and rush in to drop their groceries and pick up their babies. The boy in striped pajamas quiets down in his mother’s arms. Perched on his mom’s hip, he finally takes notice of us and stares in wide-eyed curiosity as she stands in the doorway asking questions about where we’re from. She wears stylish dark-rimmed glasses and speaks in near-perfect English. We say her son is so adorable, and a glow instantly spreads across her face — a proud mom delighted to show off her baby. She seems so strong, so confident, so capable. And we leave feeling hopeful for the mothers and their babies at the Clover House.

Since this story was published in 2014, over 100 women have stayed at a Clover House in Korea. Today, all of them continue to care for their babies — all on their own.

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