In the spring issue of Holt International Magazine, staff writer Billie Loewen wrote an article about the unwed mothers’ shelters Holt supports in South Korea. Over the past few days, I had the opportunity to meet a couple of the women who stayed at one of these shelters and who ultimately chose to parent their children. I also got to see where they go after they leave the shelter and start their lives as independent young single mothers in a culture whose disapproving attitudes toward unwed motherhood make life extremely difficult for them.
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. This young mom has a 12-month old son who, like her three roommates, she delivered while staying at the unwed mothers’ shelter Holt supports in Seoul. There, she received counseling and support pre and post-delivery. She also had 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 while she considered her options — without having to worry about diapers or food or where to sleep.
“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. Choosing to parent is a very difficult and brave decision, and half of all mothers who stay at the shelter choose not to keep their child — opting to relinquish them for adoption instead. Without the support and resources provided at the shelters, the number of women who choose to abandon or relinquish is likely even higher.
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 four of the women staying at the Clover House. “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 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. In accordance with recently passed legislation in Korea, the Holt-supported maternity shelters will have to close in 2015. Fortunately, Holt can continue to operate more homes like Clover House — providing free housing for mothers who choose to parent their babies. But Holt Korea will no longer be able to operate the shelters for pregnant mothers pre and post-delivery, while they are still deciding what to do next.
This comes as a success for anti-adoption groups in Korea, who advocated for the closure of these shelters based on the perception that adoption agencies pressure the women to relinquish their children for adoption. On the contrary, Holt Korea empowers the women to make a decision that is right for her — even offering vocational training and education so that they can independently support their children, if they choose to parent.
“[The anti-adoption groups don’t understand] that 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. “But if she chooses to relinquish, we should help her. And if she chooses to keep her child, we should help her.”
Anti-adoption groups in Korea are largely composed of older birth mothers who have heavy hearts about their decision to place their children for adoption years ago. Many of them relinquished their children at a time when adoption laws were much different, and did less to protect the rights of the birth moms. It’s quite possible that for some of them, their mother — their child’s grandmother — placed their child for adoption without their consent. In recent years, Korea has implemented many changes to adoption law that rightfully give birth moms more time to make a decision as well as multiple opportunities to change her mind.
The recent legal decision to close maternity shelters, however, weighs heavy on many Holt Korea staff members. Rather than empowering birth moms to parent their children, they worry it will have the opposite effect. “According to the new adoption law, single moms need to take care of their babies for at least seven days (before choosing to relinquish),” says one Holt staff member. “But they don’t have anywhere to stay. They can deliver their babies at a hospital, but they can’t stay there for a week. We want to provide a safe place for them to stay. If she doesn’t have any support from her family or any money, she needs some help.”
Another recently enacted law requires birth moms to place their child on their family registry in order to legally relinquish for adoption. For unwed moms, this just reinforces the stigma against them. Even if they place their child for adoption, they will still have to wear a scarlet letter in the eyes of their family and society.
Although the revised laws are well intended by the advocacy groups and sponsoring senators in Korea, the fear is that the new adoption laws will cause more mothers to abandon their babies — rather than relinquish them for adoption or raise them on their own. Sadly this is already happening. At the “ww” in Seoul — a literal box that opens to the street like an ATM — moms can anonymously abandon their babies into the care of a local pastor. Because they are abandoned, none of these children will be eligible for adoption, but at least they can be assured their babies are safe.
As one Holt Korea staff member shares, the moms often leave letters with their babies saying that they wanted to place them for adoption but because of the adoption laws, they couldn’t. “I just couldn’t put the baby in my registry,” the letters often read, “so I ask you to care for my baby.”
As the unwed mothers shelters begin to close next year, Holt Korea will redirect resources to creating more Clover Houses — adding to the five they already operate in different cities across Korea. “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 can stay for a minimum of two years. If they are not ready to be independent after two years, they can stay as long as they need to stay. 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.
In five years, 20 women have stayed at the Clover House in Seoul. Today, all of them continue to care for their babies — all on their own.
Robin Munro | Managing Editor