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Women at a Holt-supported single mother and child shelter in Korea share the books they wrote, illustrated and published as part of an art therapy program at the shelter.

She stands like a warrior — a sword in one hand, a shield in the other. Her eyebrows are narrowed in a fierce expression. Behind her, a small child clings to her leg. At the center of the shield is a heart.

This illustration was drawn by a single mother at one of the mother and child shelters Holt supports in Korea.

“She wants to be her child’s protector and be the one who will always be the guardian her child can come to whenever there’s something there that her child is afraid to face,” explains Paul Kim, Holt’s long-time director of programs in Korea and Mongolia. “She understands that her child will face challenges because of her being born to a single parent — and she will be strong in the face of those challenges.”

This woman’s story can be found within a small collection of published books written and illustrated by single mothers at one of the shelters. For the women, illustrating their stories serves as a form of therapy for what they have experienced as they faced an unplanned pregnancy — especially in Korea, where the stigma toward single mothers remains firmly entrenched in the culture. 

Single mothers in Korea share stories about their experience in books published at a Holt-supported shelter
Copies of the published books that were written and illustrated by single mothers at Holt-supported mother and child shelters in Korea.

“It’s becoming less stigmatized, but it’s something that creates a lot of challenges for both the mom and the child — the societal attitudes,” Paul says. “You can change laws tomorrow, but attitudes in society may take decades to change.” In Korea, single mothers continue to face discrimination in all facets of their lives. They may have trouble getting a job or gaining admittance to college. Their families may disapprove and distance themselves from them. Their children may even face discrimination.

“This is why some children and some moms will not disclose to other people that they are a single parent or they are the child of a single parent — because of the discrimination that can occur,” Paul says.

The stigma toward single mothers is also one of the primary reasons that so many women in Korea continue to relinquish their children for adoption — or, in many cases, for a life spent in an orphanage.

But for women who would like to parent and need help — or who are uncertain about whether to parent or relinquish their child — the mother and child shelters provide a safe haven. As Paul says, “The priority for the program is to ensure that both mother and child will have a safe and loving home.”

In years past, the mother and child shelters Holt supports in Korea provided prenatal care and support for expectant mothers. Today, the shelters provide services and care for women only after they have given birth. They receive free housing, nutritious food and comprehensive healthcare. They attend parenting courses and optional vocational training programs, have free childcare while they look for employment, and receive counseling to help them cope with the stigma of being a single mother. They may stay as long as they need to become empowered and confident in their ability to independently raise their child.

Some may still choose to relinquish their child.

But the majority of the women who stay at the shelters ultimately choose to parent their child. And every mother who created a book has also chosen to parent.

Korean toddler wearing red eye glasses

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“Each book is an individual story by a birth mother, and it really illustrates her journey in terms of how her feelings evolved for her child and for her situation from the time she found out she was pregnant up until when she came into care at the shelter,” Paul says.

By the time they arrive at the shelters, many single mothers have already faced a lot of emotional trauma. “For the most part, they did not have the support or acknowledgement from the child’s father and for the most part they were not in a good relationship with their immediate or extended family and are feeling very alone in this situation,” Paul says, describing common experiences among many of the women.

As it can be challenging to articulate their emotions in words, the art therapy program provides an outlet for the women to express themselves in other ways.

“This is an opportunity for the moms to express what they have inside in a non-judgmental, non-threatening, open way. To honestly express what they’re feeling,” Paul says of the books they created.  

One common theme woven through the women’s stories are feelings of fear and uncertainty upon learning they were pregnant. Some experienced feelings of anger — at both themselves, and in some cases, their unborn child. One mother illustrated these feelings with a red explosion.

“She wants to be her child’s protector and be the one who will always be the guardian her child can come to whenever there’s something there that her child is afraid to face. She understands that her child will face challenges because of her being born to a single parent — and she will be strong in the face of those challenges.”

Paul Kim, Director of Programs for Korea and Mongolia

“She was talking about the anger she felt and part of drawing that was to apologize to her child for ever having those thoughts,” Paul says, translating the Korean text alongside the illustration. “It was cathartic for her to draw that out, being honest in terms of, ‘I had those thoughts, but I’m so sorry that I did.’”

But in every book, initial feelings of fear, anger and uncertainty give way to feelings of love for her child that develops as her pregnancy progresses.

“What happens for all of them, for the women who wrote these books and illustrated them, they came to an understanding that, ‘Ok, I may not have planned it this way, but I am a mother now, I have a child that I love deeply, and I want to make sure I can give my child the life I want for them,’” Paul explains.

As their stories unfold, the woman draw pictures that show their hopes and dreams for their child and the things they plan to do with them.

In one book, a single mother pasted her ultrasound picture over a smiling picture she drew of herself
One mother cut and pasted her ultrasound picture over a picture she drew of herself.

Presented in chronological order, the illustrations tell the story even without understanding the Korean words alongside them. We see a smiling woman with the black-and-white photo of her ultrasound pasted over her belly. In another, a woman cooks with her daughter — both smiling and wearing aprons.

In one illustration, a little girl is riding a bike with her dad — the meaning of which isn’t immediately clear. “She said that during this process it made her remember the happy times in her childhood and those happy memories are the memories she wants her child to have about her — memories she wants to create so that her child will remember her fondly,” Paul explains.

But for many of the moms, Paul says they did not have the most wonderful childhoods and homes lives. “They want to create a much more loving home environment than they experienced growing up,” he says. “I think that’s something that people can really identify with — wanting to do better or to be better for your child.”

For the women in the mother and child shelters, the emotional and therapeutic outlet these books provide is reason enough to create them. But they have also been created with the intention of sharing them — primarily, Paul says, with two distinct audiences.

“First, they share with other moms who are coming into care,” he says. As many of the women are estranged from their immediate and extended families, they feel very alone and isolated when they enter the shelters. “It’s very easy to feel like you’re the only person in the world who has experienced this and it’s a huge weight on you,” Paul adds. “But to know there are others who have shared that path and experienced similar things that you might be feeling, you feel less alone.”

At the shelter, the women find a community of other women who faced an unplanned pregnancy and chose to parent — and not only survived, but learned how to thrive as single mothers in Korea.

“Their time in shelter has enabled the mothers to gain marketable skills and find employment,” Paul says, explaining how the shelters help the women thrive. “For others, it has enabled them to continue their education, earn a GED, and to successfully pass the national university entrance exam and to enter college. Just as importantly, they learn self-confidence, self-reliance, and a to believe in their own abilities.”

One single mother at the shelter in Korea drew a picture of her cooking with her daughter
Many of the mothers drew pictures that show their hopes and dreams for their child and the things they plan to do with them. Here, a mother drew a picture of herself cooking with her daughter.

In addition to sharing their stories with other mothers entering the shelter, many of the women also want their books to be shared publicly — not only to elicit support for the shelter program, but to help shift the narrative and societal attitudes toward single mothers and their children.

“I think there’s this preconceived notion many people have that somehow a woman who becomes pregnant with an unplanned pregnancy, that somehow there’s something deficient in that — especially for moms in these difficult situations,” Paul says.

But by sharing their stories, they hope to foster some understanding for their situation and the struggles they face — and most of all, showcase the love they have for their child.

 “These [books] show that these women are just the same as any other mom out there,” Paul says. “They all have moments of self-doubt, but the thing that is consistent is the love they have for their child.”

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