Single motherhood and shame in South Korea

Lee had her daughter when she was 23. After she got pregnant, she went into hiding and cut off contact with friends.

Single mothers in South Korea are often stigmatised, lack support from the community and have few employment opportunities, reports Stephanie McDonald.

South Korea is a country that has long valued the traditional family unit over single parent households.

Due to this, unwed mothers in South Korea often face discrimination from employers, their family and schools.

One single mother regularly found her six year-old daughter isolated in a room by herself at daycare.

“It was because other mothers were aware that she was a child of an unwed mother and didn’t want her to mingle with their children,” Kim says, talking about a friend.

“Now she goes to elementary school, but during her kindergarten period she had trouble making good connections with others.”

This experience is just one of many that single mothers face to raise their children in South Korea.

Kim, a single mother herself, repeatedly had employers ask about her marital status at job interviews. When she revealed she was a single mother, her ability to be ‘loyal’ to the company was brought into question, with many Korean employers often demanding full dedication to a job.

She was working overseas when she found out she was pregnant at 33. Friends and family told her to get an abortion. When she didn’t, her family urged her to put her child up for adoption.

When Kim returned to Korea to give birth, her boyfriend disappeared and she was unprepared for the reality of being a single mother.

Within two months of giving birth, she began looking for a job. Her family refused to acknowledge her baby as a family member and she needed money.  

She was living in Busan, in the south east of South Korea, when a job opportunity came up in Seoul. She had no one to look after her baby while she took the long trip to the city.

At the insistence of her mother, Kim contacted an adoption agency to discuss her options. The next day a social worker from an agency visited, Kim filled out the paperwork to relinquish her child and got straight on a train to Seoul. Her plan was to get the job and then get her child back.

The social worker agreed to contact her if a family wanted to adopt her daughter, but 11 days later she received a text message saying her baby had been adopted.

When Kim desperately contacted the adoption agency to oppose the adoption, the agency tried to convince her it was better for her child to be adopted by a wealthy family.

Kim repeatedly called the agency about getting her child back and after three months, the adoptive family handed back custody of her child.

Kim’s experience is not an isolated case.

Soon-hee Shin was 28 when she found out she was pregnant. She broke up with her boyfriend and at 16 weeks, she went to get an abortion. After hearing her baby’s heartbeat during an ultrasound, she changed her mind.

Shin’s parents were no longer alive, so she had no family support. She worked until she was eight months pregnant and then entered an unwed mothers facility. She was unsure if she was going to keep her child, but just needed a place to stay.

At the facility, which was run by an adoption agency, she saw how happy the mothers were who were raising their children, but thought it would be impossible for her to do.

“I mentioned to a social worker that I was thinking about adoption and the very next day they moved my file over to the adoption side of the centre. The next day I had counseling about the process of adoption,” she says.

She signed the relinquishment papers for her child before it was born and within two days of her birth, her daughter was taken to another location. She was allowed to hold her baby for one hour before she was taken away – further contact was denied by the facility’s nurses.

Shin chose international adoption, a process that can take around eight months, so she was allowed to visit her daughter for 30 minutes a month until she left the country.

“At first I had no inclination to get my daughter back, but after seeing her every month, that’s when I started to want to get her back,” she says.

She sought advice from KUMFA, the Korean Unwed Mothers Families’ Association, on how to get her back and asked for advice on a Korean online forum.

At the seven-month point of the process, the adoption agency told her to come and see her daughter one last time before she was sent to a family in the US.

However, when Shin visited the agency, her daughter was not there and the agency questioned why she posted on the forum. She says the agency then tried to convince her that adoption to a wealthy family was better for her child than raising her alone.

Shin was told to come back a week later if she still wanted her child. She returned, but was forced to write a letter of apology to the adoptive parents before she could get her daughter back.

Hiding the truth

Some unwed mothers feel they need to hide their single mother status due to negative attitudes about them.

Lee had her daughter when she was 23. After she got pregnant, she went into hiding and cut off contact with friends.

“The term single mother has a negative connotation. It’s something where you can’t really just tell your friend ‘I’m a single mother’ confidently,” she says.

She points out a story about a friend, a 40-year-old single mother who owned a hair salon. Her friend appeared on television for a segment on single mothers. Although her face was blurred, the interview took place in her salon and customers recognised it. After the show aired, the hair salon went bankrupt because regular customers stopped going.

“Her daughter was in elementary school and people started saying ‘that girl is from a single mother’,” Lee says.

Lee’s two year-old daughter is already being subjected to discrimination at school. At her kindergarten, children hung photos of their family. Some parents commented that her daughter only has one parent.

“Also, when the kids get into trouble, if one of them is raised by a single mother, people will gossip that it’s because they only have a mother,” Lee says.

Lee says it’s up to the government to change the negative perception of unwed mothers. When she left the Christian-run single mothers centre where she give birth, she had no idea what to do and what financial support was available. She says facilities also encourage adoption by talking about raising children in a negative way.

Instead, Lee says women should be provided with more information about how they can raise their children and what financial benefits they are entitled to.

“If mothers know or have this kind of information, I think they would choose to raise their own child [instead of choosing abortion or adoption],” she says.

Kim also believes support is vital. In particular, she says unwed mothers need help with job training and it is too hard for them to access public housing. She says pop culture can also play a role in influencing a better attitude, such as positive single mother characters in Korean dramas.

“Every woman has a right to raise their children without a father. I don’t want to see any other sad cases like mine who send their babies for adoption because of pressure from family and pressure from friends,” she says.

Stephanie McDonald is a Seoul-based freelance journalist.

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