The stigma of being a single mother in South Korea
‘Unwed mothers are invisible here in Korea’, but individuals are coming together to help each other.
Seoul, South Korea – On the first day of the lunar new year, the Year of the Dog, Jeong Soo-jin and her daughter ride the cable car up Namsan mountain in the city’s central Yongsan district.
Seven-year-old Ah-jeong twirls, her flowered hanbok – a traditional Korean dress – encircling her in a cloud of pink tulle and bedazzled shoes shimmering in the sunlight. She sings and laughs.
Seollal is one of South Korea’s most important family holidays, a three-day affair over the Korean New Year that brings together paternal relatives in ancestral homage.
Ah-jeong and her mum are not going to celebrate with family, but with a group of women and children who mostly, like them, have nowhere else to go.
This holiday programme is organised by the Korean Unwed Mothers’ Families Association (KUMFA) and offers family to those who’ve been cast out, to varying degrees, from their own.
This year, around 30 single mums and their children are visiting from around and beyond Seoul.
In a country where unwed mothers are derided and ostracised, this is more than a simple celebration. It’s a public announcement: They refuse to be silenced or shamed.
“Unwed mothers are invisible here in Korea,” Jeong, a 37-year-old family support centre coordinator from Suwon, told Al Jazeera.
“But we are courageous, and we are strong. We deserve to be part of society.”
In South Korea, Confucian culture and a hierarchical society mean that bloodlines play a dominant role in defining community.
For ostracised single mothers, to be without family ties is to be a social outcast. And while it’s tough all year round, it is far more painful during the holiday season.
Government statistics show there are about 25,000 single mothers in South Korea, a figure questioned by KUMFA and the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network who believe there are those who do not register due to fear of discrimination.
“Relatives gathering for holidays often don’t want unmarried mothers attending because it reminds them that there’s a black sheep in the family,” said Hye-ryeon Noh, a professor of social welfare at Soongsil University.
“It’s a real stigma to the family itself and a sign that they didn’t raise the woman well.”
For Jeong, her most heartbreaking Seollal was the one she spent alone in 2011, eight months pregnant with Ah-jeong.
Jeong had already split up with her boyfriend when she found out she was pregnant at 29. He denied the baby was his and refused to support her.
Crushed by shame, she was too scared to face her parents or seek outside help and ended up giving birth alone.
“Society tells unwed mothers it’s their fault, and they are not responsible people,” said Jeong before adding that, because of widespread cultural bias, it was difficult for unmarried mothers to maintain family relationships, find jobs, make friends and meet a partner.
“I had no confidence that I could survive as an unwed mother in Korea.”
Within the first month of motherhood, Jeong felt so desperate she gave her baby up for adoption.
Three days later, she reversed her decision, realising the only thing harder than being a single mother was not being a mother at all.
To regain custody, Jeong had to bring her parents to the agency to sign a consent form and pay a fee. That’s when her parents first learned of their granddaughter.
“My father rejected her. He insisted I had to let her live in the adoption agency … because he thought I wasn’t qualified to be a mother.”
Angry and humiliated, her father begrudgingly allowed Ah-jeong back into their family but demanded they keep her a secret.
That is when Jeong went in search of a new family, eventually finding KUMFA.
A different kind of family
KUMFA was conceived of by a group of single mothers who, grappling with prejudice, reached out to each other online and decided to meet and formalise their community offline.
Among the founding group was Kim Do-kyeong, a 43-year-old single mother of one, who serves as KUMFA’s president.
Up until her son Tae-ho, now 11, reached first grade, Kim’s parents shunned them, telling her to give him away and start life over.
They excluded her from celebrations and told neighbours made-up stories of a husband working abroad, all to protect the family’s reputation.
For Tae-ho, who has grown up among his mum’s community, it feels like his community, too. When Tae-ho is bullied at school by classmates whose mothers have instructed them not to play with him, or who tease him for being without a father, he turns to his KUMFA friends, Kim said.
In addition, the members also advocate for increased government support for single mothers, only a small fraction of whom receive any financial assistance from their children’s fathers.
Under the current welfare policy, single mothers can receive a maximum monthly allowance of South Korean won 180,000 ($167), said professor Noh, but only if they meet stringent restrictions on age and income, including their family’s income.
To qualify, single mothers younger than 24 must earn less than South Korean won 1.71 million ($1,590) a month, and those older than that should earn less than South Korean won 1.48m ($1,376). This, advocates argue, disincentivises them from working fulltime.
“You can see from the system that there’s an underlying judgment of unmarried mothers,” said Noh, adding that for a long time there has been widespread opposition to raising the monthly allowance for fear it would encourage more out-of-wedlock births.
Wishes for the new year
The day before the New Year, Jeong, Kim and other mothers had congregated with their kids at the Seoul Youth Hostel to kick off the festivities.
Some had joined out of necessity.
“Korean society does not accept us,” said Dong Na-rae, a 35-year-old office manager, gesturing to her six-year-old son Yoon-joon. “We didn’t have anywhere else to go for the Lunar New Year, so we came here.”
Others came because they prefer their KUMFA sisterhood to their biological family.
“My son likes it here at the camp more than with my family,” said Kim Min-seung, a 43-year-old employee at the department of education, who gave birth to Dong-hyeok on her 33rd birthday. “When we go to my family for the holiday, it doesn’t feel like a holiday. It’s uncomfortable and awkward.”
Together, the mothers and kids walked through Namsan Hanok Village. They took part in traditional Seollal games: yoonnori, played with sticks, a board and markers; and paengi, wooden tops twirled with whipcords.
They enjoyed a curry rice dinner and opened some small gifts.
All around them, the usually frenetic city was hushed – traffic tamed, pedestrians sparse and many of the shops either shuttered or posting signs listing reduced hours.
For the mums and their kids, though, their little corner of the world was a joyous racket, but they all knew that the next morning, life would go back to normal.