Organization Helps Korea’s Single Moms
One of the great shames of South Korean society is the poor treatment and marginalization of single mothers, whether they are divorcees or women who were never married at all.
Such women often go to great lengths to hide their status. So great is the pressure to appear married that single moms will lie to teachers, employers and friends about their lives.
The pressure on single moms is one of the reasons that South Korea, despite its wealth, still produces so many children who are given up for adoption by people in other countries.
Several years ago, an American doctor named Richard Boas became interested in the treatment of South Korean women, particularly those who gave up their children for adoption. He and his wife adopted a baby girl from South Korea in the late 1980s, but it took a long time for him to think about the circumstances that brought his adoptive daughter to them.
We spoke to Dr. Boas by telephone to find out more. Some excerpts from the conversation:
WSJ: How did you get start working on Korean adoption and motherhood issues?
Dr. Boas: This was something I didn’t imagine I would be doing. I was running a successful ophthalmology practice in Connecticut. We had two biological kids and Esther, who we adopted from Korea in 1988. In retrospect, I knew something had bothered me about her adoption but it wasn’t something I could really articulate.
Well, I closed my practice in 2001. I knew I wanted to take my life in a different direction and help the world in a different way. I didn’t know what. I thought it was going to be in the medical field. The local agency through which we adopted Esther made us aware there were middle income families in the community who were dropping out of the picture of adopting kids for financial reasons. A bunch of us adoptive families got together and set up a foundation to offer financial assistance to families who were adopting kids from the countries that the agency was focused on, like Korea, China and Russia.
In the midst of all this in the summer of 2006, the agency was making visits to the countries. And I asked, if I pay my way, can I go along with you on your next trip when you meet your counterparts? They said sure.
In the fall of 2006, I came to Korea and I got completely turned around by what I saw.
WSJ: What did you see?
Dr. Boas: Everything from facilities for kids who were not adopted because they had everything from down syndrome to developmental disorders; kids given up by their parents; kids in the hospital very sick; kids who I held in an adoption nursery.
What I realized at the time was these children’s mothers were in the country and down the block, but their home was the social service agency.
The thing that floored me was going to facility in Daegu and meeting a dozen women in the facility. They were all about 20. They were all unmarried. They were all very pregnant and had all signed away their child. I realized that nobody else in the room, Korean or American, was thinking similarly. They were continuing to think what a wonderful thing they were doing.
I had an answer to the unsettled feeling. I hadn’t validated my daughter’s natural mother. I felt awful. I didn’t understand how I missed this.
I went home not sure where to go from here. I thought, the people I’ve been working with are gung-ho about supporting adoptive families. But I had a ton of questions on my mind, such as why are so many kids leaving Korea, a wealthy democracy, when other countries take care of their own?
WSJ: There are many reasons for this problem. But what is the root of it?
Mr. Boas: I believe that the answer is complex, having to do with Korea’s Confucian culture, which stresses marriage and family, as well as the modern concept of a family consisting of a married couple with children. I would note that unwed moms in the postwar U.S.—not a Confucian society–were pressured to give up their children.
WSJ: Since you started the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network, what successes have you chalked up?
Dr. Boas: I feel good that our organization, and especially executive director Kwon Hee-jung, have been recognized as a reliable source of information. Ms. Kwon is recognized as a go-to person on the issue by service providers, ministers, the media, legislative assistants. I feel really good about that. She’s a passionate speaker on the issue.
If we folded up tomorrow, this issue would still have visibility in Korea. We have gotten attention of legislators. We co-sponsored a forum at the National Assembly and no fewer than 20-25 legislators came.
Our message is simply that if you are supporting unwed moms in a country with a low birthrate, you are going to raise more children. And that’s good for the country as well as the moms whose right it is to raise their own children.
WSJ: And what about some of the frustrations and constraints the organization has encountered?
Dr. Boas: I may not agree with where [South Korea’s] support for unwed moms has been focused, but the support has grown. There seems to be common belief that unwed moms are typically in their teens or early 20s. Recent research shows that over half of the moms are 25 and over. They’re not receiving a significant amount of support at all.
One thing I find frustrating is the father’s role in all this is invisible and not discussed. Fathers get a free pass. I shared the concept of the deadbeat dad with a legislator. It was an “a-ha” moment. She then researched the responsibility of fathers and grandparents and we just heard that the issue was mentioned in a public forum.
In general, I wish that more moms would come forward to self-advocate. At the same time, I respect them and understand the sense of pressure they are under. I’m not in their shoes and I’m not leading the uphill lives that just about all of them live. But I certainly hope that the organization is helping to change that.