Like any 17 year old, Jenny Le (pseudonym) needed to finish high school and start planning for college and career. The setback? She got pregnant. Her boyfriend was 24 years-old and she only started a relationship with him six months beforehand. But Le had to make a decision despite her parent’s disapproval. She continued with the pregnancy and moved in with the boyfriend. Four years later, the couple was separated and Le was now a single mother.
“I thought it was the worst day of my life when he left,” said Le. “But each day got better. I definitely have no regrets.”
Though Le faces a bright future today, she says it took time to overcome those hurdles associated with raising a child on her own. Judgmental outsiders in addition to a traditional Vietnamese family background added tension to the experience, but in the end, the choice is always hers in how she will face it. Another mom, who will identify herself as only Chen, agrees.
“When I got pregnant, it was very embarrassing to my parents, said Chen. “Everything was [complicated] because my daughter’s father is not Vietnamese. But if I came through any culture, I would go through the same struggle and the same issues.”
According to the King County census, single mothers are prominent in areas where low-income housing is located. Le however, was fortunate to have parents that allowed her to live at home while fulfilling her college education.
“I was very lucky to have supportive parents,” said Le. “I believe Asian parents will never let their child struggle for the basic necessities. For other single mothers, I think they are more on their own.”
According to the Seattle King County Housing Authority, figures show that single mothers account for 66 percent of Caucasian families; 86 percent of African American families; 69 percent for Native American families; and 62 percent for Hispanic families. And, Asians families account for 28 percent, mostly headed by single mothers. Despite having the lowest percentage of Asian single mothers among other ethnic groupsÑthis population is not invisible.
The Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS), which provides an array of services ranging from employment, domestic violence intervention, and children and immigration services, the single mother demographic is noticeable.
“We definitely do serve single mothers,” said Janice Suehoo, deputy director of ACRS. “We work with parental support services and our Children, Youth and Families program works directly with the youth and parent.”
Today, Le is a college graduate with honors. She worked the last four years in the social work sector and recently bought a house. She says living up to the model minority stereotype did create extra pressure.
“I was expected to go to college and get good grades,” said Le.
But she says despite the pressures of being a mother, graduating from college, and working full-time, the biggest challenge lay ahead. To create a family for her and her daughter. She met and dated one person, who turned out to have a very traditional family that looked down upon her past.
“He comes from a very traditional family,” says Le of her long-time boyfriend. “They are very ashamed and not happy. They want to hide that their son is dating someone who had a child out of wed-lock.”
Nevertheless, Le’s 11 year old-daughter never became an issue for Le to forge a future for herself.
“My daughter never hindered my career,” says Le. “She improved it by propelling me to work harder.”
Others are not so fortunate.
According to a 2001 study in the Journal of Social Issues, findings indicate a greater risk of mental health problems for single motherhood because of employment challenges, lack of self-confidence and living in conditions of poverty.
But for people like Jackie Gannon, she is currently choosing to act as a single mom now in order to shape a better future. Though Gannon is married, her husband is working in Virginia, and the couple is separated for months at a time while Gannon pursues her studies in Dental hygiene near her family in Washington. For several months, Gannon has juggled studies and caring for her 17 month-old son.
“It’s been really hard,” says Gannon, a Vietnamese American. “Because I don’t have my husband around, I have to rely on my immediate family. And as a single mom, that’s what you would need.”
Unlike Le’s circumstances, Gannon has a choice. She can choose to stay in Virginia with her husband and be in the role of a stay-at-home mom.
But that was out of the question.
“I’m trying to go back to school. But if I stayed in Virginia, I would have to pay out of state tuition,” says Gannon. “It just made more sense to be back in Washington where I have more help.”
Gannon can imagine the struggles for other single moms.
“I’m just very fortunate in my situation,” says Gannon. “I think about single moms all the time and I give them a lot of credit because it’s really, really difficult. So I feel for all the single moms out there.”
Gannon credits her strong Vietnamese family background for motivating her and finds strengths in her own immigrant experience. “I came when I was seven. I saw the struggles that my mom and dad went through when they were here,” says Gannon. “I am more goal-oriented and I am more driven.”
The percentage of single-mothers is rising. Although trends and census data may reveal the lack of Asian Pacific Islander single mothers, the reality is, numbers are growing and single mothers need resources that are still lacking to serve them and their children.
Only through the willingness to share and the courage to listen, that the voices from people like Le and Gannon can be heard..