Monday, May 9, 2011

Single Mother's Day in Colombia

Mother's Day Trinkets for sale
One thing I've been struck by since moving to Colombia has been the great number of single mothers, raising families with no father in sight or providing assistance. Chalk it up, perhaps, to my middle class U.S. upbringing, where deadbeat dads got caught with DNA tests, hauled into court and forced to turn over a slice of each paycheck - whether they stirred fries at McDonald's or traded stocks - to their ex-wives and kids.

So, it was difficult to me to grasp how, on either moral or practical grounds, so many men could simply abandon the kids they'd brought into the world. In the first Bogotá house where I rented an apartment there were three such moms, compared to one family with a biological dad present.

Edgar makes a sale. 

On Mother's Day I asked several Bogotanos about this situation, and received different explanations - or, some would say, justifications. Some blamed single motherhood on women - Edgar, who was selling fabric Mother's Day flowers along Seventh Ave., opined that single motherhood was the fault of women and girls who had children at too young an age - forgetting that men, too, play a role in those births.

Around the corner, Maria, who sells newspapers in a kiosk, told me that she'd raised four
Maria selling smokes. 

daughters alone with the business. "My mother also raised me with the business, and passed it on to me," she added proudly.

"A lot of men are abusive and run after other women," explained Maria, who'd left her husband for those reasons. Later, she had tried suing him for support, "but it became too much trouble," she said. "I don't like to fight."

An indigenous mother and child on a sidewalk. Forced displacement - by armed groups, deforestation, poverty and other reasons, affects predominantly  women. 
Deadbeat dads use lots of maneuvers to escape paying, including disappearing, swearing they're broke and hiding their income. Colombia's huge informal economy, in which many incomes are off the books, also makes it easier to hide money.

A neighbor, who didn't want her name used, has raised three children mostly alone - including a teenage daughter who has a baby by a man whom my neighbor calls irresponsible. My neighbor got married very young, "when I'd just come from the countryside and was foolish," to a man who she says was an irresponsible womanizer. Back then, my neighbor understood little about birth control, and back in those days a woman needed her husband's consent to buy contraceptives, she said.

And, as a young woman from the countryside, without skills or education, she felt completely dependant on her husband. (Now, about age 40, she works irregularly and attends night school to get a high school degree.) Now, she worries that her own daughter will lose her chance to go to school or get a good job because she had a child while very young. Many companies, says my neighbor, won't hire women with young children because they assume they'll ask for many days off for health reasons.

My neighbor blames her having three children with an undependable man on "foolishness." She finally left her husband, who died that same year, but then had to turn her children over to a state orphanage because she couldn't afford to raise them. She now lives with them again.

Another friend, a university student who participates in leftist and feminist organizations, blames Colombian society's acceptance of single motherhood on Colombian cultural expectations that women should be primarily mothers. Society, she said, pushes women to become mothers, while placing little emphasis on fatherhood, and sends the message that in order to realize themselves, women must become mothers. Weak laws, she says make it easy for fathers to skip out.

I'd add to the list of reasons alcohol, which contributes to lots of unwanted pregnancies and unplanned children. 

For mothers no long with us. Cards for sale outside the Central Cemetery. 
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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