In the fall of 2009, Gina Comeau found out that she was pregnant. But unlike most women, she decided to raise the child without the father. Her story echoes that of many other single moms: she met a man, dated him briefly, and soon discovered she was expecting a baby. Though everything happened very quickly, the Vancouver native decided to keep the child in the end. She was 32 at the time. Now, Comeau is mother to Mateo, a happy and spirited 2-year-old boy. Until recently, she worked as an early childhood education teacher at House of Knowledge International Kindergarten, where Mateo was also a student. His relationship with his father is limited to the occasional visit.
Although Comeau had the support of her employers at HoK, she was not always so lucky. “[The school I worked at before HoK] asked me to hide the pregnancy,” she says. “They said it would look bad to the parents because I was a single mom. My baby bump was sticking out at 7½ months, so I had to tell them I was going back to Canada!” In fact, some of the parents only found out about Mateo after his birth announcement appeared in the August 2010 issue of beijingkids.
A Growing Phenomenon
Comeau is not alone; the numbers show that single parenting is on the rise. In 2010, single parents in the US were responsible for raising 21.2 million children, or just over a quarter of all kids under the age of 21 (US Census Bureau). Although households headed by single fathers were the fastest-growing living arrangement, they made up only 3 percent of the total population. By contrast, households headed by single mothers accounted for 23 percent.
Last year, Eurostat determined that the UK had more single mother households than any other country in the European Union except Estonia. The analysis showed that around 6.7 percent (or one in 15 households) in the UK were headed by single moms – significantly higher than the EU average of 3.7 percent, but much lower than the US rate of nearly one in four households.
In some countries, single mothers are considered at risk. According to The Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, two out of five single mother households in the US live in poverty – triple the proportion for the general population. The numbers get bleaker: two fifths of single mother households are also “food insecure,” one fifth have no health insurance, and one third “spend more than half their income on housing.” As a result, single mother families are often among the first to suffer when social programs undergo budget cuts.
Dollars and Maos
The reality is not lost on Laura Roark, mom to 4-year-old Maia and formerly a Montessori teacher at The Family Learning House. She is originally from Mississippi, Alabama, where the majority of her family still resides. Roark became a single mom by choice after Maia’s father decided that he was not on board with the pregnancy. They split amicably – and that was that.
“I realize how good I have it here,” says Roark. “My friends back home think I make hundreds and thousands of dollars because I travel and can afford to hire help. But although my salary is lower than theirs, the number of bills I have to pay and the amount I have to pay is not as great [as in the US].”
Being a teacher had it perks. Not having to pay for education allowsed Roark to hire an ayi who came over five times a week. On a typical day, the ayi picked up Maia at The Family Learning House around lunch time, cooked her dinner in the afternoon, then left when Roark got home from work at about 5.30pm. As Maia got older, the family’s expenses started shifting from diapers and formula to more hours for the ayi and travel – one of Roark’s great loves. But other than that? “We’re not struggling. We manage to save,” says Roark.
Gina Comeau agrees. As teacher at House of Knowledge, she also got to save on education for her son Mateo. “It was hard in the beginning,” she says. “Now I try my best to live on RMB 11,000 a month – which includes the ayi, housing, and living expenses – and save the rest. And I can usually do it.”
The Dating Conundrum
Dating is difficult enough for expats living in Beijing, but single parents must also consider their children’s feelings. When her toddler began asking some awkward questions, Laura Roark was initially at a loss. “In the last couple of months, Maia started realizing that other kids have a baba,” she laughs. “When I was pregnant, I had all these wonderful answers in my mind but when the time came, I was like ‘Ah, uh.’”
After talking to friends and reading up on the subject, Roark sat her daughter down and explained: “All families are different. Kele [Maia’s playmate] has his mommy and daddy. In our family, it’s Mommy and Maia – just the two of us.” Much to Roark’s surprise, Maia asked if “Mommy wanted a Daddy.” She replied: “You can help me find a Daddy. Would you like that?” When Maia countered with “In Qingdao?” (where they just moved last month), Roark thought: Well OK, we won’t have to deal with that for a while.
There is a more straightforward reason for Gina Comeau’s reluctance to return to the dating scene: She is still too tired. After two years, Mateo is still not sleeping through the night, to the point where Comeau may switch to a live-in ayi in the future. When her father was in town in April, she jumped at the chance to go out on a Friday night. Her co-worker started making grandiose plans, but Comeau said: ‘You don’t understand. Having one drink at this one bar would be my entire night!’”
Besides, dating has always been an issue, she says. “It’s an issue of being a foreign woman and it’s an issue of being a larger woman. You really have to push yourself out there.” She remains open to the idea, but it is simply not a priority.
Aleka Bilan is a high school counselor at the Western Academy of Beijing. In families with teens, she urges parents to lay the groundwork early on. “You can start having conversations before beginning to date,” she says. “They’re not necessarily going to be easy, because adolescents are all about their own dating life and their own identity. Allow your teenager to be angry, to be scared, to be anxious – or to be excited for you.”
To keep expenses down, Comeau used to rent an apartment in a no-frills compound called Zaoying Nanli. Nestled among fancier expat compounds near Chaoyang Park West Gate, you’re more likely to see old Chinese men taking a leisurely stroll here than high-powered
executives on their morning run. Comeau’s neighbors were all Chinese and knew that she was a single mom. “The reaction has always been positive towards me,” she says. “But people always ask ‘Where’s his father?’ When they find out that he lives in China, they get really mad at him.”
Despite her neighbors’ concern, Comeau worried about what to do in an emergency. “My biggest fear is that I need to go to the hospital in the middle of the night,” she says. “I’m alone, I have to flag down a taxi. Do I go to International Medical Center because it’s close, or do I make the trip by myself with a baby to Sino-Japanese Friendship Hospital?”
Every parent takes their child’s safety to heart. Laura Roark, for her part, had come to rely on her ayi and immediate neighbors as her main support network. “Ayi would be there within 45 minutes if anything happened,” she says. “In all the places I’ve lived in China, I never got to know my neighbors. But we’d become really close to [the ones in Beijing]. The other parents were young, Chinese, working, also had ayis, and their kids were about the same age as Maia. We just left the doors open on our floor and the kids went back and forth.”
However, one demographic Comeau and Roark couldn’t rely on was other single parents. Other than the “accidental single parents” whose spouses traveled a lot, neither woman has ever met another single parent in China. They may have heard about them through groups like Beijing Mamas, but never actively sought them out.
”Another teacher once showed me an application form that might have pointed to [the applicant]being a single dad,” Roarke recalls. “I saw the dad when he dropped off his child, but it would be awkward to just go up to him and say ‘Hey, are you a single dad by any chance?’”
Although WAB counselor Aleka Bilan works mostly with students, she thinks there is room for improvement when it comes to resources and support for parents. “I do see some isolation with parents who first move to Beijing,” she says. “Finding a peer group is harder for them because it’s not built into their day-to-day lives.”
Bilan recommends keeping up to date with groups like Beijing Mamas and English-language magazines like the Beijinger, which contain information about activities, newcomers’ meetings, and special interest groups. She also points to parenting seminars hosted by International SOS that range from feeding newborns and toddlers to parenting teenagers in a big city.
“When you have school age children, the parent association at your international school is a great group to get involved in,” she adds. “You can talk to your child’s teacher about getting a contact list of all the other parents in the class.”
Single or not single, it’s always family that comes first in the end. “I just want Maia to be happy,” says Roark. And as cliche as it might sound, remember that you’re not alone. “If I had a nice place,” says Comeau, “I would be the first one to say [to other single parents]: ‘Come to my house, let’s do something!’”