Jaliyah Adams spends most of her day gazing at the 6-foot Christmas tree surrounded by colorful, wrapped boxes in her living room.
The 13-month-old's mother, Jessica Henderson, said both of them have come a long way since last Christmas.
Mother and daughter spent the first months of Jaliyah's life in the neonatal intensive-care unit at the Medical College of Georgia Hospital and the Ronald McDonald House, a place for families to stay while their children are hospitalized.
Caring for Jaliyah, who suffers from duodenal atresia, a bowel disorder, on her own has been especially tough for Ms. Henderson, 20. Jaliyah's dad has been in and out of her life. The Vaucluse woman considers herself a single mom.
"When she was in the hospital, I was having to go to churches to get help with rent and everything else," she said. "I shouldn't have had to do that."
More than 386,000 children in South Carolina were born to single mothers in 2008, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Book released this year. In Aiken County more than 46 percent of children born in 2006 were birthed by single mothers, according to the data. The percentage of children born to single moms in Aiken County increased about 5 percent between 2002 and 2006, the most recent year the data was gathered.
Raising children as a single mother often leads to economic hardship and lack of educational resources for the child, and often begins with mothers who had no father figures in their upbringing, said Stephanie Coontz, the director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families in Chicago. Ms. Coontz and other experts say the keys to ensuring healthy futures for the growing number of single moms and their children are education, financial stability and, if possible, co-parenting with the child's father.
"People say if we could just stop them from having babies and just wait, they would be fine, but people don't stick to that course of behavior," Ms. Coontz said. "It's having community initiatives beyond sex education. Giving them better examples, hope and a reason to postpone child bearing until they're in a more stable situation."
Ms. Henderson thought she was in a stable situation. She had been seeing her ex-boyfriend for close to two years before she got pregnant last year.
The Aiken native said her parents divorced when she was 12, and she began attaching herself to boys in her teens. Her father did not spend much time with her or her younger twin sisters after the divorce.
"I think it made me more insecure about myself," she said. "I really didn't trust guys, but I wanted to have males around."
She met Jaliyah's father while attending South Aiken High School, she said. She dropped out senior year, and began working at Walmart. Her boyfriend was also working. She said the pregnancy was unintentional, but she did think they were ready to be parents.
"I imagined that her daddy would be there, like old school," she said.
Once Jaliyah was born, her boyfriend tried to stick by his family, she said. When Jaliyah returned home from the hospital, he decided to leave, she said.
"He wanted to do his own thing," she said. "You think someone is the one, and once you make a baby with them, you see their true colors."
Jaliyah's father does provide child support, but it's limited by his low income, said Ms. Henderson, who lost her job during her difficult pregnancy. She earned her GED in July and has been looking for work.
She and Jaliyah moved from an Aiken apartment to a more affordable one-bedroom home in rural Aiken County earlier this year. Government assistance helps her pay her utilities and rent. Medicaid covers Jaliyah's medical needs, such as physical and speech therapy. The 13-month-old has experienced delays in her development because of the time she spent in the hospital. She is learning to walk, and stopped using a feeding tube last month.
"I have a job prospect, so I can go to night school to further my education," she said. "Maybe in a few years, we can move into a two-bedroom place back in Aiken."
Breaking the cycle
Single moms often haven't seen what a healthy and economically stable household is like because of their own upbringing, Ms. Coontz said. Quality education can provide a detour from generational single parenthood.
"They may be looking for something meaningful in relationships, and they lack other alternatives for themselves," she said. "If they have job experience and higher, quality education, they will postpone some of those decisions. They see something on the horizon."
A renewed emphasis on marriage could change the growing trend toward single parenthood, said Susan Meehan, the executive director of Aiken Youth Empowerment. She finds that many teens she works with do not value marriage. Her organization encourages young people to make healthy choices.
"Society as a whole does not put pressure on people getting married. It's a social norm to be a single mother," she said.
"A lot of young people say they want to get married when they grow up, but there's no correlation between getting an education, getting married and then having a baby," she continued.
Ms. Meehan said she finds that single moms, most of whom are young, wind up in financially and emotional stressful situations, which hurts their children.
"Studies have shown there are less cases of abuse, and children value healthy relationships when there are two parents in the home," she said. "The home is just less stressful."
It takes a village
Community resources such as the Freedman Family Literacy Parenting program give single moms opportunities to further their education and ensure that their children are prepared for school, said coordinator Cherell Williams.
Aiken County moms between the ages of 16 and 32 get help with preparing for the GED, earning a high school diploma and connecting with jobs. The program, which started in 1990, also provides free child care and educational tools for young children.
"They can make themselves more marketable by pursuing higher education," Ms. Williams said. "If they can become more self-sufficient and have adequate child care, the children will do better and they will have economic stability."
Elaine Creech, 30, of North Augusta, started at Freedman in August. She plans to take the GED test in February. Her lack of education has kept her from getting a job to provide for her three children, ages 4 through 8. She receives government assistance.
Her children's father, Marlo Hudson, is in the picture, but she said she often feels like a single mother.
"He tries, and he loves his kids to pieces, but I think as the mother I have to really be responsible," she said. "We can't afford to get married right now, but we can once we're in a better financial situation."
Ms. Creech said she was brought up by a single mom in Graniteville but does not want the cycle to continue for her children. Mr. Hudson is looking for a better job, and Ms. Creech said she plans to join the Army next year.
"It would be a great step for my family, and I could be able to support my kids," she said. "I just want to show them that their mom never gave up, and she tried to show them a better way."
Reach Stephanie Toone at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
RESOURCES FOR SINGLE MOMS
- Pregnancy Care Center, 225 Barnwell Ave. N.W., Aiken, (803) 649-9890
- Mental Health America, 104 Florence St., Aiken, (803) 641-4164
- Freedman Parenting Center, 225 Aiken Road, Graniteville, (803) 663-4204
- First Steps, 208D The Alley, Aiken, (803) 643-8545
- Aiken Youth Empowerment, (803) 441-0016
- Head Start, 203 Beaufort St. N.E., Aiken, (803) 649-1465
BIRTHS BY COUNTY
Percentage of births to single mothers in 2006:
South Carolina 45.4
Source: Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Book