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Single Mothers, Far From Alone

In The Bronx, More Than 30% Of Households Are led By Women


January 8, 2004
Copyright ©2004 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

PHOTO: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Brunilda Bonilla, left, 46, works and helps her daughter Silky Martinez, 24, care for her daughter, Michelle, 3, in Hunts Point.

Last year, as she does every year, Brunilda Bonilla hung a condom on the Christmas tree. There it was in its little plastic package, dangling among the shiny lights and baubles, should either of her daughters be in need.

Her eldest, Silky, 24, already has a 3-year-old, so the prophylactic ornament was more likely meant for her 18-year-old daughter, Barbara, who tends to fall asleep these days with her boyfriend in her bed.

"You need it, you take it," is what Ms. Bonilla says.

She is a tired, willful, headstrong woman, 46 years old, who knows all about the pains of raising children in the Bronx. Working as a health care aide, she has raised her family by herself for more than a decade – paying bills, cleaning clothes, sweeping floors and shepherding her daughters through their own travails.

When Silky's daughter, Michelle, was born, it was a joyful day. After all, Ms. Bonilla was now a grandmother. It was also a sobering day: Silky – like Ms. Bonilla – would be raising the child without the presence of a man.

Almost a third of all households in the Bronx are run by single women, a recent study by Lehman College found. While single mothers live in the fancy quarters of Manhattan, in the suburbs and in small towns across the state, the Bronx remains a special case.

The Bronx is one of only five counties in the United States where the percentage of households run by single mothers is greater than 30 percent. Of the remaining four, one is Holmes County, Miss., according to the study. The other three counties are in Indian reservations in the South Dakota plains.

On a recent day, Ms. Bonilla and her daughters – both of whom are named Martinez for their father – were tidying up their small apartment in Hunts Point. It was slow going, what with the dirt and dust and dishes piled up in the kitchen. Michelle was watching videos. A photo album had been placed atop the couch.

It was stuffed with pictures: Michelle in the maternity ward with Silky. Michelle with her baby bottle. Michelle in her cozy red pajamas. Michelle at her first birthday party, the entire family gathered round.

Or most of it. There was only one picture of her father. It showed him at the bedside in the hospital, mugging for the camera as he kissed his baby's head.

He hardly comes around these days. Silky, in fact, does not refer to him by name. He is known as "Michelle's father" or sometimes simply as "that man." He has two other children – ages 4 and 1 – with another woman, Silky said, and two more children – 9 and 10 – with a third woman whom he married and divorced.

The hard part, Silky said, is not in putting food on the table, or clothes in the dresser, or even gifts beneath the tree. The hard part, she said, comes when Michelle gets sick and there is no one there to hold her hand.

"I'm lucky I have my mother," Silky said. "She's where I go when I really need to cry."

Ms. Bonilla says she does not cry. She says she keeps the house, keeps her girls in line and keeps on working.

Her own man, Francisco Martinez, was wounded in combat in Vietnam. When he came back to the Bronx, he worked as a machinist. Then came the flashbacks, Ms. Bonilla said, and then the problems with his heart. She cared for him for nearly seven years, but they eventually divorced, and he moved back to Puerto Rico. He visits only rarely. If he gets in touch with them at all, it is usually by phone.

For her own part, Silky seems to hold no grudge against her father. "My father taught me that if there's no man in my life, I can do it by myself," she said. "Even though he may not live with us anymore, that was the lesson he had to teach."

Neither man has ever paid child support, although the women say they have not fought for it. They are proud to be making it on their own. No men need apply.

"If the ceiling falls," Ms. Bonilla said with a tender, tired smile, "I'll just put a finger up and support it."

Life was not always so happy. Ms. Bonilla was crushed when she learned that Silky was pregnant.

"At first, I told myself that I was going to let her do it by herself," she said. After all, Ms. Bonilla had taken care of her two daughters and her ailing husband all alone.

Eventually, she changed her mind. "I said, `I can't let my daughter be alone,' " she said. "It was tough, but then, reality is tough."

She felt the same way when Silky applied for welfare three years ago. Ms. Bonilla, too, had been on welfare, but then she worked and saved money and removed herself from the rolls.

Things are different now, she said. They are better. The family gets by. She said she would never take another public dime.

Silky, however, still receives welfare, and after helping to clean up, she took the subway to the welfare office on East 138th Street to contest the requirement that she work in exchange for her government check.

She claims that it is better to take a welfare check than a job paying minimum wage. After all, the government gives her money for clothing, food, and shelter – even for her daughter's health care. Her mother gives her money for the rest.

If Silky found a job, she would eventually lose that money. She would have to rely upon her mother even more. "If I found a good job, I would definitely take it," Silky said. "But good jobs don't exist."

In New York City, single mothers are the most likely people to receive public assistance, according to a study released last year by the Community Service Society, a group that serves and studies the poor. Indeed, at the welfare office, there were dozens of women waiting, yawning, staring at the floor. Many had young children with them. Some had two or three.

Several times a week, Silky volunteers at Mothers on the Move, a Bronx-based advocacy group for single mothers. She is involved with the group, she said, because when she works there, she can take Michelle.

"The biggest problem is baby-sitting," said Carmen Silva, who is on the group's board. "The problems with money are always bad, but the worst is finding someone you really trust to watch your kids."

After her appointment at the welfare office, Silky stopped by the group's headquarters on Intervale Avenue to make some photocopies and to check on her current projects, which include a plan to improve the public schools and a protest against a local fertilizer company.

A change overcame her when she stepped inside the office. Suddenly, she was smiling. She looked happy. She looked calm. "This is my little hiding spot," she said. "When I need a break, then I come here."

Silky is nonetheless aware that breaks like this are possible because her mother pays the bills and cleans the clothes and watches Michelle when she wants to be alone.

"When I knew that I was going to raise Michelle myself," she said, "I really understood everything my mother went through. When I think about it now, it makes me proud."

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