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As Stigma Eases, Single Motherhood In Mexico Is On The Rise

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On her daily route delivering laundry in her working-class neighborhood in southern Mexico City, Maria Carlotta Santa Maria, or Mari, as she is known, seems to know everyone: the mailman, the woman on the corner selling salty nuts, and her favorite greetings are for the guys at the corner gas station.

Mari is the kind of person that can make this inhospitable and overwhelming megacity seem almost small and friendly. But as a single mother, she says raising her 10-year-old daughter Jimena alone hasn't been easy.

Mari's income is about 600 pesos a week, about $50, from the laundry mat, and a few more pesos taking in ironing on nights and weekends.

She was 38-years-old when she says she had an indiscretion with a married man and got pregnant. Back then, she got a lot of grief from her mom and her aunts.

"My mom was upset that I had a child out of wedlock. She's from another generation," Mari says. Now ... I think women these days are used to having kids on their own."

More unmarried women than ever in Mexico are having children. Nationally, one-fourth of all households in Mexico are headed by a single mother. In big urban centers like Mexico City, it's as high as 35 percent.

With so many women heading up households, the stigma once associated with having children out of wedlock is fading and single mothers are no longer hidden away or spoken about in whispers or as social outcasts.

Beatriz Santa Maria Monjaraz, who heads the Institute for Women in Mexico City, says she's notice the dramatic increase in just the last five to seven years.

"We don't like to call them single mothers," Monjaraz says. "We call them women heads of households, because that is what they are doing.

These women heads of households are the sole wage earners in tens of thousands of homes in this city.

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There's been a dramatic drop in Mexico's birthrate in the past 40 years from an average of nearly seven children per woman to now around two. This has allowed many more women to work outside the home, and Mexican woman now make up nearly half of workforce.

With greater economic freedom has come popular acceptance for single women who head households.

President Enrique Pena Nieto recently announced a new federal life insurance program for single mothers. Under the program, the children will be taken care of in case of the death of the mother. As the president put it, single mothers are the "most appreciated, most loved member holding the family together."

Anthropologist and editor of a feminist journal, Marta Llamas says Mexico is modernizing, opening up economically and in turn becoming more accepting.

Though the country's roots are strongly Catholic, Llamas says, 80 percent of Mexican women say they use contraceptives. But motherhood in Mexico, she says, has been the "normal destiny" of a woman.

"So if a woman is a mother, even if she is a single mother, she is accomplishing what the culture believes is the best for a woman to be," Llamas says.

Llamas worries, however, that all this glosses over the problems women still face: they are paid far less then men, there is rampant discrimination in the workplace and the levels of domestic violence are alarmingly high.

Psychologist Liliana Chavez knows the challenges facing single mothers. At her weekly group therapy session, she shows about a dozen women a diagram outlining the cycle of domestic violence.

One participant, who only wanted to be identified as Anita, talks about being stuck in an abusive relationship, but unable to provide for her children alone.

For Maria Carlotta Santa Maria, the laundry delivery women, getting married to the father of her child was not an option. She says he had a "difficult character."

"We are better off alone than in poor company," she says.

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