It has never been easy for a single mother to raise a child. This scenario can be unbearably hard to imagine when it happens to a college student. In 2016, Jori Garland, a single mother who lives in Laurens, South Carolina, made the second most important decision in her life. She resumed her college study after a five-year period. The most critical decision in her life, however, was to bring up the child all by herself after quitting college in 2011.

As a double-day mother, working at school and home, Garland not only had to pay close attention to her 4-year-old son, Matthew, but also needed to take care of her schoolwork. “It’s very important to be able to go back to school, especially if you have kids.” After graduation from high school in 2009, she went directly to college when she was 19 years old. “I did many stereotypic things when I first attended college. I lost a lot of focus.” At that time, she was focusing on trying to fix the relationship that later she realized wouldn’t go anywhere. With long-time neglect of schoolwork, her academic performance deteriorated. Exhaustion drove her to believe that dropping out was her only and the best option.

“I think my lowest low is when I had been to a 4-year college and to work at McDonald’s.” During the first year after she dropped out, she had to keep working at many different jobs to make a living. Most of them were at retailers, and these kinds of jobs in her eye were “piddly jobs.” Working full time at McDonald’s, she felt the deepest disappointment she had ever experienced. “It was third-shift, and I absolutely hated it. It was the most horrible job I have ever had.”

When it rains, it often pours. Garland was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety in her early 20s. “I suffered for a long time before that. I thought these years could help me explore and figure out what I was going to do. I was really lost.” Unexpectedly, she found out she was pregnant in the second year after she dropped.

This relationship had started in her freshman year. “The father of my child was in the last year of high school. That was when we dated” He was one year younger than Garland. Living in the same neighborhood, they had known each other since Garland was fourteen. “We were best friends.” In her sophomore year, Garland gradually noticed that this relationship was not working and took too much of her time. “Instead of focusing that energy on keeping good grades and what I need to do in college, I was too busy trying to repair this relationship that was toxic anyway.” This relationship, eventually, ended before she left the campus. “When we broke up, I lost my best friend. That really hurt me more than anything.”

When they had the very first conversation about pregnancy, they were not together at that time. “It was not planned; It was kind of like hi-and-let’s-do-the-thing, and then I found out I was pregnant.”

Before Garland dated the father of her child, she already knew that he had had a child before. “He was 16 years old at that time, and I saw the relationship between him and his oldest son at that time. It seemed like he didn’t take being a dad seriously.” When she found out she was pregnant, she immediately had a serious conversation with him. “I told him the way he treated his first child wouldn’t be good enough for mine. He could be a 100 percent father and do what he was supposed to do. Or he could just leave us alone.”

In the face of being a mother in her emerging adulthood, Garland, for a very split second, supposed giving up the baby might be an option. “I did give it a thought to get an abortion, but then I didn’t think that was fair. If I was old enough to get pregnant, I should be able to take the responsibility and raise the child.”

Confronted with Garland’s question, the father of her child chose to leave them alone. The consensus had been reached, and that also reminded Garland of her childhood.

“My father did the same thing.” Garland was raised by her mother from her birth. She had no chance to see her father until she was three and after than only occasionally. “My father only came around at his convenience. I would go months without seeing him. It was more like I was convenient rather than important.” There were lots of empty promises from her father; hence Garland decided she would never let the same experience happen to her child.

With the pregnancy comes expectations. “When I found out I was pregnant with Matthew, something clicked, and it drove me to be a better person.” Garland finally attended the therapy to fix her intense emotions. “I wouldn’t have done that without my child, and I didn’t think people truly understand how much I needed that child.”

She began her therapy in 2015 when Matthew was 1 year old. Garland got admitted for treatment immediately because of her history of emotional breakdown. One time, when she asked a question at front desk and didn’t get an instant answer, she completely flew off the handle. “That was when I realized that I was really not okay, and something was not right because that was so out of character for me. I had never done anything like that before.”

The uncontrollable irrational thoughts would trigger panic attacks and create bombing negative thinking one after another. After Matthew’s birth, in particular, she used to feel everything would go in vain no matter how hard she tried. Garland began to think that she was a bad mother and her child deserved to be with someone else. If she encountered a flat tire and got stuck on the side of a road, chances are that she would assume that such incident was the first of millions regarding bad things on their way. Once when she came through the panic attack, the unwilling episodic pieces would pop into her mind unexpectedly. Meanwhile, the acute symptoms engulfed her, usually beyond her awareness. She couldn’t breathe for a while and cried a lot for no reason. Instead of reaching out for some help, all she wanted was to stay alone.

The whole mental treatment lasted two years with 12 sessions. Since then, Garland has become more confident in coping with stressful and depressive events. Once in a while, she could still have three different panic attacks a day, but overall most of them are controllable at this point. “I know it won’t officially go away, and I might need one session every six. Luckily, I know how to handle it better when an attack does come.” A coloring book is one of the most effective coping strategies for her. “I had Halloween, my son’s birthday, and final exams and Christmas. So briefly, my stress level was like through the roof. But when I started to feel that, I would bring out the coloring book.” Over the past 20 years, single-parent families have become even more common than the so-called “nuclear family” as American Psychology Association pointed out in the latest study. Life in a single parent household, though common, can be quite stressful. However, despite various outside stressors, many mental disorders are because of genetics.

Unfortunately, even before Garland was born, her mother had already suffered from major depressive disorders, some of which were severer. “Growing up as a child and seeing my mom living that way and made me feel terrible.” Even after biomedical therapy, a means of physiological interventions that focuses on the reduction of symptoms associated with psychological disorders, the reoccurring would happen to her mother again. “She struggled with hers a lot more than I did mine. I was not sure why that is, but she still suffered terribly.”

“Later, I could remember people would ask me what I wanted to accomplish when finished my therapy. I said, I want to go back to school.”

Today, Garlands family has built a strong foundation of support. Her mother and grandmother take care of her son while she is on campus. Realizing the benefits of cognitive behavior therapy, she changed her major to psychology when she returned to Lander University where she had been an English Education major. “I was actually trying to go Piedmont Technical College. They offer associate degrees and have a mini-campus close to my hometown. Then, I started to think that I would drive to Greenwood anyway. So I could reapply to Lander I’d get the same financial aid and a Bachelor’s.”

The financial challenge can often be full of hardship for single mothers. After Garland had Matthew, she moved back with her mother. For most of the time, her mother covers the bulk of the bills. Since she has government support and 69 a week from the father of her child, daycare expenses would be covered. Additionally, she works a part-time job at a local gas station in Greenwood, SC., and as a supplement instructor on campus. “Getting three different paychecks should have helped me make a lot of money, but I drive 45 miles a day one way to Greenwood. So most of my checks go to gas.” From a rough estimate, it was about 50-60 dollars a week. Such a burden and pressure are not uncommon. In 2017, it was reported by the U.S. Census Bureau that out of about 12 million single-parent families with children under the age of 18, more than 80% were headed by single mothers. “I did consider adoption. Then I realized there would be no way I would be carry a child for 9 months and then give it to somebody else.” The day before this Thanksgiving holiday, November 22, was Matthew’s fourth birthday. Garland didn’t immediately reject that Matthew’ father and his girlfriend wanted to attend this birthday party. “I started to hang out with the father of my son and his new girlfriend this year, and we are in the beginning stage of trying to figure out how we wanted to handle this situation.” At the same time, people around started to talk about Garland’s situation when they noticed the father of her son showed up more and more in her house. “People started asking me how in the world could I sit there knowing that he wanted nothing to do with my son years ago, and just be okay with him being there now.” No matter what she heard, Garland is staying firm with her own mind. “They don’t see this situation like I see the situation.”

“Because at the end of the day, if I hadn’t been with him, I would not have my child. How could I be mad at the person who gave me literally the greatest thing that I have ever had in my life.” When Garland was thinking of her son’s name, she wanted a generic boy’s name. She picked Matthew because this means “the gift from God” in the Bible. On the other hand, his due day was Christmas Eve, which appeared very symbolic. Yet, it turned out that Matthew decided it to enter the world a little bit earlier and give her mom a surprise. “He was born before Thanksgiving. This messed up my whole plan, but I felt grateful as well.” Bad news always travels faster than the good. Somehow, some gossip began to become well-known in Garland’s neighborhood, particularly after people know about her pregnancy. “I heard this rumor that I sleep around with people a lot of time. I had some people walking up to me and asking, ‘Did you ever figure out who the father was?’” Some people even showed her a list of people who could be the father. “I have never done anything with any one of them. Even worse, a couple of people got upset and told me that I did it on purpose.”

The image Garland’s father might be vague in her memory but has left a vivid print on her life. Unfortunately, her situation echoes almost perfectly with her mom’s. As a single mother, her mother raised her and her brother alone and has stayed unmarried. Her father currently lives with his new girlfriend and their youngest son, 6 months younger than Matthew. She also has two more half-brothers from another former partner of her father. To some extent, she expected her situation. “People always tell you that you choose somebody like your dad. And I always have that back in my mind. But I didn’t know this would be that similarly.” Garland’s father and her son’s father have the same birthday. “I met my dad when I was three years old. And Matthew met his dad at three. Before I was born, he left. You know, the same type of deal.”

She was kind of afraid to be exactly like her mother, and she was trying to avoid it. Before Garland went back to school after having the baby, she met another guy, but it didn’t work out. Undoubtedly, she was trying to bring another man in her life mainly out of the concern for her son. “Matthew has even noticed so much on his birthday that he made some comments like this kid has a dad, but he only has a mom.” Gradually, Matthew will develop the concept of a dynamic family and questions about his father will be inevitably even more.

The father of her son was not in the hospital for Garland’s labor. Her son had to stay in the special unit for eight days after he was born. Matthew’s father never came to see him in the hospital. “As we spent more time together now, I have realized that in the last five years he has not changed at all. The term “father” carries too much weight. Why would I put my child through that hurt to have that expectation that this person is supposed to love him unconditionally?” Garland felt this decision might come back and bite later. Matthew may get mad at her, but she holds a strong belief “I am doing what is best for my child.” In future, Garland has a deal with Matthew’s father that the second her son starts to ask those questions she will send him directly to his father. “Because I do not have those answers.”

If Matthew punches his father in the face, I would tell his father “Don’t come to me. You deserved it.”