Last week, Marcy Perrin prepared a chicken dinner with mashed potatoes and bean salad while her 8-year-old son, Archie, did his homework and firebrand daughter, 4-year-old Katheryn, swooshed through the rooms, climbed atop the dinner table to lounge, then clung to her mother's leg as her colorful beaded braids went whipping through the air.
A good dinner, Ms. Perrin said, helps reduce the harsh impacts of stress on her life as a single mother and keeps her children healthy, even though Katheryn had her own say about the menu: "It's not my favorite foods."
Over the past eight years, Ms. Perrin suffered a long slide into despair with a hard landing. Now she has altered her direction and adopted new goals with renewed energy to climb back and become an advocate for single mothers.
The 27-year-old Duquesne woman, living in an attractive house built by Habitat for Humanity, is busy planning the "American Single Mother" pageant she hopes to hold in June. Her goal is to boost self-esteem of single moms with an eight-week boot camp to help them with financial, household, social and relationship challenges they face.
"It's a pageant for single mothers, but it doesn't promote single motherhood," Ms. Perrin said. "It will be a pageant to showcase her in a positive light and allow the community to support and respect her."
Everything was going in her favor nine years ago. The talented singer and entertainer plays five instruments, and she performed in several musical videos and television commercials. Her personality, talent and determination led to her being crowned in the Miss Black Teenage pageant in 2000 -- a pageant founded and promoted 1971 through 2008 by former Post-Gazette reporter Jean Bryant, 80, of Stanton Heights. As the winner, Ms. Perrin received $1,000 and a full scholarship to Clarion University of Pennsylvania.
Ms. Perrin enrolled at Clarion with confidence she could parlay her success into a victory at the Miss Pennsylvania pageant, then on to Miss America.
But then the slide began.
At 19, she became pregnant and gave birth to Archie, who was diagnosed with hemophilia, a serious blood disorder that prevents the blood from clotting.
She quit college. She had no income. Her son receives federal Supplemental Security Income benefits, and she focused on his health needs. Four years later, she would have a second child, Katheryn, to the same father, Gideon Beatty.
In time, she placed her children in day care and landed a bank job, eventually becoming bank manager, a position that paid $50,000 a year.
But Archie suffered a serious episode of bleeding in his knee while at day care and Children, Youth and Family Services stepped in, she said, threatening to put Archie in foster care if she refused to care for him full time. By then, Mr. Beatty had been sentenced to 15 years in prison on drug charges.
Ms. Perrin said she "felt like a failure."
"I quit my job and became a welfare recipient," she said. "That really knocks you off from feeling you will ever be able to do anything in life. Being a mother is not a bad thing but you feel you never will be able to achieve your goals."
Single motherhood takes its toll on self-esteem, social life, the household and especially finances, she said. But her goal was the welfare of her children.
"You have the emotional instability of not being able to vent. You are forced to suppress your feelings and emotions and focus on problems, plural, at hand that cause stress. You are not able to give your kids the life you wanted to -- the picket fence with a yard in the back -- when the reality is that there is not enough food and you are living in the projects. That's stress -- not being able to feed and clothe your children."
Constant stress caused her illness over the past eight years, including gastrointestinal problems -- a condition that's been linked to stress -- and anxiety. Government programs care for the children, but single mothers typically have no healthcare. "They help us raise our children, but no one does anything for us," she said.
In Duquesne, she has helped other single mothers -- one child showed up at her house for food when the mother was hospitalized for high blood pressure. Ms. Perrin's own experiences and those of other single mothers in her community have convinced her to take action.
"Life is full of the unexpected," she said. "Anyone can become a single mom or dad. It's not by choice.
"Most stressful is when you don't have enough money, and that's all the time. I'm stressed out, but I'm blessed. I eat healthy and maintain my psyche because of the problems I did have."
She said she watches her diet and exercises, while serving a multitude of roles as head of the family. She cares for Archie, whose medical supplies fill a sizable cupboard.
"Normal people can't do what the single mother does," she said.
Pageant founder Ms. Bryant said she's tried to keep track of Ms. Perrin's life with hope that the young woman could pull together and experience success.
"She's a captivating young lady and very driven," Ms. Bryant said. "When Marcy focuses on something, she goes whole hog. She will do her best, give everything she does her best, and figure out how to be better than the best.
"She has my blessings and I'm happy to see that she is getting herself together."
Once she has success on the local level, Ms. Perrin said, she wants to take it nationwide.
"No matter what you are going through, people look down on single motherhood due to having a child out of wedlock," she said. "We don't look broadly enough on why a single mom is a single mom. The father has the choice to disappear.
"Part of the stress?" she said. "Sometimes someone likes to be appreciated."
David Templeton: email@example.com or 412-263-1578.