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Snow was falling two weeks ago when Kathy S.'s car broke down blocks from her West Side apartment.

Her only choice was to abandon the junk heap and walk if she hoped to get home before her four young daughters returned from school.

But what would she do now?

Kathy's wages as a part-time hairdresser barely paid the bills, and she already was drowning in debt. Somehow, she guessed, it was only fitting her car should end up buried in snow.

"It's just all of these things," the 38-year-old single mother said in frustration.

"You think you're getting ahead, and you're still in quicksand. I don't know what I'm going to do for Christmas this year."

Overwhelmed by bills and trying to meet the demands of raising four children alone, Kathy is not optimistic about the holidays.

Last Christmas, Kathy said, the father of her 5-year-old twins stole all the presents she had bought for the children so that he could buy crack cocaine.

"I didn't realize how bad this drug was," she said. "I thought maybe I could work him through it because he claimed he loved me. I was trying to help him so the kids would have a chance at having some kind of a family life."

Realizing the futility of that endeavor, she threw him out.

Now the girls' father is enrolled in a rehabilitation program but is unemployed, which doesn't help Kathy collect any child support.

Trying to pay bills using a credit card, Kathy recently ended up in bankruptcy court.

Kathy said she earns only the minimum wage at her job as a licensed hairdresser for a national chain of beauty salons. She works six hours a day on weekdays so that she she can be home when the girls return from school. She said she does not make great tips to supplement her wages.

The customers are "going there for the low price," she said. "Not very many of them tip. I leave out of there on a Saturday with like $13 in tips, and I've got to come home and pay the baby sitter $20."

She added: "In order to make $6 an hour (85 cents over minimum), I have to bring in $525 (in business) a day, but many of the customers seem to come more at nighttime when I'm not there. So what kind of money can I make?"

"It's just not enough," said Lynette Newton, a counselor with the Clarkson Center for Human Services, referring to Kathy's earnings. "I can add it up and see that it's virtually nothing."

Ms. Newton visits Kathy's home occasionally to offer assistance and make sure the family is coping under the stress. Recently, Ms. Newtwon recommended that Kathy consider a temporary respite from motherhood, for her sake and the girl's.

"Respite is just to give the mom a break," Ms. Newton explained. "It's used when the mom is overwhelmed and depressed. The kids are removed from the home for up to 30 days. It's completely voluntary."

While Kathy expressed reluctance, Ms. Newton said such a respite may be necessary to keep Kathy's household intact.

"It's so sad that it has to happen around the holidays, but I'm afraid that if mom doesn't get it, the kids will be permanently removed because mom may do something that she doesn't really mean to do because she's under a great deal of stress," Ms. Newton said.

"She's coming in from work from a stressful job. She's not making any money, and she has four kids running around, all demanding her attention.

"Each kid requires different things, and she can't give it to them all at once," Ms. Newton said.

Despite her pessimism about the holidays, Kathy hopes that the girls will be with her on Christmas. She also hopes to be able to pay for the one toy she put on layaway for each of the girls until she began contemplating the mounting utility bills and her car under a pile of snow.

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