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After custody fight, Harvard mom and baby settle into campus life

September 22, 1997

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) _ For Gina Ocon, the choice was an easy one.

The unmarried 21-year-old mother could stay at home in Southern California with her infant daughter, scraping by on welfare. Or she and little Bailey could return to Massachusetts and a $35,000 scholarship to Harvard University.

The problem was, the father of her child wanted Ocon to stay in California so he could be near his daughter.

Now, after months of rancor and court battles, Ocon and Bailey are back at Harvard, settling into a routine of classes and day care.

Ocon is pretty much a regular Harvard undergrad, except for her apartment in the graduate quarters, the diaper bills and the difficulties of chasing an active 15-month-old up the front steps of Widener Library.

Being a single parent, she said, has put Harvard in perspective.

``There are more important things than just getting straight A’s and going to the best law school in the country,″ she said last week.

Ocon had just finished her freshman year at Harvard when she returned to her native Lakewood, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb, in 1995. She was looking for a fun romance after a tough academic year. She found it in Tommaso Maggiore, a high school acquaintance and community college student who worked in his family’s Italian restaurant.

When the summer ended, the couple decided to date long-distance, and Ocon returned to Harvard for her sophomore year. She didn’t realize she was pregnant until October.

She withdrew from school and returned to California to have the baby, moving in with Maggiore and his parents in Long Beach. Her Harvard friends said that she was crazy, that she was going to ruin her life.

Ocon figured she would go back to school eventually. And the idea of young motherhood didn’t scare her too much. After all, Ocon’s mother had her when she was just 17, raising Ocon pretty much by herself.

After Bailey was born in June 1996, the relationship between the baby’s parents began to unravel. Ocon resented that she was still in California and not back at school. Maggiore filed for custody.

The case went to trial. Ocon went on welfare.

Maggiore argued that he and his family could better care for Bailey in California. And he called his ex-girlfriend selfish for wanting to move their child to Massachusetts. A court ruled in Ocon’s favor.

Yes, Ocon admitted last week, perhaps it was a bit selfish to want to return to Harvard and an Ivy League education. But she added: ``If I’m happy, confident and successful, that’s going to spill over to my daughter. If I’m miserable and on welfare, that’s also going to spill over to her.″

Ocon has sole custody. Maggiore can see Bailey during school vacations. The parents split Bailey’s day-care costs, and Maggiore pays $214 a month in child support.

Harvard agreed to increase the scholarship package Ocon was receiving, providing additional money for living expenses, a one-bedroom unfurnished graduate student apartment overlooking the Charles River and health insurance for the baby.

Yard-sale specials have helped Ocon furnish the apartment, which she decorated with photographs that include her ex-boyfriend. She said she wants her baby to see Maggiore daily, if not in person, then at least in color 8-by-10s.

Maggiore, who described himself as the ``underdog″ in the custody case, said Monday he feels excluded from his daughter’s life. His daughter, he said, is spending nearly 40 hours a week in day care when she could be spending her days with him and his family back in California.

``I’m missing seeing her grow, basically,″ said Maggiore, 21. ``This is the most important time of her life and I feel this is the most important time that I should be in her life. But obviously the court didn’t see that.″

For a time, he considered moving east to be closer to Bailey, but decided against it.

Despite everything, he said, he still has feelings for Ocon.

``I love and care for my daughter and I still care for Gina just because she is the mother of my daughter,″ he said.

Ocon said the love she once felt for Maggiore is gone. Each claims the other is confrontational during visits with the baby. Maggiore faces charges of assaulting a friend of Ocon’s during one visit.

Now a sophomore majoring in social studies, Ocon finds that parenting, homework and an on-campus clerical job leave little room for a social life. Classmates are always offering to baby-sit, but it doesn’t give her enough time to rejoin the rugby team she left two years ago.

Harvard officials won’t say if there are any other parents among Harvard’s 6,600 undergraduates. Ocon said she knows of four, although she has yet to meet them. One of the single mothers, she said, is much older.

The friends she started school with are seniors now, writing theses, interviewing for jobs, applying to graduate school. Ocon, who dreams of becoming an ambassador or an international lawyer, is directing her energies elsewhere.

``It takes a lot of pettiness out of being a Harvard student,″ Ocon said. ``I’ve got a smiling face to wake up to and a smiling face to put to bed.″

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