Until he died two years ago, the only important event my father had ever missed was my graduation from graduate school. He was at every horseback riding lesson, every ballet recital, stood at the bottom of the ski hill to cheer me on, and read about half of the original Nancy Drew series to me until I could read them for myself. He made breakfast every morning, packed my lunch until I was 18, and he cooked on the weekends. He worked two jobs, volunteered at church, and toward the end of his life, did roughly the same amount of yard work at my grandparents’ house as his own.
November and April, the month he was born and the month he died are always times of deep reflection for me. When I was younger I took for granted not only that he wanted to be such an enormous presence in my life, but that he could.
In a few short months, I will become a chaebol widow – a woman married to a ‘salaryman’ for one of the largest family-run conglomerates which dominate the Korean business landscape. Samsung, LG, Hyundai, Lotte, SK. These companies are not only credited with partially contributing to the Korean economy’s rapid development post-War, but they continue to be some of the most effective contemporary promotional tools for the nation abroad. Chaebol positions are one of the jobs most coveted by recent graduates because of their relative stability and competitive salaries. However, working for a chaebol means devouting more time to your business family than to your blood family.
Mr. Lee is one such salaryman. He works, on average 14 hour days. That means 14 hours in the office not including commuting time and work group commitments. He starts at 7:15 and finishes, on a good night, around 8:00. However, he also has many nights where he is required to join mandatory drinking parties and he has to attend overnight ‘team bonding sessions’ (read: drinking) on a usual basis. And did I mention that every January when promotions and new work assignments are handed out, he could be suddenly relocated to a rural office near Gwangju or on the outskirts of Pusan with only a few days to move? Not to mention the ‘generous’ 5 day/year vacation days doled out.
Indeed, for a country which prides itself on ‘loving the family,’ Korean companies have created a culture wherein loyalty to one’s company is expected to override spending time with one’s children.
I once had a lovely student who was very open about her family dynamics in ways many Koreans are not with ‘foreigners.’ She had a wonderful relationship with her father, but admitted that although she lived with him, she had not seen him in four months. In fact, many children do not see either parent on a daily basis because if they are both salarypeople, their children are usually raised by relatives. Children may stay with their parents during the weekend, but stay with other relatives during the week. In cases where children are raised by their aunts, they may actually lack a male presence in their lives if their uncles are working the same hours as their fathers. In situations where the mother does not work, it is she (and the hagwons – private after school schools) which are responsible for 95% of parenting.
I know of many bosses who force their underlings to go drinking with them because there are estranged from their own wives and children after so many years of being forced to drink with their superiors. I once had student who was a business owner. He lamented about the gulf between his children and himself. He filled his own aching sense of loneliness with prostitutes, alcohol, and failed attempts at AA while still acting as his children’s ‘ATM.’ The ATM metaphor is surely one of the most ubiquitous terms salarymen use to describe their relationships with their children.
Growing up with such an active and engaged father, it pains me to think that our future children will not be able to have such a presence in their own lives. And of course, although I desperately want to be a mother, I dread the enormous burden I will face in being a career woman and the only parent our future children will see during most of the week.
My Canadian friends share the housework equally with their partners. They have husbands who cook, clean, and look forward to sharing parental leave when their children are born. Their husbands save up weeks of holidays and spend the first two or three weeks after the birth of their children at home bonding with their babies. They coach little league and pack lunches and pick the kids up from school when mothers need to stay late at the office.
In the latest figures released, only 1.6% of Korean fathers take the THREE day unpaid parental leave allowed by law. 1.6%. Only 0.46% of Korean mothers take the 1 year pitifully subsidized maternity leave guaranteed to them under the law. It is inconceivable that men are so fearful for their jobs and promotion opportunities that they do not take off THREE days at the birth of their child. In fact, I have yet to meet a foreign English teacher who has been ‘allowed’ to take three days off either.
So in addition to the educational and employment opportunities I have passed up in order to stay and build a life with Mr. Lee, I know that once I have children my career will be limited in even more ways because Mr. Lee’s work life is so inflexible. I never expected that I would be placed in such a situation, or that I would have a partner who WANTS to be a constant presence in his future children’s lives, but realistically can’t. I always expected that I would be part of a more equal partnership of constant give and take.
But despite this expected burden, I do have choices. I have the choice to have a child or not. I have the choice to keep my career or not. I have the choice to exert pressure on Mr. Lee to change his career despite the years he has invested in his job. I have the choice to place the blame for this work culture on my Mr. Lee, or I have the choice to accept the blessings and burdens that life gives me and find peace in that.
Recently I read this article in the NYT about the Obama’s marriage. Personally I wanted Obama to win because after 8 years of Laura Bush, I yearned for a feisty First Lady. I was touched by the openness with which the Obamas talked about the ups and downs of their marriage. Certainly, Michelle Obama, just like Hillary Rodham Clinton, has had to drastically change her life path and career opportunities to support her husband’s goals. Being a salaryman’s wife is nothing compared to being the First Lady of the United States of America.
Perhaps the most touching line of the article is found at the end. “The equality of any partnership “is measured over the scope of the marriage. It’s not just four years or eight years or two,” the first lady said. “We’re going to be married for a very long time.”
If I begin to measure the strength of our relationship or lifestyle or marriage by moment to moment equality, our marriage will fail. Any marriage would fail. Marriage is and should be for a very long time. Family is and should be for a very long time. I may carry the load of childcare responsibilities during the early years of our marriage. I may have to defer promotions, or pass on great work opportunities. Our children may have to live with writing bedtime notes to their father or waiting to see him until Saturday when they are young. But perhaps in the long term these responsibilities and opportunities will even out. Time spent with mum and dad will even out.
I am not ‘there’ yet. I am not married with children. I have not fully accepted that equal partnership is “measured over the scope of the marriage.” But I hope that when I am ‘there’ (married with children), that I will be ‘there’ (acceptance). I hope that despite the fact that my partner will not have the same amount of time to spend with his future children as my father did, that he will nonetheless spend quality time. And I hope that I will be able to embrace the double burden gratefully in the way that my father did. My father left a legacy in which he found himself in providing for his family, and I hope we can learn to do the same.