The Korea Herald


Korean mother-in-law’s mantra: Please cook for my son

Food becomes a cause of generational conflict between in-laws, and working wives’ poor work-life balance

By 이다영

Published : July 10, 2016 - 18:00

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When Kim Eun-ju got married in 2007, she never expected her mother-in-law would call her every day to ask a particular question: What did you feed my son for breakfast today? 

“My mother-in-law would first call me, get my answers and then call my husband to check whether I lied to her or not,” the 39-year-old registered nurse told The Korea Herald. “She would call me every day for the first three months of my marriage – just to make sure I made him homemade breakfast.”

Throughout her 10-year marriage, Kim said she struggled with her work and life balance partly because of her mother-in-law, who insisted all the household chores, especially cooking, were a woman’s job. As a nurse working at a general hospital, Kim would often have full-length nightshifts and catch up on her sleep during the day. 

But whenever Kim’s mother-in-law saw her husband doing laundry or cleaning, she would get upset and make him stop. She would tell her son: ‘Why on earth do you have to do such trivial work? All my life, my wish was to see you being respected (by your wife and children).”

“There were many times my mother-in-law interrupted my sleep during the day by calling me, just to ask me what I made my husband for breakfast,” she said. “I was so stressed about it and my mother ended up making side dishes for me -- so I can tell my mother-in-law I made my husband something good every day.”

Generation gap among Korean women

South Korea’s family structure has gone through dramatic changes since the 1980s, and so has the collective experience of Korean women.

From 2010 to 2014 alone, the number of double-income households increased from 27.9 percent to 31.2 percent. More women in Korea are being educated, participating in the labor force and putting off marriage.  
Turbulent relationships between mothers-in-law and their daughters-in-law have been featured countless times in South Korea‘s TV series, films and plays. A scene from MBC‘s drama series Turbulent relationships between mothers-in-law and their daughters-in-law have been featured countless times in South Korea‘s TV series, films and plays. A scene from MBC‘s drama series "Iron Lady Cha." (MBC)

In the 1980s, only about 30 percent of Korean girls enrolled in post-secondary education, whereas 74.6 percent of school girls did so last year. Women’s employment rate also rose from 42.8 percent to 49.5 in the same time period. The average age at first marriage among Korean women increased significantly from 23 in 1981 to 30 this year.

The generational dissonance between Korean mothers-in-law – who expects their daughters-in-law to take care of domestic chores and husbands even if they have their own careers – and their “worn-out” daughters-in-law have been prevalently discussed on Korea’s social media.

Earlier this month, a citizen journalist’s column on her wish to be treated to a home-cooked dinner by her pregnant daughter-in-law triggered outrage among some netizens on SNS, some even calling it a “piece that belongs to the horror genre.”

The netizens asked why the author expects a home-cooked meal -- which requires time and service on top of money – only from her daughter-in-law, not from her own son.

“There is a severe generational gap between women born in the 1950s and 60s, and those who were born in the 70s and 80s,” said Hong Seung-ah, a researcher who specializes in women’s work and life balance at the Korean Women’s Development Institute.

“While many of the older women spent their lives as housewives, thinking domestic chores and child care are women’s responsibilities, the younger generation value individual happiness and professional ambitions, as well as sharing domestic work with their (male) spouses.”

Hong pointed out that for women in their 50s and older, the idea of sharing domestic responsibilities with their husbands was practically unthinkable, even if they had their own jobs while raising their young children.

“They are not really used to the idea of equality at home. Regardless of their employment status, they considered domestic chores as their basic duty (as a wife and a mother). And some of them have trouble coping with the changing gender roles as they are expecting their daughters-in-law to do the same.”

Statistics show that Korean men still spend the least hours on domestic chores in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations. As of 2014, Korean women on average spent 3 hours and 25 minutes daily on household chores on weekdays, whereas men only spent 39 minutes.

Jeong Eun-ji, a 34-year-old working wife, said Korean mothers in their 50s and older contributed to the gender disparity experienced by young married Korean women at home, by not teaching their sons how to perform household activities while raising them.

Her husband, for example, lived with his parents for 34 years until he married Jeong two years ago. Throughout his entire life prior to the marriage, his mother did all household chores for him – preparing his meals, cleaning his room and doing his laundry. She said her younger brother was raised in a similar way – her mother would only make Jeong help her with cooking and other household chores.

“It seems like my mother-in-law still wants me to replace her as his caregiver slash his personal chef, instead of treating him like an adult. She once told me, ‘your husband needs somebody to look after him. Otherwise he’s going to skip meals.’ But he’s 36 years old. If he skips meals, let him deal with it. It shouldn’t be his mother’s problem anymore.”
A scene from jTBC‘s drama series “Childless Comfort,” which deals with a full-time pharmacist (right) and her difficult relationship with her mohter-in-law. (jTBC) A scene from jTBC‘s drama series “Childless Comfort,” which deals with a full-time pharmacist (right) and her difficult relationship with her mohter-in-law. (jTBC)

Between ‘Please rest’ and ‘I appreciate your work’

Lee Mi-yeon, a 38-year-old public servant, thinks of her mother-in-law as a sweet, kind-hearted person. Born in 1948 to farmers in a small rural town, she couldn’t continue her studies after finishing elementary school as she had to care for her eight younger siblings while working in her family farm. After marrying Lee’s father-in-law, a railway worker from a not-so-affluent family, she became a full-time housewife and mother.

“She just belongs to a different generation,” Lee said. “That does not make her a bad person.”

For Lee’s mother-in-law, making food on national holidays for her grown children is one of her biggest joys. She also takes pride in being respected by her daughters-in-law, usually in the form of being treated to a home-cooked meal.

But Lee said it was not always easy getting along with her mother-in-law, who firmly believed that domestic chores should be done by women. Whenever she and her husband visited the parents’ house, only Lee would have to help her make food, while her husband was told to rest.

“She would always tell me, ‘I appreciate your hard work,’ while making sure my husband does not set foot in the kitchen,” she said. “She’d tell him: ‘Please rest, you have to rest. It’s your rare chance to relax away from work.’ But, you know, I’m also employed full-time.”

Once, Lee was almost late for work because her mother-in-law, who was briefly staying at Lee’s house, insisted Lee must use newly cooked rice for her husband’s breakfast, instead of the left-over made the night before. “She said her son needs to have a proper breakfast with freshly cooked rice,” Lee said.

Another time, when Lee’s family went on a camping, her husband ended up grilling the meat at an outdoor barbecue – as he was more experienced with the fire. Her mother-in-law became extremely upset. “She kept saying, ‘He should be eating! He should be eating (not grilling)!” Lee said. “It was as if she was witnessing his son being severely mistreated by others in public.”

“My husband repeatedly explained that it’s more common for men to grill meat at a barbecue these days, but it just made her even more upset,” Lee said.

Park Soo-ha, a 28-year-old working professional in Seoul, said she had to lie many times to her mother-in-law, especially when she and her husband ate out. Like Kim, Park also received regular phone calls from her mother-in-law, who would always ask her what she made for her husband for dinner each day.

“I would just say whatever menu that popped up in my head,” she said. “One day I’d say we ate kimchi stew, the other day I’d say I cooked the meat you sent us a few days back. Should I repeat the same menu from the day before, she would say ‘You ate that again today?’”

Once, when Park lied she made galchijjim, braised hairtail, for dinner, Park’s mother-in-law became suspicious.

“She asked me to make the same dish and bring it to her house the next time I visit her,” she said. “So I bought the dish at a market and put it in a Tupperware container, to make it look like it’s homemade.”

Feeling conflicted

During her first year as a married woman, Lee Su-bin received an unexpected phone call from her sister-in-law. Lee had just made a reservation at a restaurant for her mother-in-law’s upcoming birthday.

“My sister-in-law said, ‘Daughters-in-law are supposed to provide a home-cooked meal for their mothers-in-law’s first birthday that they celebrate as a family. You know that, right?’”

Despite the pressure, Lee went ahead with the restaurant plan, as her husband defended Lee on her behalf.

But Lee said she felt guilty when her mother-in-law’s birthday returned a year later.

“So I just decided to make her a home-cooked birthday dinner just to get it off my chest,” she said.

Lee said as a woman who grew up in a gender-specific culture, she finds herself feeling conflicted about such traditional yet sexist expectations on daughters-in-laws.

“To be honest, I know that if I had a younger brother and his wife didn’t provide a home-cooked dinner for my mother’s birthday, I would also question her fitness to become the member of our family,” she said.

Park, meanwhile, said even her own mother tells her to make sure her husband eats properly.

“I make more money than my husband, and I work longer hours than him,” she said. “And still, cooking is considered my responsibility (by both my own mother and my mother-in-law.)”

Colliding different dreams

It took some time for Kim’s mother-in-law to understand why Kim needs to catch up on her sleep during the day. She’s never been treated as an inpatient at a general hospital, and has only encountered nurses at small clinics. She simply thought being a nurse at night can’t be “that hard.”

“In my mother-in-law’s time, most married women who had a job worked as bookkeepers, domestic workers or teachers,” Kim said. “She said all the nurses she’d encountered are ‘just sitting down’ a lot of the time.”

Three years ago, her mother-in-law temporarily moved in to Kim’s house to care for her grandchildren. Her mother-in-law did not understand why Kim was always asleep during the day, and why her son was doing domestic chores.

Once, before going to work, Kim was about to have her lunch at home after waking up during the day. But all of a sudden, her mother-in-law started cleaning the fridge and took every item out of it, making the kitchen too cluttered to prepare anything.

“I still don’t know why she did that,” Kim said. “I just grabbed a piece of bread on my way to work and cried until I arrived in the hospital. It just felt so unfair.”

To tackle the situation, Kim’s husband had to repeatedly explain to his mother, in detail, what Kim has to do at work -- including maintaining reports of patient’s medical histories and providing instant care during medical emergencies.

With Kim’s husband’s help, her mother-in-law has changed over the years, albeit reluctantly, she said. She no longer calls Kim during the day. She now asks her own sons for help when preparing for food on holidays.

“My mother-in-law said although my husband is her own son, he is still a grown man, and she’s just not comfortable nor used to asking adult male for favors,” Kim said.

One of Kim’s mother-in-law’s biggest joys has been ironing her son’s suits. Kim never really understood why, until about four years ago. Having been married to a blue-collar worker, her mother-in-law said she at least hoped her son to be respected by others. To her, a respected man was someone who is highly educated, successful, does not have worry about domestic chores and treated well by his wife and his children.

“I’ve always admired women who get to iron suits for her husbands,” Kim’s mother-in-law told her four years ago, while ironing her son’s shirt.

“But ironing suits for my spouse has never been one of my lifelong wishes,” Kim said.

By Claire Lee (