For Kim Eun-jin, a 36-year-old working mother in South Korea, being at work is her “break.”
She gets up at 4:30 a.m. every morning, leaves for work and returns home at about 8:30 p.m. What awaits after her long commute -- she lives in Incheon and works in Seoul -- are dirty dishes and unfolded laundry.
She makes dinner, does the dishes, mops the floor and folds the laundry. Then she spends about 30 minutes talking to her kids -- one 8, the other 12 -- who are looked after by Kim’s mother-in-law during the day. There is no time for rest. She usually goes to bed after midnight.
“If I get to live another life, I’d like to live as a single woman,” Kim told The Korea Herald. “I don’t necessarily regret getting married. But I don’t necessarily want to go through it again, either. I’ll admit -- being married and a working mother can be really hard at times. ”
Kim is one of 44 percent of South Korea’s married women who think marriage is not necessary for everyone.
According to a recent study by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, which surveyed 11,009 married women nationwide, 44 percent of the participants said marriage was only optional and not mandatory. Of the total, 6 percent said it is in fact better for women to stay single.
Last week, a separate study by the same think tank revealed that 50 percent of Korea’s single women thought marriage is an option rather than a necessity.
“I wouldn’t ‘encourage’ young single women to stay single,” Kim said. “But I would tell them to think thoroughly before making their decision. Marriage can throw surprises. And not all of them are good ones.”
Researchers said poor work-life balance and lack of financial independence may be the biggest reason why married women feel skeptical about marriage. They pointed out that married women in their 30s and 40s, as well as those with low education levels were more likely to have a negative view of married life.
“Compared to women in their 20s or 50s, women in their 30s and 40s are often faced with a situation where they have to juggle child care, careers, and domestic chores all at once,” researchers wrote in the report. “This indicates that those who are the busiest are the unhappiest in their marriage.”
Kim said her work continues even on weekends, as she has to cook for her mother-in-law -- who lives with her family and wants her breakfast at 6 a.m. -- while doing other domestic chores. Her husband has longer hours at work and gets home very late.
She said she has tried to quit her job once -- despite its potential impact on their household finance -- partly because one of the family members wanted her to stay home and be a full-time mother.
“I often envy my single friends who have a lot of spare time. Going on trips alone or enjoying hobbies are almost unthinkable in my schedule right now,” she said.
Meanwhile, the report showed that highly educated women felt happier in marriage than those with lower education levels. While only 2 percent of married women who have postgraduate degrees said it is better for women to stay single, almost 15 percent of those who never attended high school said the same.
According to data from the Korea Women’s Development Institute, the employment rate is higher for married women with high school diplomas than those with undergraduate or postgraduate degrees as of last year.
“Our data show that many highly educated women stay as housewives either voluntarily or involuntarily after getting married,” said KWDI researcher Kim Young-ran.
“Data also show that highly educated women are more likely to marry high-earning men. The work-life balance may be better for the financially stable, highly educated married women who don’t have to have full-time jobs than those who have both professional and domestic obligations with limited financial stability.”
Kim pointed out that Korea’s male-dominated corporate culture does not allow male employees to fully participate in child care and family life.
“It’s still unthinkable for male workers to get a few days off at work to look after their sick kids,” she said.
“If the work culture does not change, family life won’t change, either. And more women would avoid being married, as marriage in general gives them more work at home and this becomes a disadvantage in their careers. The fact that even married women -- who have the experience of marriage -- don’t exactly recommend getting married, reflects how prevalent sexism is at both home and work in Korea.”
Choe In-seong, a 30-year-old who has been married for 1 1/2 years, said that in spite of the hardships, marriage and being a mother have made her a better person. Starting a family with her husband has given her a sense of security, emotional stability and even a peace of mind, she said.
“I know it sounds really weird. My life with a baby is actually pretty chaotic. But in a paradoxical sense, this chaotic life gives me a sense of peace -- because almost every problem that I had (before my daughter was born) doesn’t matter to me anymore,” she said. “What’s important to me now is watching my daughter grow every day, because she literally does something new every day. I’m physically exhausted, but nothing else has been more fulfilling in my life.”
But even for Choe, having a child was only possible because she had a job that guaranteed a maternity leave and her return to work, she said.
As of 2014, the latest figures by Statistics Korea showed that 22 percent of married women quit their jobs because of child care related reasons, including employers that fire female workers who become pregnant.
“I think if my employer did not guarantee workers’ return after maternity leaves, I may not have chosen to have a baby at all,” she said. ”It’s not just about money. It’s more about my (professional) identity which I have earned through years of efforts. I wouldn’t have wanted to give that up for a child. And I think no working woman should.”
By Claire Lee(firstname.lastname@example.org)
Kim Eun-jin is not her real name. It has been changed upon request. -- Ed.