Kang Ji-hye, 34, the mother of a 4-year-old boy, runs a wedding shop in Gangnam, Seoul. Her business requires her to work during weekends and even on national holidays. Her husband goes to work at a manufacturing firm six days a week.
After Kang heads to work at 8 a.m., her son Dong-woo is taken care of by a nanny she hired three years ago.
For Kang, this year’s Children’s Day will not be so different from any other day. She asked the nanny to come in despite it being an official holiday, as she found it difficult to take the day off.
“Taking a day off to spend time with their kids is someone else’s story, perhaps it’s for those who work for big conglomerates. Doing so is difficult for workers at midsized companies or small business owners,” Kang said.
There are currently 5.2 million working parents in Seoul alone, and many struggle to find a balance between work and family.
National holidays are worse for such parents who are desperate to find reliable people to take care of their kids as child care centers remain closed.
“It is not just about the physical challenge, but also emotional ones, as I constantly question myself whether all this is worth it. I constantly feel tremendous guilt for spending so much time on my career while basically leaving my children in the hands of others,” said Lee Jin-hee, 39, who is a manager at a firm in Seoul. “I charge through day by day assuring myself that one day my children will grow to respect what I have achieved not just as their mother but also as a person.”
South Korea’s long working hours have been one of the key factors that hinder constructive work-family balance and consequently the low birthrate. Korea had the second-highest average number of working hours at an average of 2,124 hours among the 34 member states of the OECD.
A report released by Seoul Foundation of Women and Family earlier this year showed that married couples’ struggle for compatibility between work and family can be attributed to several social factors.
The report stated that purchasing a home, securing a career, saving up for the future and surviving culture still biased against working mothers all contribute to their struggle to spend time with children.
A mother of a 2-year-old girl who is currently on her year-long maternity leave said she was already afraid to go back to work in June.
“I thought the one-year maternity leave would be long enough for me and my daughter. I will now have to face the reality that I will have to spend more time at work than with my daughter for our family’s future,” she said, adding that she is thinking of hiring a full-time nanny who can eat and sleep with her daughter.
The government has been implementing various measures to help working parents, in line with its fight against the low birthrate. They include child care subsidies for families with multiple children, prioritized enrollments of toddlers and children of working parents at child care centers and incentives for companies that provide flexible paid child care leave.
The government’s emphasis on encouraging more fathers to engage in child care has also been paying off, albeit slowly, with the number of fathers taking paternity leave rising. The Ministry of Employment and Labor said that 1,381 men took child care leave between January and March this year, up 57.3 percent from the same period last year.
Many working parents, however, still saw a lot of room for improvement.
“I try to contribute as much as I can to find more time to take care of my daughter, but I have to admit, I depend on my wife to be the prime caretaker while I try to achieve my end of the bargain to become more successful,” said Yoon Jin-seo, the father of an 18-month-old girl working in architecture.
According to the Statistics Korea’s data in 2015, 9 in 10 married women living in Seoul said that they were mainly responsible for the housework. Korean fathers recorded 45 minutes of daily chores at home, the shortest among OECD countries as of 2015.
“Working parents in Korea are exposed to long working hours. Although both mother and father are exhausted after work, mostly it is the mothers that are stressed out from having to take care of their children,” said Hong Seung-ah from the Korean Women’s Development Institute.
“Equal gender roles must be first established in order to find work and family compatibility at home, since there is no longer a big gap between men and women’s role in society here.”
By Kim Da-sol (firstname.lastname@example.org)