This could be on a bit of a personal level, but I also believe many Koreans face similar factors of stress on a daily basis, so here goes.
One question, or rather, one suggestion I get quite frequently is, “Why don’t you have a girl?” I have a son, my only child, and apparently to many it looks like a long and lonely road stretches ahead for me.
I admit, for a while -- at least six months in my life -- I did seriously contemplate having another child, and also lamented my lack of a daughter.
One close neighbor recently had a girl at the age of 42, and she was delighted, saying her days as a lonely mom are finally over now that she has her daughter. She also suddenly became an avid critic of only children, even though her son had been an only child for 10 years before his sister came along.
Now this is all OK. I am used to this kind of verbal attack, mostly because I want to believe they mean well. It’s either that, or they want to flaunt their “assets.” And perhaps, deep inside, my inner self does want a little girl to love.
The reason why I have an urge to have a girl (as if I can decide the gender) is what concerns me at times.
In Korean, there’s a saying that the first-born girl is a family’s “seed money.” Basically, this means that the girl is to be the go-to person, who helps keep the home, gets good grades and tends her siblings. Sons, on the other hand, are meant to provide the material care, including housing, especially since it was the norm for men to buy the house when they entered marriage.
But now, as daughters also become financially empowered, girls are able to provide material support as well. In the process, boys are being discarded as “strangers.” It’s quite common for people I know with girls to tell me not to go through all the fuss raising a boy who will become a stranger when he gets married, forgetting about his aging parents.
It’s ironic because it used to be the son, in Confucian culture, who had to bear the burden of the parents’ caretaking. But that didn’t work out so well, did it? Boys grew up under the pressure of having to one day take care of their parents, and they would even pose the question to their future wives, asking girlfriends if they were willing to live with his parents. These issues have sabotaged what could have been a happy marriage, in my opinion.
Now, the pressure is being placed on girls. Girls who are mellower than boys, who are supposedly more sensitive and have bigger hearts. They are, in essence, meant to be the oil that keeps the family going.
Aging is scary for everyone. I am in my early 40s, and I fear it, too. And the biggest part of that fear is loneliness. Recent surveys show it to be the biggest downside to aging. The second is, of course, financial dependency. Without money, old age can be a terrible thing.
It’s partly culture, and partly the economy. Culture, because parents still have a hard time being independent. Parents are actually even more reliant on kids in some ways, because they have so few. However, one upside is that the parents of my generation and those younger than me do know how to enjoy themselves and spend money, so that may help when we grow old.
It’s also partly the economy, because in current circumstances, it’s near impossible to own a decent house, a car and raise kids without becoming poor either due to mortgage or education costs. In 2016, South Korean households spent 40.38 trillion won ($35.9 billion) on educating their kids.
With society lacking a safety net, psychology takes over, causing people to search for things to rely on. Ideally, it can be a hobby, friends, or volunteer work. But among the easier conduits is, of course, family.
In many ways, the daughter is taking over the roles of the traditional son. They make money, they raise kids and they also take care of their parents. At the same time, daughters also take advantage of the parents, as grandparents become caretakers for the kids of working mothers. So perhaps in a way, it does make sense. Unlike before when most women relied on their husbands to be the breadwinners, they are now becoming more independent and have the ability to take care of their parents, and also do it in return for babysitting.
I don’t have a strong opinion on how things should be because in the end, it will be different for each family. It’s more of trying to figure out why people are becoming so reliant on daughters, to the extent that mothers of boys like myself feel like they have done something wrong, just like decades ago when having a girl was a sin.
Does gender really matter? I have a great time with my son, and have never thought that a girl would be better. Just different. And it seems like the off-the-charts preference for girls is driving a wedge in society.
Having a child is a blessing (that sometimes feels like a curse). Choosing the gender, or preferring one gender over another due to practical and possibly self-centered reasons makes me wonder what exactly the reason for having children is in the first place.
By Kim Ji-hyun
The writer is editor-in-chief of The Investor. -- Ed.