The Lives of South Korean Women Caught in “Motherhood Trap”

On Book The Birth of a Mom: Amidst Many Compliments and Threats

Kim Seo-hwa 2020-04-23

I take my 15-month-old younger son out for this or that reason nearly every day. Preparing to leave the house in winter is no easy task. The little guy resists putting on gloves. If we leave the house with him not wearing them, the same thing happens 9 times out of 10.


On the neighborhood bus some total stranger says, out of nowhere, “My goodness, the baby’s hand must be freezing. Your mommy didn’t put on your gloves? Oh, you poor thing!” After waiting vacantly until our stop and then getting off in a rush, I wonder if he might be cold after all and put on him the gloves that I brought in my bag. Thinking that we’re now all set, I get on the subway and of course another perfect stranger says, “Oh, how cute! But he’s sweating. You’re hot because of your mommy, aren’t you? Peekaboo!”


As a mom for eight years, with two children, I’ve realized that even being dumbfounded is a luxury. Of course I know that they say these things because they like kids. But in a place like Seoul, where even making eye contact on the street is not common—it was only after I became a mom that I realized there were this many people who would talk to me. As if there is a tacit agreement that it’s okay to do so to a mom. Thanks to this verbal and nonverbal meddling and nagging from people with mutually exclusive standards, I’ve come to the anxiety-provoking realization that I won’t be forgiven for even the smallest mistake in raising my children.


Child-rearing and educational products—become a consumer mom!


If you say that our society still has an ideal image of a mother as someone who sacrifices for and is devoted to her children and family, everyone scoffs. That era has passed, you say? I scoff at that. As long as the work that moms do is continually concealed behind the word “love,” this image will continue to exist. All that may happen is we get confused or misrecognize it because its form has changed.


▲ The Birth of a Mom, by Kim Bo-seong, Kim Hyang-su, and An Mi-seon, published by Spring of May Press.

The book The Birth of a Mom (authors Kim Bo-seong, Kim Hyang-su, An Mi-seon, Spring of May Press), written by three women who must have struggled hard as mothers raising children in 21st-century South Korea, exposes that kind of aspect, examines “the everyday unfamiliar life” that South Korean women experience as mothers here and now, and draws attention to the role of “mom” and the “working conditions” of the women who perform it.


According to the authors, “consumer motherhood” is becoming a major part of being a mother in contemporary Korean society. The place that provides an introduction to this is the post-partum care clinic, which is used by nearly 50% of those who give birth in Korea. It is a place that demands of new mothers—who are still unaccustomed to children—a belief in the importance and greatness of the role of “mom” and the naturalness of its devotion, as represented by breastfeeding.


The employees of these clinics pass on the modern versions of devoted motherhood, and the programs they put on in conjunction with businesses “educate [women] to become consumer moms.” It is there that moms first set foot in the “world of consumerism disguised as infant-care science.”


When people see women buying organic lotion, strollers, car seats, baby armchairs, high chairs, and children’s book sets, they like to throw around words like vanity and extravagance. But women who become moms can’t easily get free of such temptation. Most can only get so far as comforting themselves that they are engaging in “reasonable consumption.” This is because consumption has begun to be equated with proof of love.


There is “a manual that a mom must follow for each stage, and warnings that if she doesn’t keep to it, the child may be damaged.” It’s very important to realize that these pieces of information are actually threats. That is, as you can see in an anecdote in the book, about an elevator accident, if there is a problem with the child, the criticism and rebukes flow only towards the mother.


“There’s always homework. Doing it well doesn’t mean that you benefit or enjoy rights [not to be hassled]. It’s not something that if you do a certain amount, then things stay okay and your work is done, instead it seems like you are constantly on edge and there’s always more to do.” (p. 209)


The women interviewed for the book call it “homework.” What an accurate description! Many moms “have no choice but to live with tension and anxiety” in this way. The private education craze, which has already extended down to the infant stage, has moms under its thumb.


“Moms’ anxiety and guilt are offset by buying educational goods, because a consumer capitalist society instills in them the fantasy that if they buy educational goods, they will accelerate their children’s development.” (p. 203)


Most new mothers draw a line between themselves and the mothers who are obsessed with private education. “Why do they put so much pressure on their children? I’d better never do that.” “I won’t become that kind of mom!” “I’m going to raise my child to be creative.” “I’m going to give my child only limitless love.” But there is not much room to realize such resolutions and goals in this society.


Escaping the “motherhood trap” that contemporary Korean society has set is too big of an adventure for one woman. This is because acknowledgement and denial of the identity of “mom” is stuck fast to this trap. The authors believe that “rituals” like elaborate first birthday parties that are “badges of moms and parents who are not apathetic, but give every type of support to their child” and photo albums documenting the child’s life function as a similar type of phenomenon to those of “private education” and consumer motherhood. In a consumerist society, these kinds of rituals are merely the first steps towards the obsession with private education.


Capital doesn’t take responsibility for the results of consumption


The highlight of this book is its consideration of “space” in a contemporary society that has made consumption the biggest part of motherhood. Even if those who haven’t actually tried being responsible for childrearing and keeping house could manage to make a list of the housework necessary, there would be many cases in which they were ignorant of the space in which this work must be performed.


There are many cases in which the space called “the household” is thoroughly distorted or even completely blank. At best, people imagine just the literal inside of a house and the tasks done inside it. However, to the people who carry out housework, “the household” is all of the places and times in which the things they must do are performed. Because women can’t control this space or time, their hardships are amplified.


That you can see mothers who are always browbeating their children so that they don’t run around in the apartment [and bother the neighbors], mothers that are constantly shouting at dangerous drivers on the street, mothers that have no choice but to pay to go to a kids’ café because there are no safe playgrounds—these are things that you could not understand the importance of if you didn’t take another look at the meaning of “space.”


The authors write that “this cramped and stifling space called the “city” regulates even the role of mom.” We’ve been considering from too narrow a viewpoint moms’ saying that they feel stifled and lonely staying home with their children. At a certain point, this complaint could extend outside the home to all of society. 


Indeed, whether she just stays at home or takes her child outside, they don’t fit in in the city. Most either seem like public nuisances or are simply invisible. Actually, moms performing their work invisibly might be this society’s goal. While reading the book, you’ll realize that the only one responding to moms’ complaints that they’re stifled, when everyone else takes them lightly, is capital.


The only one who reaches out a hand to moms who feel lost, provides them a safe and clean space, who acknowledges that they exist. If they pay, that is. “[Capital] pulls into the world of consumerism children and moms who have nowhere to go in the spatial arrangement of the modern city.” In Korea these days, you have to become a consumer in order to become a mom. Or, you have to consume in order to occupy space, to become visible.


There is a reason that this consumerist motherhood is the real trap. It is that capital and business don’t take responsibility for the results of consumption. We are brainwashed by a variety of childrearing, education, and household product advertisements to believe that a mom must be “a fastidious [consumer] mom, a rational consumer, guardian of the family’s health.” Particularly because of the increased dangers and health problems of modern society, the “belief that if a mom becomes fastidious, her child becomes health” is widespread.


However, that fastidiousness must remain limited to consumption. If a mom demands of big business or the state the truth or more information, points out safety and social risks, or attempts action to improve them, she is treated like an “unreasonable,” “overly-sensitive,” “demanding” woman. And so, “amidst the succession of food safety incidents and baby-product incidents, the individual is left to her own devices,” and women, as moms responsible for the family’s health and safety, “now have to deal with the dangers created by modernity, as well.”


Motherhood and post-partum depression, experiences that aren’t talked about


At this point, “becoming a mom, being a mom, is still a major challenge in a woman’s life.”


The book deals with stories of post-partum depression in an early section. This may be because it is organized to reflect the temporal sequence of stages that women experience while giving birth to and raising a child. It seems, however, like you must read the whole book before you can truly understand post-partum depression. In the early stage, when she’s holding a newborn—who, to be honest, she’s sometimes not sure is cute or lovable—and every day is as long as two, there is no rest, and she has to do everything alone, a woman may be encountering more signs than one would think, and in a variety ways, of the “homework” of being a mother that awaits her.


A mom is a woman who, “between the policies for moms and the criticism of moms” of the low-birthrate era, and while sensing the modern versions of the classic “mother praise and mother criticism” perpetuated by motherhood discourse, takes the hand of capitalism because it’s the only hand being offered her, comforts a crying baby, washes it, mixes baby formula, boils clothes, cleans the house, and finds and buys baby products on the Internet.


If you start to ask, “What about me?” in the rhythm of carrot-stick, compliment-discipline, praise-criticism, one part of your mind will get on the express train to Distress Land, while the other will think that you need to quickly get rid of that kind of question in order to become a real mom, and run in the other direction. Before you have a chance to grab ahold of your rupturing mind, the baby will laugh or cry again and the list of things you have to buy will grow longer.


The really distressing thing is that this is not the end of it. Even depression has its use in mom ideology.


The recent suicide of a certain woman has caused Internet searches of  “Klinefelter syndrome” to skyrocket*. The way that this incident was publicized was such yellow journalism that it’s hardly worth mentioning, but such articles do show what the effect of reporting on the case as infanticide is - silencing the truth about becoming a mom, about the social pressure on women and the heaviness of post-partum depression. The media uses infanticide and even the child’s characteristics maliciously in order to obscure the issue. That the ‘reason’ for the woman’s actions was the Klinefelter syndrome diagnosis is not something that appears in these articles because it is a fact [but because it shifts attention away from how common post-partum depression is].


“If the mass media is emphasizing fear more strongly than the extent to which it is actually necessary to worry in light of an actual incident that has occurred, it is because the fear has a function in upholding ideology. The worst-case worrying about infanticide in the reporting of stories of post-partum depression reinforces the traditional ideal image of women as the one responsible for infant care. It also blocks discussion about the depression that women do actually experience and inculcates them with unnecessary guilt.” (From page 45.)


There’s a reason that the voices of those actually affected by [post-partum] depression are ignored or not publicized. Women “see news about extreme cases and say to only themselves, ‘I know that feeling.’” I know that feeling! I don’t know how many times I repeated that while reading this book. It may be that, as long as this “feeling” remains undefined, women have no choice but to remain consumer moms, whether extravagant or disgruntled ones. 


So the interviews in this book are valuable. I hope that more of such stories are collected so that the day will come when we can find ourselves in the experience of motherhood, and write about that feeling to make it widely acknowledged.


*The media has been reporting that a Gwangju woman killed herself and her one-month-old son in December after he was diagnosed with Klinefelter syndrome.


By Kim Seo-hwa

Published: January 3, 2014

Translated by Marilyn Hook


-Original article:


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기사입력 : 2020-04-23

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