When Dad Is Left Holding the Baby

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When Dad Is Left Holding the Baby

Are mothers biologically more competent to raise a child than fathers? Or is this just a myth propagated by a patriarchal order to keep women in the home and give men economic dominance?

Such questions continue to dog Koreans even though awareness of them here has been around for years. In a society in which science is used as an yardstick to measure absolute "truth," images that emphasize women's biological suitability for child-rearing, such as lactating breasts on the TV medical channel, can be enough to persuade men that they are inferior to the task.

In other species, child-rearing is sometimes dad's preserve. Male emperor penguins, for example, stay at home to hatch their offspring during the harsh winter in the far southern hemisphere. The males keep the babies on their feet and cover them with their brood pouches - a warm layer of feathered skin - until the female penguin returns from the open sea with food.

Kim Chang-seok, a journalist who recently returned from two months' paternity leave to care for his 4-month-old son Yeo-min, is convinced that you don't need estrogen to raise a child - though his experience hasn't been easy.

"I know this is not the most politically correct thing to say, but I really appreciated the half-day I had to spend in civil defense training," Mr. Kim sighed.

Korean fathers though experiencing a situation less harsh than the Antarctic, have to negotiate some difficult social conditions if they want to provide primary care for their children. Although the Gender Equality Law says that either of the parents can take an optional, unpaid child-rearing leave for a maximum of nine months following the mother's mandatory 60-day maternity leave, fathers can take such leave only if certain narrow criteria are met.

The law permits paternity leave only when the mother is employed and her position does not allow her to take child-rearing leave. This means that if the mother is unemployed or self-employed, the father is not eligible for the leave.

In other words, fathers in Korea are, in the eyes of the law, considered a "substitute" for mothers when it comes to raising children.

Many men who decide to take the leave also suffer because of fixed gender stereotypes that view men involved in domestic labor as incompetent. Though younger men tend to be more actively involved in domestic labor than their fathers, many of them still do not see themselves as equal participants in housework, but rather as their partners' helpers.

Mr. Kim wrote a magazine article about his experiences with paternity leave.

"I had male colleagues complain to me that they couldn't take the magazine home because they were afraid their wives would see it," Mr. Kim said.

In fact, he did not even dare to tell his parents about his leave. They found out about it when he appeared on a TV talk show to discuss it, and later called him to say they were disappointed. According to Mr. Kim, it is not uncommon for men who decide to take leave to receive minimal support from their parents - and interestingly, from their mothers in particular.

However, as more and more Korean mothers choose to work, Korean men are inevitably called upon to become more involved in child-rearing.

"Men are brought up with a competitive way of thinking. They think that if they spend too much time on housework, they will lose out in the competitive work environment," said Lee Kang-ok, a professor of Korean literature at Yongnam University who published a book titled "Fathers Holding a Milk Bottle: A Story of Growing Up With Children" last year. "Men need to reflect on themselves continuously and rethink the priorities in their lives."

Mr. Lee raised his son alone while his wife was studying in the United States. In his book, he explains the difficulties of overcoming his own internal chauvinism when encountering supposedly "maternal" feelings toward his son.

"I feel comfortable attending my students' weddings or company dinners with my son now," he says.

According to Lee Hoon-won, a Ministry of Labor official, the ministry knows of only three cases last year in which male employees took paternity leave instead of their wives.

When the reporter asked him to estimate the number of unreported cases, he said it would be difficult to come up with a numerical term for such a statistically insignificant number. Even if the ministry amends the law next year and allows fathers to take paternity leave if their partners are self-employed or unemployed, Mr. Lee believes few male employees would take advantage of the system.

Men who have experienced child-rearing leave or who are currently full time housekeepers agreed that paternity leave is not only a way to support their partners, but also the right a child should have.

"Parenthood is biological in the sense that men don't have breasts to feed milk to their babies. But I think the problem comes more down to society not allowing men to participate willingly in child raising," Mr. Lee said.

by Park Soo-mee

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