Stay-at-home dadsEarly in the morning a baby cries and the husband mumurs to his wife in an annoyed tone to do something. The mother, as if the crying of the baby is her fault, hurries to the infant. Taking the baby into her arms, cajoling and rocking the baby back and forth, she says, "Sweatheart, Daddy has to go to work in the morning. Please don't wake him up."
This might have been a typical scene in Korea in the 1970s, but times have changed. In fact, such a scene is becoming increasingly atypical.
Whenever his baby cries in the early morning hours, Lee Seung-yong, the father, gets up to put the little boy back to sleep. To his wife, he says, "Don't worry. You are going to work today; let me take care of him."
In Korean society, under the heavy influence of Confucius thinking, the right of the man to ignore the crying of one's baby -- indeed, to ignore all related tasks, such as bathing and changing diapers -- was widely accepted.
Nowadays, things are different.
More and more young Korean parents are sharing the care of a baby. Instead of the mother always raising an infant, some husbands are now taking leaves of absence from work in order to do that role.
It has been a year since the Motherhood Protection Law, originally passed in 1995, was changed to reflect changes in Korean society. So far, 53 men have taken advantage of that law, which allow fathers to leave work temporarily to care for their newborns. At government agencies, which have had this policy on the books since 1995, 37 fathers opted for to take paternity leaves this year.
Nevertheless, experts argue that this new law has not yet set its roots deeply enough into Korean society.
Lee Seung-yong, 29, is bathing Joo-won, his son, who is just over a year old, in the family's home in Jamsil, southern Seoul. After the bath, Mr. Lee places the boy on the living room carpet and spreads Joo-won's legs with a knee while fitting a diaper on the boy. The reporter asks Mr. Lee why he is using this odd-looking technique.
"If I don't, I'll get kicked in the face," Mr. Lee says.
"It takes time to figure out little things like this," he adds. "There are a lot of things to learn, such as how to get the right temperature for the milk."
Mr. Lee, who works at Nonghyeop, a Korean bank, last January took advantage of a paternity leave from work guaranteed by law for parents who have a child under 1 year old. When he began taking care of his children, his baby son Joo-won was only 4 months old and his 3-year-old daughter, Ga-yoon, was suffering from a disease that affected her brain. Help was needed.
"At night, I took care of my son while during the daytime I took care of my daughter," he says. "You know, the kids listen to me more than to their mother."
Kim Yoon-hyun, 38, has been on paternity leave since October. He found out that his wife was pregnant in March but the baby was born prematurely at 7 months. The mother and baby are still recovering. His leave was scheduled to run through January, but he has since gone back to work. His company is a small construction firm with only 15 employees. Taking a long break wasn't an easy decision. "My family is the most important thing to me," he said. "So that made it easier."
A paternity leave seems to give those who take it certain advantages. Yoo Jin-geun, 33, who works for a communications gear company, is on leave until January, following the birth of his son in February. "I can now finish graduate school studies that I could not when I was working," Mr. Yoo says.
Taking a paternity leave that is guaranteed by law does not bring complete comfort. "After I went back to the company, I heard people talking among themselves about me," says Lee Seung-yong. "I was worried that I might be passed over for a promotion."
Improvements still needed
In November 2001, when the Motherhood Protection Law underwent changes to include paternity leaves, it became possible for men to take leaves from work.
Originally, maternity leaves were designed to make it possible for women to take care of infants less than 1 year old by taking a leave of absence from work for a period of one year while getting paid 200,000 won ($165) per month. Currently, the process of increasing the special allowance to 300,000 won next year is under way. Firing an employee who is on maternity or paternity leave is against the law and the owner of a company who does this faces up to two years in prison or a 20 million won fine.
According to the Ministry of Labor, since the introduction of maternal and paternal leaves under the Motherhood Protection law, until September, 2,463 women have taken advantage. More than 17 billion won has been paid out thus far. Although the government claims that laws regarding motherhood have been perfected, experts say that compared to other developed nations, such as Germany, there is still room for improvement. In Germany, the allowance given is 24 percent of the salary a woman or man earns before the leave begins. Leaves in Germany can last up to three years. In addition, there is no stipulation in Germany on the baby's age.
The overall perception of a paternity leave has a long way to go in Korean society. "Originally, we expected that around 20,000 men would take a paternity leave this year. Nevertheless, the number is way lower than our prediction," says Chung Sung-gyun, an official at the Ministry of Labor. He adds that a perceptional change in Korean society is needed and that the responsibility for the baby goes to both parents.
by Son Min-ho