Heartsick momsThere are four chairs around the table, but only one set of eating utensils. The chopsticks for the “wild goose father,” a man who stays in Korea while his wife and children are off studying abroad. But solo dining is not the exclusive province of fathers. There are quite a few “wild goose mothers,” career women who live alone for lengthy periods while their families are overseas.
Consider Lee Chang-ok, 44. An administrator with Korea’s Consumer Protection Board, Ms. Lee has been living alone for two years while her husband and children reside in the United States. First, her husband was a visiting scholar at Harvard University for 14 months before returning to Seoul last August. Then, four months later, she was alone again when her children went on a study-abroad program and her husband returned to the United States for an extended business trip.
How does Ms. Lee cope with the isolation? Naturally, she zaps two or three e-mail letters per day to her husband and children (see sample letters below).
Here are some characteristics of a wild goose mother:
1. Zealous about English education and with a professional background ― The basis for the emergence of wild goose mothers mirrors that of the wild goose father: They consider early English education to be extremely important. Further, they are often career women who have established themselves in a professional field.
Lee Bok-shil, 43, who works at the Ministry of Gender Equality, lives alone while her husband, who is in the United States on a sabbatical from his university position, has the kids.
“I’ve been a public official for 18 years and am on the verge of a promotion, so I couldn’t leave my job to be with my family,” she says. “Besides, my boss persuaded me to stay, so my decision to be separated from them is half-voluntary and half-forced.”
The case of Choi Jeong-gi, a 40-year-old court reporter, is different. Her husband quit his job to take their son and daughter to the United States. Three years ago, the couple decided to educate their children in a less suffocating school environment than Korea’s. But there was one minor glitch: They couldn’t send their elementary school children alone. So her husband decided to quit his job under the premise that Mrs. Choi could support her family alone.
2. How to fill the void of mothers and husbands who tend the home -- Men who adopt the role of homemaker agree that the void left by their wives or mothers is too large to fill.
Lee Chang-ok’s husband cared for his two school-age daughters during a yearlong sabbatical to the United States in 2000. He recalls the rigors of domestic life vividly. “I had to go to the supermarket and put food on the table while catering to the needs of my children,” he says. “It was harder than studying for my degree.”
3. Family is still the best ― Separated families suffer from loneliness whether they live in Korea or abroad. “It was heart-wrenching to see my youngest child cry uncontrollably in the airport,” says Ms. Lee Chang-ok. Ms. Lee Bok-shil agrees 100 percent. “Distance makes one realize the value of family life. If it’s a short period, then its endurable. But in truth, being a real family beats all.”
My dear husband,
I was so alarmed and worried when I heard the news that the space shuttle Columbia blew up. When I hear any news about what’s going on in the States, it makes my heart skip a beat. Do you remember 9-11? In the middle of the night, my mother called me and I remember dialing your number with trembling hands. Even if you and the kids live far away in Boston, nevertheless, it scared me so.
I remember June 2001, when you wanted to take both kids to the U.S. I said to you, “It’s going to be tough taking care of two kids while you concentrate on your research,” and objected to your decision. But now I confess it was just an excuse. It was because I couldn’t bear the thought of being alone for a year without you or the kids. I asked you to take only one of the kids. But you refused, saying that both kids should have equal opportunities. I really resented you then, and cried so much when I was alone.
During the first month after your departure, I remember thinking, “What am I doing here all alone? What glory will come to me by being away from my family?” Every day, I thought of quitting my job and following you to the States many times. But you told me to hold on and said to me, “Aren’t you sorry to give up your 16-year career?” I was grateful to you for supporting me, but on the other hand, it was saddening.
Last year, when I spent a week’s vacation with you and the kids, I was so surprised to see such a neatly arranged kitchen. It made me feel like my family didn’t need me anymore. I heard you prepared tteokbokkgi and fried chicken for the kids when they got back from school. The Korean neighbors told me that you even held a party by inviting other classmates from school. I wonder how you could be so caring when you never even washed dishes at home.
Last December, when you told me that you thought of sending the kids to your brother’s house in the States for winter break, I was adamantly against it. But when you said you’d be spending most of the time there on a business trip, I changed my mind. I thought of how well they would be taken care of if you were there to tend to them.
My darling daughter Ji-yun and son Ji-wuk,
I hope you are not feeling cold these days. When it gets cold, it reminds me of when you two first left for the States. When I was packing your blankets and pillows, tears streamed down my face. But in the airport, you were both smiling and courageous. I was proud of you, but at the same time I felt a little downcast. Weren’t you a little sad to leave your mom?
Do you remember when your father came down with the flu early last year? I worried how you were feeding yourselves so I tried to have both of you return to Seoul early. At that time, you both said, “If we leave, who’s going to take care of daddy?” I felt guilty. I realized how much my children have grown up.
When I visited you in the States, Ji-yun was staying up until midnight doing homework while Ji-wuk was studying until 10 p.m. Your mom again shed tears. My heart ached to see you both try so hard to learn English.
But I didn’t send you both so that you could read, write and speak English well; I sent you there so that you could broaden your horizons by interacting with kids of different races and cultures. You don’t have to excel in English.
Ji-wuk, my dear. I heard that daddy had to go to school because you were in trouble. You thought I don’t know but I do. This time around, dad won’t be there to take care of you so please don’t get into any trouble. Promise?
Mom is going to read a lot of books and work hard. Last time I didn’t do much because I was constantly worried about you and dad. I love you guys. Oh, and one more thing: When your dad comes to visit, tell him mommy loves him very much.
by Kim Sun-ha
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