[OUTLOOK]Overcoming the ‘baby bust’When my mother was my age, she had 10 grandchildren. But now, not only I, but also my friends, still do not hear the word “grandma.” It is not because we are still young, but because our children won’t have children. Whether they are daughters or sons, few are married even in their 30s, and if married, they don’t “dare” to have babies.
My friend and I were surprised to hear that Korea has the world’s lowest birthrate and asked each other, “How did that happen to our country?” But we were even more surprised to hear the news that the figure was 1.17 child per couple, because we wondered who on earth still gave birth to any children at all.
The dilemma of my age group is that we would like to encourage our children wholeheartedly to have babies ― not because we are worried about the future of our country but because we are concerned about having no grandchildren in our old age ― but in reality we cannot push them strongly enough to do so. We understand all too well their feelings and situation and why they will not have children.
Once in a while, some people comment harshly that young women of today are too selfish to give birth; those critics say that childbirth is not a right but a duty of women. If that is the case, why didn’t they give fair treatment to women who had faithfully carried out their duty in the past? Why were they indifferent to women who were exhausted from work and child-rearing, saying, “You chose to work, so you should be responsible in the end”? While the government and men were just looking with their hands folded on the hard life of Korean women, young women seem to have decided firmly not to live like their counterparts of earlier generations.
I am in the last generation to accept childbirth as a duty. To young women of today, both marriage and childbirth are merely options. They do not have babies not because they are selfish, but because they are wise. Their decision is not based on the assumption that once they gave birth, their children will grow up without much effort. It is the result of a cool-headed assessment of their ability to raise their children properly.
Young women are afraid. In the short term, they are worried about raising children, and in the long term about education. They have themselves experienced the bitterness of academic cliques too much. When they hear that more stay-at-home mothers sent their children to first-rate universities than working mothers, young women become dispirited even before they have babies.
They may think, “By the time my child goes to college, the situation might be a little better. But the impending problem is child rearing. To whom should I entrust my child?”
Policies on child rearing are at a turning point now, so the problem of bringing up children is likely to be solved satisfactorily if we wait a little more. But we would-be grandmothers, personally, have mixed feelings. Before that child-rearing system has been completed, should we take on the role of child-rearing help to encourage our children to give birth?
We know well that another woman’s help with children is indispensable for a woman to work outside the home. Behind my friends who have worked for their whole life stand mostly their mothers. Grandmothers have faithfully played the role of reliable child-rearing institutes.
In this age, when work is a requirement for women, a grandmother’s role has probably become more important than ever. But, lo, grandmothers are women as well and they have changed, too. It is a little sad to be a grandmother’s age but have no grandchildren, but then I cannot volunteer to raise grandchildren either. My own life now is more than I can bear; I am short of strength and I have no confidence that I can raise grandchildren well.
The number of children is likely to decrease for a while. This trend will continue until something better than the childish idea of giving 200,000 won ($170) in cash when one has a third child comes along. We need measures that make young women truly want to have babies.
* The writer is a scholar in women’s studies. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Park Hye-ran