Bringing up (someone else’s) babyInstead of enjoying the requisite freedom and prosperity that is supposed to make being middle-aged comfortable, many 40-to-60-year-old women start work or return to the workplace to shoulder the burden of supporting their family. With the odds of a woman at that age finding a job stacked so high, many women are turning to positions that can guarantee a relatively high wage and dependable career: trained nannies.
The occupation is a growing cultural phenomenon in Korea. For generations, people here have believed that mothers should rest for no less than one month after delivery. Those who do not, it was believed, will suffer from illness when they get old.
Most of the nannies must leave their own home and work day and night living with the family of a newborn. Most are also at an age in which their own children are going to private schools or colleges, driving their expenses through the roof.
“They are from ordinary families with husbands and grownup children and houses of their own. Yet they have willpower,” said Yang Irisu, a supervisor at the Young Women’s Christian Association, which runs a program to train professional nannies.
The recent social trends toward early retirement and the end of lifelong employment in the wake of the 1997 financial crisis are other factors pushing these middle-aged women into the labor market.
“Husbands are staying at home after choosing ‘voluntary resignation’ and these women suddenly have to become breadwinners,” Ms. Yang said.
The nannies themselves are quick to agree with Ms. Yang’s assessment.
“I’ve raised my own children, and I thought this might help our family’s finances a little,” said Lee Jeong-hi, 55, who has been working as a nanny for a year. She added that her family is having financial difficulties and that she must raise her grandchildren as well. “I thought this would be the thing I could do best.”
“I was looking for a decent job, instead of something that could lead to easy but big money,” said Park Jong-sim, a 50-year-old mother of two, who has been working as nanny since 1984. “It’s hard work, but civilized. Besides that, it’s nice to see the babies grow.
“I was very sick when I first started working. But I worked hard and was content with the fact I could make a living,” Ms. Park said.
Ms. Yang added that early retirement is often cited as an important cause for divorce these days. “[The women] say they can’t just sit and do nothing while their husbands stay home. The one thing they’re most afraid of is their retirement benefits being drained little by little,” Ms. Yang said.
Currently, there are 780 nannies registered with the Seoul YWCA; two-thirds are in their 50s and 60s. A nanny must have at least a high school diploma, but more than half the nannies have college degrees, Ms. Yang said.
The YWCA also trains caretakers for patients, children and the elderly. The association first began the programs in 1962, starting with housekeepers and gradually expanded it to other areas. These days, YWCA-trained workers, including nannies and housekeepers, number 1,867 in Seoul alone.
Staying with the family of the newborn is
often easier for older women whose children have grown up and moved out of the house.
Their responsibilities are the same as any other nanny in Korea: preparing foods such as seaweed soup for mother (the soup is thought to help mothers recover from childbirth), assisting breastfeeding and taking care of the newborn. The two-week intensive course at the YWCA, taught by professionals, teaches them how to prepare foods for the mother, bathe and burp the baby, help with breastfeeding and what to do in emergencies. They are also required to go back for further training one day every month.
After they start working, they have a day off every other week and get paid 1.8 million won or more a month. They are usually provided with their own room and sleep with the baby. Despite the high cost of hired help, the employers are not necessarily rich. “There used to be many employers who happened to be well off, but these days families of all classes employ us,” Ms. Park said.
“Nannying used to be be done by the newborn’s grandmother,” Ms. Yang said, adding that these days grandmothers would rather pay for a nanny than take care of the baby or the mother by themselves.
Ms. Park said, however, that some relatively wealthy families already employed a housekeeper before hiring a nanny, as well. “In those cases, the mother didn’t do any housework even before her baby was born.”
Though there’s little danger of the job being rendered obsolete, trained nannies often have to wait some time before they are hired. After all, as Ms. Park pointed out, babies aren’t something that can be mass-produced.
Being strangers in an unfamiliar household, nannies often initially come into conflict with the parents. The first few days are the most uncertain and produce the most complaints. Some families request that the nanny be replaced.
Ms. Yang said that part of her job is being a mediator, helping to make both parties’ expectations a little more realistic. “We encourage them to have a sense of unity as members of the YWCA rather than considering themselves to be an employer or employee,” she said.
Ms. Park said that there was only one time when she walked out on her employer. Her mother’s aunt had come from far out in the countryside to visit her and Ms. Park wanted to go see her, but her employer refused to give her time off. After leaving anyway, she returned to the house only after the family apologized.
Sometimes mothers become jealous because the babies seem more attached to the nannies than to their mother.
“The babies grow up and soon they realize that we are not related. Mothers know this will happen, but still they feel unhappy about it,” Ms. Park said. “The way we take care of babies and do house chores is the same in every house. What makes each job different is the people.”
The nannies say, however, the greatest hardship is that they can’t sleep through the night. They often wake up to feed newborns, and even when they’re asleep, they are still hyper-aware of the baby and all the duties associated with it.
“When I go back home, I sleep day and night. I just eat and sleep for a few days. I need some days off just so I don’t feel sick,” Ms. Park said.
Despite the ups and downs of the work, nannies who take care of babies for months can become as emotionally attached to someone else’s child as they would to their own.
“I once took a baby to the airport to send her to her parents who were staying in the United States. I cried in the car when I was on the way back,” Ms. Park said.
Ms. Park said she maintained a good relationship with one family she worked with for four years. “The mother still calls me auntie. She and her child ask me to come over to their place. The child has grown up and now goes to middle school,” Ms. Park said.
Asked how long she will keep working, Ms. Park said, “I’ll continue to work as long as my health allows me to.”
by LImb Jae-un