Full house is just fine for these families
With more women in the workplace choosing to postpone marriage and childbearing and the high cost of raising a child, Korea’s birthrate is one of the lowest in the world.
This has set the government scrambling to introduce policies that encourage families to have more children. Subsidies for having more than one child and payments for fertility treatment are just two of the enticements that have been proposed.
But even though families with few children would seem to be the norm, there are a number of families in Korea with seven, eight or more children who seem far removed from the government’s efforts to increase the birthrate.
Many of these families say they enjoy the closeness and camaraderie of living with such a large group of people and even favor having a large brood over a smaller bunch.
Still, that’s not to say that family life with seven, eight or nine siblings is not without its ups and downs.
Pastor Kim Seok-tae, 51, in Gumi, North Gyeongsang, has a family of 15. They consume four 20-kilogram (44-pound) bags of rice a month. This is a lot considering the fact that a family of four normally eats less than one of these bags.
The family lives in a four-bedroom house, with Kim and his wife, Eom Gye-suk, 46, in one room and the children divided into two rooms, one for the boys and the other for the girls. The fourth room is used as a study.
Most mornings there is a battle for valuable time in the bathroom.
With so many people to keep track of, it is not surprising that the family has had a child go missing on more than one occasion. They once left a child in a restaurant and another time left a child alone in their car. Luckily, both children were retrieved safely.
Experiences like these are not unfamiliar to Heo Jeong-hun, 52, and Lee Yu-mi, 48. They have nine children in their family: three boys and six girls.
Heo once took his children to a playground and went to a meeting. After he picked them up again, he realized that one of them was missing and rushed back to find the child. Now, he always does a head count before they go out.
Boosting the birthrate
According to the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs and the National Statistical Office, 51 children were born the seventh child in their family in 2007. In the same year, 21 were born the eighth child.
And for every year since 1995, there have been 20 to 80 babies who arrive as child number seven in their families.
These families do not represent the mainstream in Korean society, but certainly stand in contrast to the country’s low birthrate and the government’s efforts to increase it.
Last week, the government, businesses, civic groups and religious leaders announced they are working together to create a favorable environment for childbirth as part of ongoing efforts to reverse the low birthrate.
“The imbalance in the population caused by the low birthrate and the aging society could enter a irrecoverable stage if we don’t act right now,” said Kang Min-gyu, a director of the aging society department at the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs.
The business associations say they will encourage companies large and small to adopt a 40-hour workweek so people can find a balance between work and family life. The civic groups pledged to expand after-school programs and change perceptions about single-parent households and multicultural families within society. Religious leaders said they would support child care facilities. The Labor Ministry is trying to make working hours more flexible and encourage people to work from home.
Meanwhile, the government has been providing subsidies for child care and infertility treatments and giving people with three or more children preferential treatment when they purchase an apartment. It will eventually provide more housing to families with three or more children and increase subsidies for child care expenses.
Living on love
These families are not necessarily wealthy. The parents do not get big paychecks and cannot always afford to live in a large house. But having less hasn’t meant they are less happy.
“I had four siblings in my family and they were always supportive in good times or bad,” Eom said. “I believe my children will also be able to lean on each other.
“During vacation, our two eldest daughters come home and take care of the younger children like they are the parents,” Eom added. “The younger ones follow their elder sisters more than they follow me.”
The Heo family lives in a three-bedroom apartment, with one room for mom and dad and one each for the boys and the girls. They got some extra space when Su-jin, 21, the third daughter, got married and went to live in Japan while Sun-haeng, 22, the second, left home to do volunteer work. But they seemed to miss their cozy quarters.
“When even one child isn’t home, I feel like the house is empty,” Heo said.
Heo and his wife had originally wanted even more children, but things didn’t work out as planned.
Eom had also hoped to have more children, but she recently had a miscarriage.
“There was never a moment when we weren’t happy because we didn’t have enough,” Eom said. “I would like to ask other people to have more children.”
One of the main causes of low childbirth is the high cost of raising a child. In a government survey from 2006, 57.7 percent of respondents said the biggest difficulty in raising a child is the economic burden. Twenty-three percent answered there are not enough child care facilities that are reliable.
That seems to be another advantage to having so many siblings.
Pastor Kwon Hak-do, 57, who lives in Jincheon County, North Chungcheong, has 10 children. “My children can take care of each other,” Kwon said. “I am not worried even if they are home alone.”
Another obstacle these families face is education. Tuition fees in Korea are expensive and families with multiple children often can’t afford to either get wrapped up in the private education fever that has gripped the nation or send their children to college.
But some view education differently.
Heo is a self-made man. His family was poor and he could not attend middle and high school, but he did not give up. He earned middle and high school degrees by passing national tests and went on to college, where he was awarded a scholarship. He worked throughout college and eventually became a patent lawyer.
Heo said he does not want his children to become people who only excel at studying. “I want them to grow up to be people who can stand on their own,” he said. “I want them to be healthy and emotionally happy, and I want them to be able to get along with other people.
“Spending a lot of money on your child does not make him or her happy. Most of all, parents need to understand this and live according to their beliefs,” Heo said.
Heo, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, said having a big family is a lot of work but is very rewarding. “People think having a lot of children is hard but I think the opposite,” Heo said. “Having a small number of children is harder.”
Parents with fewer children “tend to become obsessed with their children’s success and force them to follow a path that they don’t want, which makes them unhappy,” Heo said.
By Ahn Hai-ri, Limb Jae-un [firstname.lastname@example.org]