A clash of work, motherhood

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A clash of work, motherhood

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A working mother surnamed Hwang, 46, insisted that her 17-year-old son volunteer at a nursing home in Gyeonggi last weekend. That was to accumulate volunteer hours, which is crucial to getting into universities in Korea. Hwang, who had known nothing about the university entrance system, has now become one of the “feverish education mothers” of Gangnam, southern Seoul.

In fact, until early 2009, Hwang was the CEO of the Korean office of a multinational company, with an annual salary of hundreds of millions of won. However, when her son failed to be accepted at a foreign language high school in 2008, she quit her job to focus more on her son’s education.

“I was too busy climbing up the corporate ladder; I didn’t realize that I was a failure in educating my child,” said Hwang, who added that “High school and university entrance systems are so complex, I thought relying on my child to go through all that while studying at the same time would be too much.”

Since university entrance requirements include not only grades but other specifications such as internationally authorized English test scores and diverse volunteer experiences, Hwang said she had no choice but to give up work.

Realizing the difficulty of keeping up in two worlds - working and being in charge of their children’s education - an increasing number of working mothers are casting aside impressive paychecks to instead try to raise successful children.

The university entrance system is so complicated, in fact, with policies and procedures changing often, that even stay-at-home mothers are finding it hard to keep up with the process, unless they are fully devoted to it.

A working mother surnamed Lee, 52, who is a bank manager, went to a psychiatrist, unable to bear being an outcast at a PTA meeting. “I was in charge of general affairs for the PTA but couldn’t attend any meetings held during the daytime,” said Lee. “I was blamed for being irresponsible.”

The JoongAng Ilbo surveyed first year students at three high schools in Seoul - a foreign language high school, an autonomous private high school and a public high school - about their mothers’ occupations and found that 62.2 percent of the mothers at foreign language schools were full-time mothers, as were 60 percent at autonomous schools and 43.8 percent at public schools.

Kim Jong-in, vice principal of Hangyoung Foreign Language High School, said that “it is common for students with full-time mothers to have higher grades.”

Lee Sun-young, a teacher at Ewha Girls’ High School, said that “most of the students who were accepted by prestigious universities, including Yonsei and Korea, were living with a stay-at-home mom.”

Lee Mi-ae, a housewife who operates a Web site for mothers, said “the purpose of the current entrance examination system ... is good, but it requires too much sacrifice from mothers.”

On top of all this pressure, social issues come into play. The mother of a 10-year-old son surnamed Ahn, 40, was shocked last August when she heard her son was an outcast at school. The trouble was, while Ahn was at work, her son had brought his friends home to play computer games but then the friends’ parents told their children not to play with him.

“Having no connections with other parents is already sad, but watching your child become a loner is unbearable,” Ahn said. She quit her job.

Although working mothers find ways to arrange child care, they encounter problems when their children enter the education system. These high-caliber women should be at their peak, demonstrating their professionalism in the workplace, but they are unable to overcome the struggles of their children’s education.

A woman surnamed Nam, 43, the mother of a second-year high school student, also gave up her job in 2008 when her son was elected president of the student council in middle school. Nam, who was a kindergarten principal, had been able to manage her son’s education through middle school, but things changed when her child advanced. Staying up all night, she made her decision, fearing that if she didn’t, she “would be blamed.”

“If your child becomes student council president,” Nam said, “it’s the mother’s job to participate in all events. I couldn’t make my son give up the post for my job.”

And statistics can show this harsh reality. Among 15 freshman classrooms at H High School in Seoul, 12 had presidents with stay-at-home moms.

Working mothers, thus, are under constant stress, overwhelmed by the pressure of working and taking care of the household at the same time, trying to be a success in everything they do.

It can be a cold, harsh world. Maumnuri Neuropsychiatry Director Jeong Chan-ho says that “among mothers in Daechi-dong southern Seoul, there’s even an agreement not to allow working mothers at their gatherings.” Daechi-dong is called the “mecca of private education,” renowned for sending the most students by percentage to Korea’s top universities.

In a survey done by Samsung Economic Research Institute last September, 44.4 percent of 1,931 working mothers find being isolated from mothers’ networks is the hardest to cope with.

Principal Park Ha-sik of Gyeonggi Academy of Foreign Languages said that his school tried to adjust PTA meetings to evenings, “but constant participation from working mothers is, in fact, nearly impossible.”


By Special Reporting Team [enational@joongang.co.kr]

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