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Family Values

September 19, 2011

It’s election time in the States, which means it’s time for politicians to talk a lot about “family values” – the decline thereof, and how they plan on defending and protecting “family values” when they are elected to office.

There is a lot of emphasis on family values here in Asia, as well, though traditional roles and expectations are changing rapidly. Women are putting off marriage until later in life and in some cases, putting it off entirely. Divorce rates are slowly climbing, but are still nowhere near the percentage of divorce rates in the Western world.

The thing I’ve always found troubling about the emphasis on “family values” in America is how contradictory it is with public policy. For example, parents in the States are only guaranteed a maximum of 12 weeks of parental leave, unpaid, assuming they work at a company with 50 employees or more. This puts the United States towards the bottom of the barrel of developed countries when it comes to parental leave rights. How does this support family values?

Here in South Korea mothers are granted 90 days of paid leave and 45 additional days of unpaid leave, which is similar to Japan and many European countries. Unlike most European countries, and even the States, leave is granted only to mothers, which is obviously problematic and indicative of the very defined gender roles that still exist here. They are changing, but very slowly. As of right now, women carry most, if not all, of the burden of caring for a family and are expected to give up work to do so.

Since most people who are obsessed with “family values” tend to believe in the same traditional nuclear family  – father who works, mother who stays home, children – then I think an argument can be made to those people that in the realm of family values, South Korea kicks ass. Not only are mothers granted paid and unpaid maternity leave, but the country’s attitude towards children and mothers is far less contradictory. By this I mean that, unlike the States, women here are encouraged to have children and are then supported in many ways. For example, department stores, shopping malls, train stations, and even high-speed trains all have nurseries. And these are not simply bathrooms with a changing table. These are separate spaces, dimly lit, fitted with cribs and changing tables, filtered water, microwaves, sinks, and comfortable chairs in curtained rooms for nursing one’s baby. There are special seats on the subways for pregnant women and women with small children.  But beyond these conveniences, there is an attitude of joyous acceptance of children,  both the pleasant and the unpleasant. When a baby cries in public, rather than the mother being met with accusatory stares of “why can’t you shut your baby up?”, mothers are instead surrounded by grandmothers and grandfathers all smiling and attempting to cheer baby up. Those of childbearing age tend to smile and nod sympathetically. Contrast this to the States where a woman is expected to not only have children and a career, but to have immaculate well-behaved children who never cry in public, lest they bother the nearby adults. And where in the States can you find any public nurseries? Wouldn’t it behoove Target to have a special room for moms to take care of their little ones? I mean, if we can’t actually encourage family values by making it easier to have a family, we could at least make it easier to shop, right? Seems like the only capitalist thing to do.

The compartmentalization of family life that exists in the States just does not exist here. Having children is  part of the flow of life, and so an effort is made to make it  possible for a person to choose to have a family without having to sacrifice convenience and without having to have their life come to a halt. Perhaps it is just my own experiences that have colored my perspective but it seems to me that in the States in particular, there is a sense that having children opens some doors, but closes many others. And while it is true that having children dramatically changes YOU and the dynamic of your household, it does not have to completely change the rhythm of your life. I think a lot of folks in the States feel like they have to accomplish this or that before they can have children. As if having a baby will chain them to their home forever. No more travel! No more eating out! No more fun!

Perhaps if children were more integrated into the culture, people would not feel this way. Given that bringing a baby onto an airplane in the States is taken as a sign of trying to be the most annoying person on the face of the planet, it’s not surprising that many mothers and fathers just choose to stay home. Given that a toddler having a meltdown in a restaurant will spoil any American’s appetite, who wouldn’t choose to eat in? And let’s not forget breastfeeding. Businesses in the States have to put a sticker in their window to indicate that they are breastfeeding friendly, you know, to differentiate themselves from the norm, which is very much UNfriendly towards a child on a boob. (which again, really makes the argument for the nursing rooms that are common here)

The thing that really sums up the difference in family values, though, is the week in May when Koreans celebrate Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Children’s Day. It’s all in the same week, and rather than be delegated to a non-working (and therefore money-making)  Sunday, these days are celebrated during the work week. Mothers and fathers and their children spend the week together, celebrating each other.  Unlike the American counterparts of Mothers and Fathers Day which encourage consumerism in the form of cards, flowers, tie clips, etc., the days here are spent on the most valuable thing of all to a family – time.

So, to all you politicians (and their supporters) who believe in what you call “traditional family values” : I might take you all a bit more seriously if you at least attempted to adopt any one of the above-mentioned measures to show how much you truly value children and their parents.  Bickering over abortion and who should have the right to marry who doesn’t actually encourage any kind of family values. Quite the contrary, it creates a toxic environment in which some, including myself, may be very happy to not stick around and raise their kids.

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