“I am a bad mother”

March 1, 2010

I have written about this before.  If morality is a series of guideposts to the good life, for women it points in confusing and contradictory directions.  Frequently, the consequence is anguish and shame.

Women of my mother’s generation expected to be mothers and home-makers.  That was their moral duty.  They could work, as my mother did, but usually before the children were born, and after they were grown.

Women of my wife’s generation expected to be like men.  That was their moral aspiration.  Preconceptions about womanhood, of the kind their mothers had indulged in, seemed more like prejudicial stereotyping.  So they took to the workforce and competed successfully with the males who had owned the turf forever.

Of course, they wanted to become wives and mothers as well.  That was part of the good life – an irrepressible aspect of human nature.  And this, they learned, was hard.  To dedicate yourself to a career while raising a family was frustrating and exhausting and time-consuming in the extreme.  Dreadful choices needed to be made.

Some women, in pursuing careers, waited too long before having children, and lived with regret thereafter.  Others delayed or interrupted their careers to concentrate on their families, and wondered what, without this duty, they might have achieved.  Many went for family and career at once, and lived in a perpetual state of exhaustion.  It’s a dilemma their husbands rarely faced.

We come to my daughter’s generation.  They seem sturdy, sensible, and independent in spades.  But whatever they choose for their lives – whatever the order of personal achievement and family life – they will do so without clear guideposts from the community.  In a sense, morality has failed women today, particularly young women.

This can be seen most clearly in extreme examples:  countries in which economic life is at odds with social traditions.  South Korea, according to this fascinating article in the WaPo, could well be the gold medal winner in the fine sport of placing women in an impossible place.

Korean women receive excellent educations, and readily enter the workforce.  However, “they are often elbowed away from rewards in their professional lives,” according to the article.  “If they have a job, they make 38 percent less money than men, the largest gender gap in the developed world.”

For women, South Korea is the worst of all possible worlds:  career achievement is artificially limited, and family demands are ferociously insisted on.  Terrible external pressures generate internal turmoil, anger, and self-loathing.

“I may be a good employee, but to my family I am a failure,” wrote Hwang, a marketing executive and mother of a 6-year-old son. “In their eyes, I am a bad daughter-in-law, bad wife and bad mother.”  [ . . .]

Women who do combine work and family find themselves squeezed between too little time and too much guilt: for neglecting the education of children in a nation obsessed with education, for shirking family obligations as dictated by assertive mothers-in-law, and for failing to attend to the care and feeding of overworked and resentful husbands.

Not surprisingly, South Korean women are delaying marriage and refusing to have children.  Despite its affluence, the country has the lowest birthrate in the world.  In this South Korea foreshadows a global future in which the pursuit of the good life dead ends in barrenness – and moral choices of a perverse kind deliver intractable political and economic problems.

South Korea is, as I said, extreme, and the parallel with the US  imperfect.  Korean men are clearly dogs, even by American standards.  Korean mothers-in-law also behave like females of the canine species.  The culture seems singularly unforgiving.

Many of the pressures described in the WaPo piece my daughter and her friends would scoff at.  They are far less troubled by self-doubt, far less subject to unreasonable demands.

Without a doubt, the way ahead for young American women will be less painful than for their South Korean peers – but I worry it will be morally as uncertain.