Borne upon a gentle breeze, late-spring sunlight fills the air and brings with it true warmth. With the joy of coming abundance energizing the air, May marks the optimal season for simple pleasures of family picnics under the sun. This month is known as Korea’s family month; calendars are marked with holidays dedicated to both children and parents. With family holidays just around the corner, the time has come to reexamine how the dominant idea of families has been shaped in our society today. Unfortunately, broken families, deviating from the common conceptual framework for households, are left as victims of discrimination.
“People who are likely to commit crimes are boys who were raised by single mothers. Boys who break, stab and kill people if they are upset are from a single parent family.” This is not a phrase from a drama, a play, movie or any other fictional story. Shockingly, these are the words of a Korea National University of Transportation (KNUT) professor who was interviewing incoming students in November of 2017. The professor was fired in 2018, but his words clearly illustrate how society views and abhors people from non-traditional families. To tackle this issue, it is first crucial to discuss what a true family looks like.
What is Family?
The word family has always had a significantly narrow definition in Korean society. When illustrating what a family looks like, a mother, a father and their children related to them by blood is the dominant image in media and individual minds. However, this norm of the nuclear family has a darker side. Any homes that do not satisfy that definition are regarded as detrimental to children’s well-being. Calling someone motherless or fatherless being an insult in Korea and households without two parents being referred to as broken families prove how this society regards any non-nuclear families as abnormal or even abusive. Traditional family ideology is a testimony to the great shadow the dominant ideal casts over all other forms of family bonds.
Traditional family ideology stems from how society defines family. Professor Chung Hyun sook (Department of Family Welfare, Sangmyung University) stated how Korean civil law discusses only marriage, adoption, and childbirth as legitimate steps in creating a family. However, she emphasized that Korean citizens no longer think marriage is a step all people should go through. To prove her point, she stated that “Families who do not have children make up 20 percent [of the total population in Korea]. In Europe, children born from legally unmarried couples reach up to 60 percent of total children there.”
Professor Chung Hyunsook added that these changes were triggered by several factors including changes in economic structure, important values, and technology. Unlike an agrarian society, an industrial and informationoriented society puts less emphasis on labor and childbirth. With various human rights movements in the 60s, people started to value personal autonomy more. Lastly, technological developments led family members to produce capital outside the selfsufficient family economy, unlike the pre-Industrial Revolution days.
However, social awareness and institutional support were not able to follow the change. No revisions regarding the legal definition of family were made in the Korean civil law or the national law. Education curriculum still reflects the structure of a traditional family: the mother doing housework and taking care of her children, the father going out to work and the two children smiling under their parents’ guidance. Along with this stagnation, Professor Chung Hyunsook mentioned that people tend to feel nostalgic towards past family structures and refrain from changing their perception of f amily, all re sulting in the reinforcement of traditional family ideology.
Diverse family structures simply display adaptation to various changes that occurred over time, and do not illustrate dysfunctionality or incompleteness as currently underdeveloped family policies might imply. Currently, researchers are actively redefining family as people who develop a close relationship by spending time and sharing emotional bonds with each other. This new definition emphasizes interaction between family members rather than its structure, encompassing diverse forms of families. However, it seems that more time and effort will be required to apply this new definition to various policies and systems.
▲ Professor Chung Hyunsook
Since all the policies and social norms are currently geared towards a nuclear family, people who are not living in such households are vulnerable both financially and socially. It is true that non-nuclear families receive a certain degree of financial support from the government, but it is far from enough to guarantee protection. In addition, active international adoption of Korean children is also deeply related with this intolerance, as adoption taboo is prevalent in Korea and policies to help the parents are severely lacking. Other non-nuclear families include adoptive families, single parent families, multicultural families, and gay couples.
Out of all the diverse kinds of nonnuclear families, prejudice against single parent families and adoptive families most clearly displays how Korean society only accepts a family that is composed of two parents of opposite sex and their children related by blood. Therefore, reactions to these two kinds of families act as a definite proof of the obsession with the nuclear family.
Traditionally, single parent families were created due to the death of a spouse. However, as the number of parents who get divorced or abandon their children has increased in recent years, single parent families have greatly increased accordingly. Single mothers often are fired from their jobs and are left behind as temporary workers for different companies, most of them working in low income sectors. Single fathers tend to be financially less vulnerable, but they are having equal difficulty in raising their children.
Since single parents have the burden of raising the children and working to earn money, the children of single parents are at higher risk of social deviance. However, this does not indicate that single parent families should be stigmatized and reprimanded. Rather, it shows that sufficient social and financial support for the family is necessary.
One of the most important laws that protect single parent households is the Single Parent Family Aid Act. This act focuses on helping single parents maintain a healthy life. Professor Chin Meejung (Department of Child Development & Family Studies, Seoul National University) stated that the government supplies 130,000 won monthly for every child under age of fourteen for single parent families. Other important clauses help single parents receive employment education and support from related centers. Professor Chin added that policies and laws are too weak to protect the increasing number of single parent families as they focus on guaranteeing the minimum amount of money for survival. Therefore, even though there seems to be adequate support on the surface, in reality, it is too meager to solve the financial issues they are suffering from.
The issue of child rearing expenses needs thorough discussion as well. In the case of single parent families, a significant portion of them should receive child rearing expenses from the other biological parent. However, laws that enforce these transactions are limited, resulting in numerous parents who cannot receive the money they need. For a single mother, these laws are powerless when the father goes into hiding, and vice versa. According to the Minister of Gender Equality and Family survey done in 2017, only 32 percent sent the money they promised. The majority, with limited financial or legal power, were unable to receive the money.
Professor Chung Soondool (Graduate School of Social Welfare, Ewha Woman's University) stated that a federal system should guarantee support when the person obligated to give the child rearing expenses do not send the promised money. She mentioned Germany as an example, since the country gives the support to the parent first and receives the money from noncustodial parent later.
Lastly, services they can receive are quite limited as well. For instance, the policies fail to guarantee a safe place for their children to stay. It is important to create facilities that can take care of the children while the parents are working to decrease the burden of single parents. Such a policy can help prevent deviance in these children.
Limited services such as child care or counseling services are also partly due to financial deficiency of single parent support centers across the country. Their operating expenses are not from the government but from local self-governing parties. This makes it crucial for the government to save a certain portion of money to support these groups as these services appear crucial to the health of both the parent and his or her child.
Domestic Adoptees in Dire Straits
Single mothers and adoption are irrevocably linked. As previously mentioned, the financial support currently offered is insufficient to support the lives of single parents and their children. The lack of economic support from the government has pushed single mothers to stand on the edge of a precipice, ultimately forcing the grim decision of sending their children away to orphanages.
The Revised Special Adoption Act was amended in August 2011 and enacted in August 2012. The newly established regulations require mothers to wait seven days, get approval from a family court, and register birth and family status before they can relinquish their children. These revisions were aimed to add accountability, in hopes of encouraging the maintenance of original families and reducing the number of Korean children adopted abroad.
Despite its positive intentions, the act has sparked unintended results. This amendment eventually seems to have pushed many unmarried mothers, who face the social stigmas of delivering a child while underage or single, into extreme choices; there has been an increase in baby boxes*, the last resort of anonymity for mothers who wish not to leave records of childbirth.
Lost in an Ocean
Adding insult to injury, there lie many shortcomings even within overseas adoption programs. Korea ranks first among sending children overseas for adoption, reaching 200,000 children over the history of 65 years. Yet, recently, foreign adoption has become much harder, and on top of that, regulations have been further tightened. South Korean orphanages are now brimming with more orphans waiting for a family, who might have previously had a chance for a new beginning with welcoming families overseas.
▲ Professor Chung Soondool
The sole goal of domestic adoption programs is not to ensure the adoptee a supportive and loving family. They instead center on a system that only aims to allow the adoptee to enter the borders of the United States (U.S.). After arrival, whether the family decides to cancel the adoption or the adoptee becomes an orphan again, the orphan is left to fend for themselves. Even today, many orphans sent overseas for adoption have failed to acquire citizenship and are either being deported or threatened with deportation.
In the case of Korean-born Philip Clay, adopted in Philadelphia, he was deported back to Korea and found dead on May 21, 2017. He had been taken in by an American family but never received U.S. citizenship, like many of the other thousands of international adoptees. Despite growing up in the States for his entire life, his identity was denied and he was left in dire straits. With the loss of his loving family, friends, and home, he committed suicide. The issue of unacquainted nationality is clearly a serious violation in human rights, leaving the orphans deserted.
Korea, represented as one of the nations with the lowest birthrate, has been constantly sending children across borders, yet has made it impossible for children to be adopted domestically. While it is important to tackle the laws and policy, more fundamental issues about adoption should be addressed first. In other words, the nation should step up to prevent biological mothers from facing cul-de-sacs and being forced to send their children off for adoption.
Single Parent Prejudice
“A child needs a mother and a father.” This is a phrase that can be commonly heard in Korean society. If a child from a single parent family deviates from the norm, people say, “It is because they grew up without a mother or father.” If that child grows up to be a model student, then people say, “They grew up very well even though they were raised by a single parent.” These phrases all show how people think children are raised properly only in traditional families.
Society tends to reprimand single parents as selfish and uncaring of their child. If a couple gets divorced, then they are criticized as people who sacrificed their child for their own good. The idea that parents have to endure a distressing marriage life for their child is almost accepted as a truth in Korean society. What society is oblivious of is that such oppression can be a greater harm to both the child and the parent.
Social prejudice becomes more severe for unmarried single parents and especially for single mothers. According to one study, single mothers, along with homosexuals, suffer the most prejudice among all minority groups in Korean society. Not surprisingly, Korea ranks 35th out of 36 countries in acknowledging single mothers as parents. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that these stereotypes are forcing single mothers out of the society and into isolation. Then is it the single parent that really afflicts the child, or is it the social perception that deepens the pain?
Child Born from the Heart?
In addition to the public’s shunning of singleparent households, adopted families are also classified as chippedoff remnants from traditional families. The taboo of adoption can be traced back to the prevalent philosophy of Confucianism in Korea, which placed heavy emphasis on family ties and ancestry. Bloodlines have always been of great importance in Korea, where family plays a crucial role in shaping an individual’s identity. Therefore, most locals remain skeptical towards the idea of an adopted child carrying on the bloodline of the family.
According to a study published by the Institute for Child Care Policy, whereas some associate adoptive parents with positive connotations such as having goodwill, some doubt whether they could wholeheartedly raise orphans as their own children. Adopters often encounter discriminatory views toward their adopted children. When faced with financial difficulties or obstacles, close kin and neighbors urge them to relinquish their rights as parents, which is something not as easily told to a parent belonging to a traditional family. This depicts the public’s refusal to regard adopted children as real components of a family, but as easily built and detached Lego pieces.
The media have also played a crucial role in formulating misconceptions about adoption. In a television (TV) series Feast of the Gods (2012), starring Sung Yu-ri and Seo Hyun-jin, a child is adopted into a family, yet the mother continuously mourns over the lost biological daughter. When the adoptee accidently touches the lost daughter’s photograph in her room, the mother screams at her. At first it seemed as though the mother had truly taken the adoptee as her child born from her heart. However, the scene unconsciously implants the misconception that biological children are forever irreplaceable, reinforcing a deep-seated cultural belief.
A Right to be Legally and Socially Protected
The problem with welfare policies regarding single parent families, Professor Chung Hyunsook said, is that they do not consider the diversity within single parent families. Single parent families are created through numerous ways such as divorce, death of a partner and unmarried mothers and fathers. The needs of these families differ significantly, and therefore require different treatments. However, current policies are not flexible enough to give personalized support to each family, decreasing their efficiency.
Another issue for single parent families is balance between work and housework. Since a significant portion of single parent families are financially vulnerable, they have to work long hours; facilities that can take care of the children are essential. Currently, childcare facilities are in high demand as married couples who work together are increasing, giving less space for children of single parent families.
Unlike Korea, the U.S. Britain, and Japan give sufficient support to not only single parent families who are in the low-income bracket, but also to families in other brackets as well. Their financial support is diverse, from electricity and gas bills to education fees for their children. Furthermore, free counseling and medical services are given to these families. Compared to Korea, foreign countries give flexible help based on needs, such as the number of children or their medical condition.
For teenage parents, Korea only provides education for them to pass the school qualification exam or Kumjung go-si, but other countries educate teenage parents how to be good parents as well. Overall, some countries differ from Korea in that they give support in various fields to various people with different needs. However, Korea’s support for single parent families is vastly limited and unrealistic.
Furthermore, Professor Chung Soondool stated that a significant portion of single parents are not able to receive the support because they are not exposed to the necessary information despite single parent counseling calls (1644-6621) and related centers. As a solution, she mentioned “enabling single parents to receive support from places that has high accessibilities such as community service centers.“
Diversification and expansion of help for single parent families are necessary to improve their quality of life as well as their ability to stay independent. If major changes in policies are not made, these vulnerable families will continue to be forced to the bottom of the food chain, naturally strengthening traditional family ideology. The law must change according to the changing structure of the families to encompass diverse people into society.
Stepping Stones to Amend the Handicaps
The revised law on revealing the identities of biological mothers seems to suggest a lack of consideration for mothers who wish to conceal their records of giving birth, which has ultimately led to surges in child abduction and a further diminishing of children’s rights. Therefore, there is a greater need to ensure the welfare of the biological mother. In the case of France, restrictions on the rights to know a child’s biological parent are placed on the best interests and benefits of the child. Korea too, should be encouraged to follow the footsteps of France.
Even if the anonymous birth system is introduced in Korea, there should be a compromise between parents’ right to confidentiality and children’s right to know. Birth records should be collected and managed by the family court or a centralized adoption center but kept private. It should be ensured that the information can be revealed only with the consent of the mother. A parent who chooses an anonymous childbirth needs to prescribe that the custody of the child is suspended or lost. It should also be stipulated that if a biological parent discloses his or her information, he or she does not have any rights or obligations with respect to inheritance or support.
▲ 1 Single parent family
▲ 2 Traditional family
Governments and organizations must bring in active measures for improving the adoption system. What is needed even more is for them to encompass single mothers. Since the social judgment toward single mothers pushes them through the wringer, these young single mothers with bright futures are unwilling to register their children and instead, make the excruciating decision to give them up. In the U.S., supportive services like Planned Parenthood and Nurse Family Partnership are provided, allowing increased protection of parents and delivery of healthcare services.
A Paradigm Shift in the Communal Wave
While policy and legal amendments are crucial, perhaps cultural and social changes are the most paramount and urgent. Just as our society has tried to tackle gender discrimination and prejudice against multicultural families, education should also be implemented to enhance the understanding and spread of healthy adoption cultures. According to Professor Chin, “Primary and secondary school curriculums are still operated on the premise of traditional family structures and relationships. Nevertheless, there should be more recognition and respect towards various family types and lifestyles.”
Rather than viewing adoptive families with pity, warm love and attention should be given instead. Each baby is a life who should be provided a chance to reach his or her potential; therefore, regardless of structure, all families must be embraced.
Media and TV series should no longer depict adoption procedures as immoral, bizarre, or sometimes even illegal means. Till today, adoption is often used as a medium or tool to intensify the dramatic twist to the story plot, thus allowing these families to be easily associated with negative connotations. It implants the misconception that internal conflict is a requisite in adoptive families.
Furthermore, as Professor Chin mentioned, most press still uses the terms ‘broken family’, ‘normal family’ and ‘lone parents’ interchangeably. Experts are careful in using such expressions, but whether intended or not, this form of reporting contributes to the widening reproduction of prejudice in our society. Perhaps, now is the time to put an end to these unconsciously overused terms. The whistle must be blown on the stereotypes, and greater concerns should be raised to depict the true reality of adoptions.
Living with both biological parents, as illustrated in societal norms, is unnecessary. What children really need is simply some one who consistently gives them love and care. Society refers to the families deviating from the conservative ideals as broken families. However, rather than regarding them as leftover debris, our
▲ Professor Chin Meejung
society must come to realize that these so-called broken families are in fact not broken, but different. “Family is a constantly changing system. Therefore, people have to start respecting the changing lifestyles and values in society,” Professor Chin elucidated. The fact that these families share the common denominator of love and attention for each other does not change, allowing society an opportunity to question the meaning of a traditional family.
* According to The Babybox Korea, baby boxes are facilities made to prevent the deaths of babies with disabilities or from single mothers.