I enjoy going to the public bath in the winter. I like the refreshing feeling after a good bath, but equally enjoyable is sitting in a steamy, noisy and crowded bath observing human beings in their most natural state. On one such visit to the public bath, a notice at the counter had me laughing my head off.
“No Boys over Five Years Allowed in Female Public Bath!” was written in big red letters. Recalling occasions when I was taken aback by rather “mature” boys frolicking in the women’s bath, I laughed all the harder. Having gone to the public bath with my older brother when we were young, I did not have anything against seeing boys in the female tubs, but some of the customers must have protested.
Suddenly the questions I used to have as a child following my mother to the public bath came back to me. When the whole family visited the public bath together, why did I have to follow my Mom and older brother? Why couldn’t I follow my Dad to the male bath? It seems ridiculous now, but they were pretty earnest questions back then. When did it become natural for little boys to follow their mothers to the female bath and unnatural for little girls to follow their fathers to the male bath?
Looking at mothers grab and bathe kids who are howling in protest, I realize once again that the burden of childcare still lies with mothers, that is, women. The social status of women has risen considerably compared to the past, but gender discrimination still persists in the division of labor. In fact, women’s burden may have become heavier than before, now that society demands women not only to bear children, take care of them and handle household chores but also to be economically capable and bring home the bacon. The triple load definitely creates conflict among the roles foisted on women.
According to age-old practice in Korea, men dominated the public arena which required logic and rationality, whereas women were naturally put in the private arena of sentiments and emotions. At the same time, private affairs such as household chores were belittled and public affairs regarded as having greater value. With time, more and more women have “invaded” what used to be male-dominated arenas, but it is still rare to see men venturing into women’s arenas. Thus the situation where taking care of the household and holding down a job all fall on women.
There is rising public concern today over the falling birth rate. The society is aging, and the falling birth rate means a shrinking labor market in the future. The state has planned various policies to encourage births. But the number of women willing to take on the triple burden of childcare, household chores and career will continue to decrease, unless they all become Super Women.
When little boys stop taking it for granted that they must follow their mothers to the female public baths, perhaps Korea can be free of concern over falling birth rates.