Ms Chung has now moved back to Seoul. Her husband has found a new job with a broadcasting company that lets him get home at a reasonable hour every night. This is unusual in South Korea, where male white-collar workers are expected to put in punishing hours and then go drinking with colleagues. The husbands of Ms Chung’s friends are rarely home before midnight.
The pressure on South Korean mothers is unusually intense. Their bosses often assume that they will quit. Employers are legally obliged to offer 12 months of maternity leave, but often find ways to avoid it, complains Ms Chung. The average Korean husband does far less child care or housework than his Western peer.
Moreover, the competition to get one’s children into the right university is ferocious. Families spend a fortune on cram schools, despite attempts by the government to restrict them. Mothers spend hours nagging their children to study and preparing snacks so they can stay longer in the library. Ms Chung wants her son to have the best education possible, which will be horribly expensive. She would like more children but doubts that would be compatible with her desire to go back to work. Also, if she had several kids she could not afford to educate them properly, she says.
Some young South Korean women go further, and say that even one child is too many. “I look at my mother and how she’s sacrificed everything and people don’t even notice. I don’t want my life to be like that,” says a 22-year-old student in Seoul.
South Korea is an extreme example, but women in other rich countries make the same basic calculation. Instead of starting to have babies shortly after they reach puberty, as women have done throughout history, they postpone motherhood until they have spent years in education and then established themselves in a career. If they have children, they typically have only one or two, because giving them the best start in life is expensive. They assume, with good cause, that none of their offspring will die young.
Women in middle-income countries (ie, most women) behave a lot like women in rich countries, which is why their fertility rate is but a whisker above the replacement level. In China, the norm of having just one child has become so ingrained since the one-child policy was introduced in 1979 that even after its progressive relaxation in recent years, the birth rate has continued to fall. Officially, the fertility rate is 1.6, but some demographers suspect it is actually lower. In India, which is far poorer, the rate is nonetheless only 2.3.
Stuck in the middle with two