There is this one scene from secondary school that has stayed with me until today.
One day in a Chinese language class, the teacher asked us a question. Actually the question was directed to the boys.
‘How many of you would prefer their wife to be a housewife?’
And to my surprise (and at the time, indignation) almost all of the boys in my class raised their hands. For someone like me who was brought up in a dual income household and naturally thought women are equal to and have the same rights as men, it was a pretty jarring moment.
I couldn’t imagine not having a career.
The thing is, now that I’m older and have seen more of the world, I find myself asking, ‘Is it possible that I will become a housewife for 2-3 years when I start having children?’. The thought ‘Would that be so bad?’ crossed my mind too.
As those 15 year old boys thought, our society is still very much deferent to men, where the man is the breadwinner and the woman takes care of the family. So many of my girl friends (who studied 5 years in university for a professional degree) have put a hold on their careers to have babies.
But have you ever heard of a man taking some time out from their careers to raise children? Simply unimaginable.
For the modern Asian woman, not only does she have a full time career, but due to the way nature works, she still has to carry the babies to term, and due to societal and cultural conditioning, performs the majority of the child rearing. And it seems to me that the ladies don’t really mind taking up more of the duties where childcare is concerned. In fact they seem to want to.
If you’re South Korean, female and ambitious, one of the most sought after dreams is to become a flight stewardess. 20,000 women apply every year, including top graduates from some universities, but only 150 get the job. Why a flight stewardess? Because it pays well, has flexible hours, and perhaps most importantly, is the pathway to a good marriage. Apparently after 5 years most of them quit to get married.
Asian women are also underrepresented at every level of top management in Asia. Compared to our Western counterparts, we Asians seem less ambitious. Is it because of the pressure of traditional societal expectations that force us to put family first and career later? Or is it that we actually feel that we want to stay home and cultural norm just makes it easier for us to make that decision?
For me personally, it’s been a revelation, but I’ve had quite a change of heart from my 15 year old self. I feel like I’m not as ambitious as I was back then, and I really wouldn’t mind taking a few years off to focus on raising children. Whether this is purely psychological from seeing a lot of people I know setting up families, or is it a consequence of the innate hormone releasing biological clock that compels women to have children before their fertility wanes, I still have no idea.
However, one thing that those teenage boys didn’t take into account was the rising cost of living. As this article by The Edge Malaysia put it, the dual income household has become indispensable if you want to have children, especially if you’re solidly middle class. So whether or not we can afford to have one parent not working for awhile has become a big issue.
So therein lies a some of the dilemmas of the modern woman: we want and need to spend to more time with the family, but we also we need the income from our careers, and between it all if we’re lucky, we think about some career building.
As Anne-Marie Slaughter put it in her highly viral article for The Atlantic, unless you’re superhuman, rich or self employed, women still can’t have it all.
And perhaps for a lot of Asian women living in Asia, they don’t want it all in the first place.
This is part of our Vulcan Post Saturday Column, where we write about thought that matters.