Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

The Intersection of Motherhood and Disability: Being a "Good" Korean Mother to an "Imperfect" Child

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

The Intersection of Motherhood and Disability: Being a "Good" Korean Mother to an "Imperfect" Child

Article excerpt


Since Sociologist Ann Oakley rejected the belief "that all women need to be mothers, that all mothers need their children, and that all children need their mothers" (1974, p. 186), scholars have become increasingly aware of motherhood as a socially constructed rather than a biologically determined phenomenon (Glenn, 1 994) . Researchers also have shifted their view of disability away from a medical model toward a perspective that highlights the social processes that shape the experiences of individuals with disabilities (Whyte & Ingstad, 1995). How gender and disability are experienced, these researchers argue, is shaped by symbolic and material practices that evolve over time within particular historical and political contexts (Skinner & Weisner, 2007; Smith, 2003).

In this paper, we examine sociocultural beliefs about motherhood and disability in South Korea. We aim to answer two main questions: (a) How do sociocultural systems related to mothering and disability, particularly autism spectrum disorders, shape South Korean mothers' understanding of themselves and their children with disabilities; and (b) How do these mothers resist and/or conform to dominant discourse about being a "good" mother and a "normal" child? We begin our paper by describing the sociocultural contexts within which South Korean mothers and their children with disabilities live. Then, we provide a summary of empirical evidence related to mothering a child with disabilities. Finally, we detail our qualitative study and provide evidence for how South Korean mothers understand themselves and their children with autism within this milieu.


The lives of South Korean women have long been influenced by the Confucian way of understanding social ties. Through Samkang-Oryun, or the Three Bonds and Five Relationships, Confucianism provides Koreans with a framework to structure relationships between men and women and between families and the larger society (Lee, 1998; Tu, 1998). To encourage social stability and discourage change, the idea of Samkang, or the Three Bonds, emphasizes dominance of the king over the minister, the father over the son, and the husband over the wife. Oryun, or Five Relationships, also provides guidance on appropriate social interactions. In husband-wife relationships, for example, a clear division of labor is considered ideal because Confucian thought argues that separate spheres for men and women promote family stability. Finally, to encourage family harmony, the idea ofSamjongjido, or the Three Principles, guides women's lives (Cho, 1998). These principles dictate that a woman must follow three men over the course of her life: early in her life she follows her father, in adulthood she follows her husband, and in later life she follows her eldest son. Women are expected to sacrifice their own desires and needs to support the wishes of the men in their families and to raise their children. They are expected to make these sacrifices within a system that minimizes their autonomy (Lee, 2005).

Though Confucian influence waned with modernity and the feminist movements of the 1970 's and 80 's (Duncan, 2002; Hyun, 2001; Kim, 2009), patriarchal beliefs continue to hold sway over the lives of Korean women (Cho, 1998; Yang & Rosenblatt, 2008). For example, married women-particularly if they have children-tend to be channeled into unskilled, temporary labor because of the cultural belief that they lack marketable skills (Kim, 2005). At the beginning of this decade, approximately 50% of married women worked for pay (Lee & Lee, 2003), but only 28% of mothers worked for pay (Statistics Korea, 2005). The belief that married women lack marketable skills persists despite the growing educational level of Korean women. Women with a college education experience significant under-employment and unemployment in today 's Korean economy (Kim, 2005).

Korean mothers navigate these economic and cultural contexts by minimizing their paid labor participation and by focusing on childrearing (Cho, 1998; Kim & Ryu, 1996; Yang & Rosenblatt, 2008). …

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