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Why Are You And I Afraid Of My Sons?

I was once an anthropologist. Or trained that way.  Since, I’ve raised a family first through adoption and then fostering (for lack of a simpler term), spending the time to care and being cared about in return. An article in … Read More

By / October 9, 2009

I was once an anthropologist. Or trained that way.  Since, I’ve raised a family first through adoption and then fostering (for lack of a simpler term), spending the time to care and being cared about in return.

An article in today’s New York Times gave me pause to consider its own sadness, then to consider how we treat far too many of our own children here.  According to the piece, single moms are apparently an anathema in South Korea. The article doesn’t even touch other parenting types such as childrearing lesbian and gay couples, straight or gay single dads, and more.

Chang Ji-young, 27, who gave birth to a boy last month, said: "My former boy-friends’s sister screamed at me over the phone demanding that I get an abortion.  His mother and sister said it was up to them to decide what to do with my baby because it was their family’s seed."

"My brother said: ‘How can you do this to our parents,’" said Ms. Choi, 27, a hairdresser in Seoul. "But when the adoption agency took my baby away, I felt as if I had thrown him into the trash.  I felt as if the earth had stopped turning.  I persuaded them to let me reclaim my baby after five days."

…said Lee Mee-kyong, a 33-year-old unwed mother.  "Once you become an unwed mom, you’re branded as immoral and a failure.  People treat you as if you had committed a crime.  You fall to the bottom rung of society."

Only about a quarter of South Koreans are willing to have a close relationship with an unwed mother as a coworker or neighbor, according to a recent survey by the government-financed Korean Women’s Development Institute.  "I was turned down eight times in job applications," Ms. Lee said. "Each time a company learned that I was an unwed mom, it accused me of dishonesty." 

My anthropologist self wonders:  What in South Korean society is so threatened by single parenting mothers that it wrecks agony upon its young women and their born and unborn children?  A partial answer could be that Confucius-based societies are profoundly paternalistic.  So a female-headed household is acephalous, to be feared.  It exists on the border between what is sacred (family, our own children having children), is not clearly outside that border (foreign society, perhaps?) and is therefore dirty, in need of washing away, being made to disappear;  Emile Durkheim & Mary Douglas, the sacred-profane dichotomy, Anthropology 101.

A few statistics of interest:  in 2007, 1.6% of South Korean births (nearly 8000) were from single mothers – compared to nearly 40% in the US.  South Korean statistics report that 96% of pregnant single mothers "choose" abortion, and of the 4% who do give birth, nearly 70% of these women place their babies for adoption.   A large percentage of babies placed for adoption are adopted abroad, 90% of these in the US.  All this in a country spending billions of dollars a year to reverse its declining birthrate.  What we do as a culture says far more about who we are than it does about what protects our survival or that of our environment.  Perhaps Confucian paternal hierarchy is threatened in South Korea, and hence the anathema of single parenting moms – despite the society’s focus on increasing birthrates, despite aspects of love and compassion.

But why do I fixate on South Korea?  I come back to my own family, my own sons of color.  An African anthropologist I read years ago, Asmmom Legesse in Gada: Three Approaches to the Study of African Society, wonders in his Afterward about the American propensity to jail the people we most want not to see.  He says we have jails for schools, jails for housing, jails for jails and more.  Raising our five "bigger boys," visiting their high schools, spending too much time in the legal system seeking to avert the tragedy of "jail jail" for one of our sons,  knowing the sequestered oppression of the housing they’d grown up in, witnessing the plight of their brothers encountering the job markets and judicial system – I wonder just what it is we as a culture are so deeply afraid of in virile African-American and Latino males?  There seems to be no threat if the once youthful and virile grow to middle age and more-though morbidity and mortality mitigate against far too many.  And no threat when they are truly young.  But in a society where nearly one third of all Black men spend some time in jail, filled with other statistics I’m out of time today to dig more for (but which you inherently know the boundaries of)-what are we so afraid of, and how can we get over that fear? Because millions are oppressed, which also makes no sense in a society that flourishes best if educated people produce and consume.  Out of time-that’s a start.  What am I, what are you, afraid of?

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