Every once in a while during my reading travels, I unknowingly pick up a book that speaks directly to me in that particular moment in my life. Because I read so many books, and consciously pick ones that I think I may like, this doesn’t come as a shock, but still, I sometimes feel as though they find their way into my hands as an act of fate, and these coincidences propel me forward when I feel my reading resolve lacking. Most recently, this happened when I turned the last page of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo. Translated from the Korean by Jamie Chang, this novel has sold over a million copies worldwide, and was also made into a movie. It’s debut in North America was highly anticipated, and now that I’ve read this slim novel, I see what all the fuss was about.
Kim Jiyoung is an ‘every woman’, the English translation of her name is basically “Jane Doe”, and nothing about her life is extraordinary. She lives a fairly middle class existence in South Korea, and because she follows the set path for her gender, without complaint, her life becomes a shell of what she intended, shadowing the men in her life while she struggles with the new, towering expectations of motherhood. After a few years of living this robotic life, she ends up exhibiting a strange kind of mental illness, taking on the personalities, mannerisms and speech of her other family members. Her husband suggests she see a therapist, so the novel begins with a quick example of her symptoms, then continues with her monologues relaying each stage of her life, from her time as a young girl through to the present day. The novel ends abruptly in 2016, with Kim as a 34-year-old, suffering from a varied form of depression. Interspersed throughout the narrative are footnotes; statistics and references that contextualize Kim’s environment and the cultural expectations she grows up in.
So why does this book feel so relevant to me right now? Today is my first day of working outside the home in five years, since I went on maternity leave to have my first child. I’ve been working freelance the entire time I’ve been home (in fact, while in the beginning stages of labour with my eldest, I was reading a book that I was going to discuss in a radio interview a few weeks later) but today is the first day of my new office job, at Calgary Reads, an organization that I’m proud to be a part of. I’m a little anxious of course, starting a new job is always nerve-racking, but I’m more worried about the fact that I’m a completely different employee than I was five years ago. I can no longer throw myself into my job, working until the tasks are complete. No, I have to leave my office at 3pm every day to pick up my daughter from school, and I’m so grateful I have a job that allows this, but at the same time I miss the old me, the woman who could be depended on to stay as late as needed. This book lays bare this internal struggle that Kim, myself, and many other women feel. We want to the be the best mother we can possible be, but at what cost? What other parts of us are we willing to ignore? Although not entirely exempt from this same struggle, men have an entirely different set of expectations, but their career path is arguably much more straightforward, their age, or marital status is rarely a q deterrent to them getting hired the same way it is for a woman.
Kim is sexually harassed as a student and as an employee. And when she becomes a mother and loses her sexual appeal, she is accused of being lazy by younger men, living off her husband’s wages so she can sit at home with her kids. Women of all classes, cultures and backgrounds can roll their eyes at these assumptions and stereotypes, because we’ve experienced at least one of these unfair situations or labels as a woman. This book points out the hypocrisy of our society, that women are demonized no matter what they do. Choose to stay home to raise your children? You’re lazy. Choose to return to your career after having kids? You’re a bad mother and power-hungry. Choose to not have kids at all? You’re selfish, not a ‘real woman’. Kim does what she’s supposed to; goes to school, (but only because there is money left over from her brother’s education), works hard to secure a job, gets forced out of her job once she becomes pregnant, struggles to find a new job that coincides with her childcare is available, fails and decides to stay home permanently. Mentally, she suffers the consequences. This book doesn’t blame Kim, in fact it shows how little choice she has, how her environment and cultural expectations make it almost impossible to pursue a career and family at the same time.
Since the pandemic began in March in the western world, there’s significant statistical data proving that more women than men have lost their jobs, even when their salaries were higher. As always, women are bearing the brunt of the household work, forced to be a ‘good mother’ first, and if they have time, a good employee second. Men are simply expected to be good employees, and if happen to be good fathers too, they are celebrated as going above and beyond. Kim’s husband is a ‘good’ one, offering to support her in her search for work, promising to help out when possible, but he works 12 hour days so isn’t available to help when their child is awake. Is Kim’s husband the villain for working hard and supporting his family? Of course not, they love each other and made the decision to have a child together. And yet, we can’t help but resent him when it’s clear from the beginning of the novel that Kim enjoyed working, was good at it, and hoped to build a more active career outside the home. There are no easy answers in this book, and no easy answers in the real world either.
This book is urging women to pursue their own version of a balanced life, regardless of what their family or friends may expect of them, and I’ll be sure to keep this in my mind as I embark on the next step in my career. Kim’s story has an ominous tone, and although many may see it as a dire warning, I see it as a personal call-to-action to strive for a better version of myself that goes beyond the expectations of others. I hope both male and female readers are as invigorated by this book as I’ve been.
I’m afraid this book would just bum me out. It’s interesting how you commented on “our society” when this book is set in South Korea. I’m starting to wonder if what we’re talking about is patriarchal societies. We can’t even say the whole world because there are places where women are valued, places typically located at the top of Europe.
Hmm yes, it’s interesting because I could see so many similarities between her life and mine. Hers was more difficult for sure, but the drive to work long hours, etc is also appearing in North America. And, the way the family unit is viewed within the business world is almost identical. Men in North America may say they hire equally, but the reality is, they don’t, and women who are of child-bearing age about to get married or just married are seen with suspicion b/c it’s expected they’re going to want to take mat leave soon enough. Yes, patriarchal societies is a great way to frame this!
And in the U.S., if you’re going to have a baby, that means you’re costing the company money because of how our insurance system works.
yikes! The fact you guys don’t have paid mat and pat leave is so crazy, especially for a first world country. My brother lives in finland and they have like..two or three years.
We’ve been fed the “pull yourself up by your boot straps” narrative so hard that we don’t care about helping other people, even if in doing so we help ourselves.
I love hearing your perspective on this book! I’ve read a couple reviews but yours is the first that has highlighted the motherhood issue and that makes me more interested. I have done only casual work since my oldest was done and you’re right that I would be a very different employee if I returned now to my previous office job. Congrats on your new job and I hope the transition is a good one!
Thank you Karissa! You should read this one, I think you’d really like it.
Why haven’t I heard of this book? And why can’t there be answers to these questions?! Maybe someday someone will come up with the perfect solution.
I hope your new job is going well!
Thanks Naomi! It’s going well so far, but we definitely need answers to these questions! haha
It’s House of Anansi!!!
Congrats on the new job! Juggling work and home is hard enough without kids so I can imagine how much harder it is with them, especially when they’re still very young. I don’t know about in Canada, but here we have lots of law now protecting working mothers (and fathers, but as you point out, the burden still usually falls on mothers) and things are definitely better, but there’s still a lot of inequality of expectation and achievement. And the further down the scale you go, the harder it is – educated, skilled young women, who are IT literate and can work remotely have it slightly easier than women who do manual labour and therefore must be physically present. Still, even in my early days of work, having a child was pretty much the end of the idea of having a career at all, so we are improving…
I’m glad to hear we are improving FF, that gives me hope for my daughter. And, really, things are much better because now women have more choices, but the expectations have only been heightened unfortunately…luckily my workplace is very kid friendly as they are basically promoting welfare of young children 🙂
Congratulations on your new job with Calgary Reads!
That’s fantastic that you managed to work freelance since starting your family. It’s the dream of so many moms, and you must’ve worked hard to make it happen for you. And now you’ve found a team to work with that allows you to still get home soon after the school dismissal bell. As a fan of your blog, I’m rooting for you as you embark on this new chapter!
I’d never heard of this book before your review. It sounds like a good one to pick up next time I’m ordering books from my local bookstore. Thanks for the interesting and well-written review.
Thank you so much for your kind words Susan, they mean a great deal to me 🙂 And I’m so glad you are ordering from your local bookstore-this is a hidden gem of a book! I hope you enjoy it 🙂