Childcare Ideologies: A Longitudinal Qualitative Study of Working Mothers in South Korea

Youngeun Nam, Purdue University


This dissertation examines working women’s experiences with careers and childcare in South Korea. Korea is characterized by its ultra-low fertility rate, aging population, and high proportions of working women and those opting out of work after childbirth. Despite the government’s generous childcare policies and widespread help from child(ren)’s grandmothers, Korean mothers report substantial difficulties in pursuing their careers due to childcare responsibilities. Thus, this dissertation asks the following questions: 1) How do beliefs and norms about childcare influence Korean women’s career pursuits and childcare arrangements? 2) What factors influence Korean working mothers’ career aspirations and pursuits in the context of COVID-19? 3) How does grandmothers’ care help influence Korean working mothers’ careers and childcare arrangements?To investigate these questions, I analyze three waves of longitudinal in-depth interview data (n=102) from women in Korea. The first wave was collected in-person in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic with 37 women. The second (n=32) was conducted in 2020, and the final (n=33) wave in 2021. Due to travel restrictions related to COVID-19, the second and final waves were conducted virtually using video calls. The semi-structured interviews asked questions about women’s experiences with their careers and childcare, and examined how their experiences have changed or remained the same since the COVID-19 pandemic. This is one of the first qualitative studies to examine working mothers’ experiences with childcare pre-pandemic (2019) and during the pandemic (2020 and 2021).Based on the findings, I develop the concept of “childcare ideologies”– defined as beliefs and norms about childcare. Korean women shared a diverse range of beliefs and norms about childcare encompassing family members like mothers, fathers, and grandparents, as well as non-family members like care facilities and the government. Because childcare is not a concern or responsibility of mothers alone, this dissertation encourages the sociological scholarship to conceptualize childcare more broadly, by including the discussions of political interests, social and cultural norms, and intergenerational familial care, among other relevant factors.In addition, I document women’s experiences related to pursuing their careers and arranging grandmothers’ childcare help. The findings show the influence of gendered childcare beliefs and norms on Korean mothers’ career aspirations and pursuits. Childcare beliefs that do not assume that mothers are primarily responsible for childcare motivated mothers to aspire to career success and pursue such aspirations. On the other hand, childcare beliefs that associate mothers with having primary childcare responsibility discouraged mothers from their career aspirations and pursuits. Furthermore, while I demonstrate Korean mothers’ heavy reliance on their children’s grandmothers for childcare help, I show that mothers preferred to receive childcare help from maternal grandmothers than from paternal grandmothers.In analyzing these empirical findings, this dissertation contextualizes Korean mothers’ experiences related to childcare and career pursuits within the novel context of the COVID-19 pandemic. That is, I employ a gendered life course framework to investigate how women’s family lives and careers have been affected when the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic caused an economic and societal disruption, in addition to a health crisis. I conclude the dissertation with empirical implications and policy recommendation to better anticipate future health challenges and to assist working women and their families when these challenges emerge.




Sennott, Purdue University.

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