“She couldn’t win: exercising all the rights and utilizing the benefits made her a freeloader, and fighting tooth and nail to avoid the accusation made things harder for colleagues in the same situation.” 

I checked out Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, from the Frisco Public Library’s Overdrive collection, expecting a lengthy novel that would take weeks to finish, especially considering the reading slump I had been in. However, I would finish reading it in five hours. Through only 192 pages, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, tells the story of the ordinary Korean woman, from the disappointment that accompanied her birth in a culture that prefers sons to her plight of ending her career to become a mother while her husband has to give up nothing of that sort. 

Kim Jiyoung’s story, though fictional and a figment of author Cho Nam-Joo’s imagination, reflects the lives of all women. For someone like me in adolescence, it leaves fear for the upcoming chapters of early adulthood, marriage, and what comes after. I am yet to experience the competitiveness of college, where everyone around you is similar to you in terms of achievement, the sexism in hiring practices and the workplace, the expectations of having a child upon being married, and the weighted decisions and sacrifices that accompany being a working mother.

In her 33 years, Kim Jiyoung withstands much more than I had described, with her story conveying the everyday sexism pervasive in all women’s lives. One instance of many in the novel that stood out to me, connecting to the quote I introduced this reflection with, was when her male colleagues pushed her to decline the workplace accommodation provided for pregnant employees. As she was pregnant, Kim Jiyoung’s workplace permitted her to come 30 minutes later to work to make the commute safer and less risky for the baby, only for her male colleagues to ridicule that she was getting 30 minutes for free. Unsure of what to do, she proclaimed she would not be taking advantage of the benefit (which pushed her to arrive one hour earlier every day to beat the crowded bus instead) and feared that she had set a bad precedent for her female colleagues, who may be inclined to do the same. Though Kim Jiyoung resigned upon her maternity leave and did not return to the workplace, it is understandable that she would have faced worse had she taken the leave and returned. 

In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, allowing employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year if they “worked for their employer at least 12 months, at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months, and work at a location where the company employs 50 or more employees within 75 miles.” This act changed trends, as numerous research studies noted significant reductions in infant mortality rates, small increases in birth weight, and reduced maternal stress upon its enforcement. Since then, eleven states and the District of Columbia have enforced paid family and medical leave laws. No, Texas is not one of them. 

However, despite the changes maternity leave has created in overall infant health and development, it continues to be mocked as a vacation. Per the Merriam-Webster dictionary, vacation is “a period spent away from home or business in travel or recreation.” I am unsure how giving birth to a child and caring for them without rest can be termed “recreation,” but the notion must stop. As a mother herself, Joanna Parga-Belinkie, M.D. could not have worded it better when she wrote, “[m]y typical vacation activities don’t include waking up every two to three hours or spending six weeks with bleeding and pain from a recovering uterus and torn-apart vagina.” It is disgraceful how the world continues to ignore the essentiality of maternity leave, downgrading the lives of working mothers who dare take advantage of it and ridiculing them as Kim Jiyoung’s male colleagues did. 

This culture of trivializing maternity leave has extended further from ignorant jokes to putting the careers of working mothers at risk. Research by Economics Professors Claudia Olivetti and Barbara Petrongolo suggests that the longer working mothers take maternity leave, the more likely they are to face firing or demotion, reducing their chances of being promoted, moving into management, or receiving a pay raise. Taking an extended maternity leave can also induce the perception of less work commitment. Though maternity leave was to help working women not choose between a successful career and parenthood, toxic workplace culture has mitigated its purpose, seeing mothers who take maternity leave as burdensome employees regardless of what they had done for the company. 

This perception that maternity leave is a burden for employers has even impacted the careers of working women who are not pregnant. In 2014, a survey of 500 managers by the law firm Slater & Gordon found that 40% of respondents were wary of hiring a woman of childbearing age, with a similar percentage wary of hiring a mother for a senior role. The Guardian further reported, “[a] quarter said they would rather hire a man to get around … maternity leave and child care, when a woman does return to work, with 44% saying the financial costs to their business because of maternity leave, are a significant concern. The study also showed that a third of managers claim that women are not as good at their jobs when they [return] from maternity leave.” Though the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating against women because of pregnancy, childbirth, abortion, or related medical conditions, that does not mean pregnancy discrimination does not occur in hiring practices, as clarified by this survey. After all, if workplaces did take these acts seriously, why do we still have the gender wage gap?

There is not much I can say further on this topic without sounding like a blinded feminist echoing the voices of so many other women to be heard by nobody but Twitter users who perceive wanting gender equality as “man-hating.” Though I am not part of the corporate world yet, the stories of the working mothers before me, the inadequate state of policies involving maternity leave, and the statistics on the news have made me aware of this part of the world I will soon become a part of. I hope there is change when it is our generation’s turn. I understand that maternity leave does have financial consequences for employers. However, I request the same employers consider their applicants equally regardless of their childbearing status and do their best for their female employees, ensuring their time away does not negatively impact their careers as they care for their newborn(s). Maybe even throw reading Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, into the mix?

Works Cited

“40% of managers avoid hiring younger women to get around maternity leave.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 11 Aug. 2014, www.theguardian.com/money/2014/aug/12/managers-avoid-hiring-younger-women-maternity-leave.

“Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).” US Department of Labor, US Department of Labor, www.dol.gov/general/topic/workhours/fmla#:~:text=Employees%20are%20eligible%20for%20leave,more%20employees%20within%2075%20miles. Accessed 20 Nov. 2023.

Olivetti, Claudia, and Barbara Petrongolo. “The Economic Consequences of Family Policies: Lessons from a Century of Legislation in High-Income Countries.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, 2017, www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257%2Fjep.31.1.205.

Parga-Belinkie, Joanna. “Actually, Maternity Leave Is Not a Vacation.” SELF, SELF, 20 Aug. 2019, www.self.com/story/maternity-leave-is-not-vacation.

“Vacation Definition & Meaning.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vacation. Accessed 20 Nov. 2023.