I was brought up to be the 'woman who had it all.' Then I became a stay-at-home mom
I felt guilty my immigrant family’s sacrifices would be in vain and I’d dashed their dreams
This First Person column is written by Jina Lee who is a former lawyer. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
It has been a year since my body crumbled under the stress of pandemic life. In the spring of 2021, I took a six-month leave of absence from my profession as a lawyer, which I then extended to continue my recovery and to homeschool my autistic daughter.
I was nervous and exhausted, but mostly I felt guilty and a sense of loss of my identity as a professional working mom.
I am the first Canadian-born child in my family. I grew up in a multi-generational Korean home in Toronto with two sisters, our parents, and paternal grandparents. My parents and grandparents did not explicitly use their sacrifices to guilt me into childhood compliance. However, I was often conscious of the difficult choices they made to ensure I had every opportunity. In electing to rest from the rat race, I felt as though I was belittling what they had given up for me.
Around the dinner table, my family's history was often recalled with gratitude and joy, and their sorrows considered the inevitable cost of establishing our family in a new land.
My grandparents were born in Pyongyang, North Korea. On Dec. 5, 1950, my late grandfather Man-Young Lee and his surviving brother decided to follow the retreating American troops south. (The eldest brother had been killed in an air raid months prior.) They packed a handful of belongings, never imagining that the Korean border would close, forever separating them from their parents.
The two young men joined a large contingent of refugees travelling south. Parentless and penniless, my grandfather and his brother earned money by repairing the worn rubber shoes of their fellow refugees. The brothers earned enough to purchase a wooden cart and start a porter service for the more wealthy refugees. They continued south before settling in Busan, South Korea.
On the same December morning, my grandmother Hyung-Shin Bai heard explosions from the city centre and saw the horizon ablaze. After learning the American troops in Pyongyang were burning their weapons in anticipation of retreat, she and her siblings left their parents and youngest brother behind to head south.
They began their escape on foot and fortuitously came upon a southbound coal train transporting refugees. My grandmother sat on heaps of coal for three days before arriving at the border of North and South Korea. She too eventually migrated to Busan.
My grandparents met in Busan and married. My grandfather joined my grandmother in the cosmetics business. He was a natural entrepreneur and according to family lore, his business was one of the first domestic cosmetic manufacturers in Korea importing technology from Japan. In 1975, he sold his lucrative business and factory to escape the political instability of post-war South Korea. He immigrated to Canada with his young family.
My grandparents began their life in Toronto cleaning office buildings at night. Later, they operated a small grocery store 15 hours a day, 365 days a year. My father spent the evenings and weekends of his youth working at the family store. After I was born, my parents worked full-time for decades while finding time to drive my sisters and me to after-school programs and church events, and making rice crispy squares for school fundraisers. We were not wealthy, but we were never in need.
In our love-filled home, I was encouraged to be proud of my achievements. My parents were raised in a Korea that found overly educated women troublesome. Even the most educated women would eventually leave the workforce after having children. My parents happily declared to their three Canadian-born daughters that in Canada, nothing about being a woman prevented us from excelling.
"In Canada," my grandfather often said, "you can have it all." And I strove to have it all. I wanted to prove that their life of sacrifice was not in vain.
And for a number of years, I did have it all — a thriving career and a beautiful family — but I was overextended and overwhelmed. I was consumed by the need to capture that elusive work-life balance (does it actually exist?). Despite my health challenges, I could not shake the feeling that I wasn't doing enough at home or at work.
When I brought up the possibility from taking a leave from work, my husband assured me that despite the financial challenges, we could make ends meet as a single-income family. We recognize that the ability for one parent to choose to stay home is a privilege many Canadians do not have.
I then broke the news that I was pausing my career to my mother.
Before I could apologize for being selfish, she responded, "You have made a wise decision." When I told my father, he consoled me. And relief filled my heart.
Parenting in all its forms is real work. It is challenging and unrelenting. Mimi and Haejin, my current "employers," are equal parts adorable and merciless (and the pay is terrible). Despite the daily chaos, being a stay-at-home parent has taught my heart to rest. I no longer strive to do and be everything all at once.
Whenever my family pushed me to pursue a life they could not, I assumed they wished me fame and fortune. I see now that what they desired for me was freedom. These two generations have structured my childhood in such a way that I would have the freedom to be the fullest version of myself — whatever that version looked like. I am humbled and honoured to be the recipient of such costly privilege.
My decision to rest has brought us closer as a family — mostly because I regularly show up unannounced seeking child care and homemade Korean food. My leave of absence has given my ever-supportive grandmother and me the gift of time. We spend many afternoons together, which has been especially precious during the isolating stretches of the pandemic.
Months before his passing, my grandfather roused his cancer-riddled body to observe me in court. He told me that it was one of the happiest days of his life. He told me that as he sat in the gallery, listening to his granddaughter dressed in barrister robes, he recalled the sorrows which had filled his life to bring him to that day.
Had he lived a few more years, I am certain that day in court would pale in comparison to the day his eldest granddaughter decided to rest in the privilege he had earned.
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