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Please Look after Mom, by Kyung-sook Shin. (AND MUSINGS ON MOTHERS)

June 27, 2012

Please Look After Mom : A Novel, by Kyŏng-sook Shin.  New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

An award-winning novel about a Korean family’s memories and responses when the mother disappears.

When Mom fails to follow her husband onto a train in a Seoul station, he and her five adult children conduct an intense search for her.  As they do so, they are swept up in emotions and memories about her that are the basis of Kyung-sook Shin’s fine book.  As we read the accounts of three of the children and the father, most of all we learn about Mom, whose ghost actually adds her own version of her life.

The accounts of the eldest daughter open and close the story.  She is an acclaimed author and writes in second person telling of her long-standing frustration and anger at her mother and the more recent reconciliation with her.  She has observed her mother’s failing health and mental instability and tried to help.  Now she is overwhelmed with guilt over how little she actually knew her.  When asked how her mother felt about all the time she spend in the kitchen, she replied

You had never thought of mothrt as separate from the kitchen. Mom was the kitchen and the kitchen was Mom. You had never wondered, Did Mom like being in the kitchen.

The eldest brother was the mother’s pride and joy, and the source of all her hope.  He always got the best food and most attention and his brothers and sisters were required to yield to his desires—a situation which, not surprisingly, brought strife between him and his siblings.  Although he was successful in business, he never lived up to his mother’s unrealistic dream that he would become a prosecutor. Both he and his mother feel guilty that he did not achieve that goal.

The father had always been inattentive to the family, even abandoning them for long periods.  He had taken for granted that Mom would always be there taking care of all of his needs and desires.  Only when she does not follow him onto the train does he start to remember her as his wife, not merely the mother of his children. He realizes how little he knew her.   He never knew that Mom gave most of the money their children sent them to an orphanage where a worker read to Mom from the book her daughter had written.  His section is a heart-wrenching account of what every wife would want her husband to think after she is no longer there.

The younger daughter was born when her mother was less worried about the family’s sheer survival and more able to relax and give of herself to a child.  Her memories of Mom are less tortured, but she struggles with the conflict between her career as a pharmacist and her three children, one of them still an infant.  Although her life is very different from her mother’s, it too is a constant struggle to do more than is humanly possible.  Both the daughters have more choices than their mother, and Mom is confused and ambivalent about the lives each have chosen.

The ghost of the mother, the only one to speak in first person, fills in gaps in her life that others never knew, such as her relationship to her husband’s demanding sister who acted as the critical mother-in-law figure.  She also describes a still birth she had and a male friend who was never a lover but was the source of much-needed love and support at particularly hard points in her life.

Please Take Care of Mother is an excellent book and it is not surprising that it won the Mann Asian prize this year.  Shin handles words with skill and the book is creatively structured.  She also raises issues for me about what has and has not changed for women with children.

I highly recommend this book, especially for those interested in motherhood, family relationship, and Korea.


Mom is a traditional, sacrificial mother, not because tradition tells her to be but because she must be if her children are to survive, much less thrive.  She is driven by poverty, not ideology.  She is an example of why poverty, and class inequality, need to be priorities for feminists.

For Mom, insuring her children had food and clothing and even some education, meant long strenuous hours in the field growing food, work that could be done with a baby tied on her back and children helping.  Today, women must earn the money to support children, either alone or employed along with a husband.  That usually means at least eight-hours daily away from her children.   In the USA at least, recent generations of children grew up in middle-class households and got college educations only because mothers were employed outside their homes.  If not for the earnings of wives and mothers, many families would have lost middle-class status 20 or 30 years ago.  Having a stay-at-home mom is no longer a necessity for survival.  It has become a costly luxury.

Societies and governments have not adapted to the ways in which women’s employment outside the home affects us all.  As more and more women are employed, either in meaningful careers or dead-end drudgery, children and others in need do not get the care they require and mothers are constantly overextended.  In the USA, women in poverty are required to be employed if they are to get financial aid, even if they are the sole wage-earner and caretaker of their infants and children.  If they are employed, they often do not earn enough to pay for adequate child care, and the women are blamed when their children suffer or become anti-social.   Attempts at austerity threaten to take away the few supports in this country for mothers.  Even such assistance as raising the minimum wage would help mothers cope.  Pushing women back into full-time maternal roles is unrealistic; women would resist and the economy would crash.  Fathers being able to be more involved is also unrealistic when many are already working ridiculously long hours.  We need to rethink all these problems individually and politically.

Mothering and other caring tasks we have assumed women would be there to do have fallen by the wayside.  Such work is necessary not only for children but for human society to survive.  Extended families and neighborhoods which once were able to absorb the cost of mother’s employment have become geographically divided by the need to take employment anywhere it can be found.  Some government programs, such as Headstart and adequate health programs, have been successful although never enough.  It is hard to imagine any solution which does not include some sort of government assistance such as these.  But the first step is for us as societies to start honoring the work mothers do—both with their children in their homes and in their employment.

Women, like Mom, can no longer sacrificially hold up more than half the sky. They need help.  Please take care of Mom.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2012 12:23 pm

    Oh, glad you liked it too … you may remember that our shadow jury was a little divided over this one even though as a whole we chose it as our winner too. I loved the way she told the story – it was very clever. I liked the way it feels universal while also addressing change in Korean society.

    • July 1, 2012 12:25 pm

      I think conveying the universal through the particular is the mark of a very good book.

      • July 1, 2012 5:22 pm

        Agree totally … Some of our jury just didn’t see that, or perhaps didn’t like the universal.

  2. June 28, 2012 12:46 pm

    Lovely review and musing. A fine book by all standards on the joys and sorrows of motherhood. Thanks for sharing

  3. June 29, 2012 4:54 am

    Bravo to your comments about mothers. You are so right. Single mothers living in poverty are amongst the most disadvantaged members of society, whilst being on the receiving end of a lot of cultural hostility and lack of understanding (‘Why did she get pregnant?’ ‘She should have worked on her marriage’ etc). It’s a horribly unjust situation, both in the developed countries and the poorer parts of the world. Will politicians address it? I wish I didn’t have so many doubts. Good for you for raising the issue.

    • July 1, 2012 12:11 pm

      Thanks for your comments. The problem, at least here in the US, is that the polticians are moving backward on these issues. If the GOP win in November, I fear for what will be lost. They are already working to keep women barefoot and pregnent–just at the point where some women were moving into positions of authority. That isn’t an accident.

  4. July 1, 2012 6:28 pm

    Whispering Gum, Perhaps the universal is hard for some to see when the particulars are female.

  5. July 2, 2012 11:17 pm

    Great review!! This one’s been on my TBR list for a while now. I really do need to read it already.


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