Before giving birth, check that your family has sufficient toilet paper. Prepare ready-made meals for your husband, who surely “is not good at cooking.” Tie up your hair, “so that you don’t look disheveled” even as you go without a bath. And after the baby arrives, keep a “small-size” dress in sight — you’ll need motivation not to take that extra bite.
These words of advice, offered to pregnant women by the authorities in Seoul, have created a backlash in South Korea, where the government can ill afford to fumble as it desperately tries to compel women to have more babies and reverse the world’s lowest birthrate.
The pregnancy guidelines were first published on a government website in 2019. But they caught the attention of the public only in recent days, causing an outcry on social media, where people said they reflected outmoded views that persist in segments of the deeply patriarchal society and petitioned for their removal.
Yong Hye-in, an activist and politician, said that under the guidelines, a woman’s child-rearing responsibilities were doubled by having to care for her husband too. A better tactic for those married to men incapable of doing things like throwing away rotting food, Ms. Yong wrote on Twitter, would be divorce.
Experts called the government’s advice a missed opportunity. “I think it is written by someone who never gave birth,” said Dr. Kim Jae-yean, chairman of the Korean Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. He added that the government should have provided practical advice on issues like breastfeeding.
A petition started online last week, which has been signed by more than 21,000 people, called for a public apology from officials, as well as disciplinary action against those who released the guidelines.
In an email to The New York Times, the public health division of the Seoul city government said it felt “responsible for not reviewing and monitoring the contents, approved at the time, thoroughly and closely.” It said it would review its online content, and improve gender sensitivity training for all municipal employees.
While the most offensive parts of the guidelines have been removed, some of the advice remains online, and screenshots of the original text continue to circulate on social media.
“Why are we looking for the cause of the low birthrate from far away? It’s right here,” wrote one person on Twitter. Another said women were infuriated by the rules: “Who made this guideline? There are lots of things to be corrected.”
Some lawmakers criticized the messaging as damaging for South Korea’s reputation.
“It is awkward that the anachronistic admonition on how pregnant women should serve their families is still being distributed,” Woo Sang-ho, a lawmaker of the governing Democratic Party, wrote on Facebook last week, before the guidelines were removed.
Others, however, said the online criticism went too far.
“I don’t think it’s that ridiculous to suggest women prepare food and the house,” said Kyung Jin Kim, 42, a former lawyer based in Seoul, who recently left her career to start a family. But she said the guidelines could have been more useful “if the tone were not so like a middle-aged Korean guy or an old Korean mother-in-law.”
Under the recommendations, women were advised to check their household essentials so that their family members would “not be uncomfortable.” They were also urged to clean out the fridge, prepare meals and find someone to care for their other children.
The advice made no mention of any responsibilities for husbands. But it did have some suggestions for how to remain attractive to them.
“Hang the clothes you wore before your marriage or small-size clothes you would like to wear after childbirth by putting one in a place you can easily see,” the original text from the site read. It added that “when you feel like you would like to eat more than you need to, or skip exercising, you get motivated by looking at the clothes.”
Though South Korea has become an economic and cultural powerhouse, many women still experience misogyny in very practical terms.
According to a 2017 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the gender pay gap in South Korea is the highest among its 37 member countries. Working women earn nearly 40 percent less than men, and many stop working when they have children, often pressured by their families and workplaces.
Other countries in the region, including Japan — which also has an aging population and a low birthrate — have broad gender disparities, especially in relation to pregnancy. In Japan, the term “matahara” (short for maternity harassment) caught on when a woman’s claims of workplace bullying after she gave birth were heard in the country’s Supreme Court in 2014.
These declining populations pose a threat to the countries’ economies, making it all the more important that governments tread carefully in incentivizing women to have children.
Last year, South Korea’s population declined for the first time on record, dropping by nearly 21,000. Births fell by more than 10.5 percent, and deaths rose by 3 percent. The Ministry of Interior and Safety acknowledged the alarming implications, saying that “amid the rapidly declining birthrate, the government needs to undertake fundamental changes to its relevant policies.”
Though the Seoul government may have fumbled in its advice, the backlash, some said, proved that attitudes were changing.
“This is just outdated advice,” said Adele Vitale, a birth doula and Italian expatriate who has lived in Busan, a port city on the country’s southeast coast, for a decade.
Ms. Vitale, who works primarily with foreign women married to Korean men, said that though Korean society had traditionally perceived pregnant women as “incapacitated,” she had increasingly seen their husbands adopting more egalitarian views toward childbirth and child rearing.
“Family dynamics have been evolving,” she said. “Women are no longer willing to be treated this way.”