Babies are a source of joy for families - but caring for them can cause conflict. In China, a woman sued her children to demand payment for babysitting her grandchild. In South Korea, a grandfather laments that his daughter's long work hours keep her from considering having a second child.
To pay or not to pay - is that the question?
Babysitting has become a divisive issue for some families in China, with a growing number of reports of family disputes when young couples refuse to pay their parents for looking after their children.
Recently, a court in South China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region ruled in favour of a 56-year-old woman who had filed a case against her son and former daughter-in-law, accusing them of failing to assume their parental responsibilities and asking for compensation for taking care of their child.
Although it may seem unreasonable for her to ask to be paid for taking care of her own grandchild, the woman said she had brought the case to court to teach the parents a lesson about shouldering their responsibilities.
But before jumping to any conclusions, it should be borne in mind that this is not a simple black-and-white issue.
Often, such disputes stem from a generational gap, whereby the grandparents feel their children, who are living lives they could only dream of, don't appreciate the efforts and sacrifices they made.
Surveys show that about half of all young Chinese couples ask their retired parents to help them take care of their children. And many parents take it for granted that the grandparents will babysit the grandchildren if they are retired and healthy enough to do so.
Also, young couples who rely on their parents to look after their children will argue that they can't afford to hire a professional babysitter and that both of them need to work.
Those who criticise such couples say they are putting money before the well-being of their children.
They agree with the court that if neither parent wants to quit their job, the couple should pay the grandparents for babysitting.
Indeed, babysitting has a price tag. In China, it costs about 5,000 yuan (S$1,100) a month to hire a professional babysitter in a mid-sized city.
That means the cost of hiring a professional babysitter in such cities is roughly equivalent to the monthly salary of many young people, meaning it is simply not an option for many couples.
On the other hand, there is a long tradition of grandparents taking care of their grandchildren.
Nowadays, this practice is becoming increasingly less prevalent.
And while the Guangxi court has judged that couples do have a legal obligation to pay their parents, many old people would feel that they have no role in life if they were not able to follow tradition and care for their grandchildren.
They would willingly babysit their grandchildren for free.
In some cases, even if a young couple try to pay their parents for looking after their child, their parents may feel offended because, to them, looking after their grandchild is done out of love.
Therefore, whether the grandparents are paid for babysitting should be up to each family to decide.
However, that does not mean young couples should take advantage of their parents.
Cutting work hours for more babies
The Korea Herald
I became a grandfather in March. My daughter, who got married two years ago, gave birth to a lovely baby boy.
These days, I feel that a newborn is a blessing not just to its parents and the nation, but to its grandparents too.
My daughter began to entrust her baby to a neighbourhood care centre in late August because she had to go back to work. She wanted to stay at home with her baby for a few more months, but her company insisted on her prompt return.
My daughter's return to work made her mother busy.
As she goes to work before the nursery opens, her mother has to take care of the infant for about two hours in the morning before taking him to the care centre. My wife also picks up the baby in the afternoon and looks after him for about three hours before his mother or father comes home from work.
My daughter is fortunate as her mother lives nearby and is willing to babysit the infant during her absence - a luxury that many working mothers cannot enjoy.
Still, she says that juggling work and motherhood is much more difficult than she thought.
So, to my great disappointment, she has vowed never to have another baby.
My daughter's case suggests that the government's numerous programmes geared towards raising South Korea's woefully low birth rate is not so effective.
My daughter does benefit from the government's subsidy programme, which covers the entire cost of sending her baby to the nursery.
But this incentive is obviously not enough to induce her - and probably many other working mums - to have more babies.
Observing my daughter trying to juggle her job and her new baby, I felt strongly the need to shorten work hours to boost South Korea's anaemic birth rate, which now stands at 1.21, the lowest in the world aside from those in such city-states as Hong Kong and Macau.
In many companies, especially small ones, employees usually work longer than the standard 40 hours per week. Long work hours stress out working mums and dads, forcing them to decide not to have a second or third child. It is not just working mums and dads who are burnt out. Long hours at work also deprive young single male and female employees of the time and energy needed for dating or thinking about marriage.
Therefore, as long as working late hours remains the norm, it would be hard to expect any significant rise in the nation's fertility rate.
Long work hours also contribute to lowering the level of life satisfaction among Koreans.
According to the "How's Life" 2015 report recently published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), South Korea ranked 27th among the 34 member countries in life satisfaction.
The OECD report assesses various indicators, including health status and work-life balance, to compare the level of well-being among its members.
To our shame, South Korea ranked lowest in terms of the time that parents spend with their kids. Korean parents spend only 48 minutes a day with their children, less than one-third of the OECD average of 151 minutes.
In particular, the report found that Korean fathers spend far less time playing with their children than their peers in other countries.
If parents spend fewer hours in the workplace, they will be able to spend more time with their children, which will boost the well-being of not just the kids, but also the parents.
Cutting work hours is thus essential to boosting the birth rate and improving the quality of life. But the task is often said to be much more difficult than amending the Constitution.
Last month, however, representatives of labour, management and the government managed to agree to shorten the maximum work hours per week from the current 68 to 52.
Yet, it remains to be seen when the agreement will be spelled out in law and, if enacted, whether it will be strictly observed by companies.
The issue of reducing work hours illustrates the magnitude of work required to boost the birth rate.
It requires reforms across all sectors of Korean society.
In the absence of such broad reforms, it is little wonder that the government has achieved no significant progress in its efforts to reverse the falling birth rate.
Since 2006, the government has poured more than 120 trillion won (S$148 billion) into an ever-lengthening list of incentive programmes.
Yet, the fertility rate has merely edged up from 1.19 to 1.21.
The government's latest package of measures announced earlier this week was not much different from the previous ones. It enumerates various incentives, but it lacks any initiatives for far-reaching reforms.
• The View From Asia is a weekly compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 newspapers. For more, see www.asianewsnet.net
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2015, with the headline 'Should grandparents be paid to care for babies?'. Print Edition | Subscribe
We have been experiencing some problems with subscriber log-ins and apologise for the inconvenience caused. Until we resolve the issues, subscribers need not log in to access ST Digital articles. But a log-in is still required for our PDFs.