Young-ju Kim, author of “A Daughter-in-Law’s Letter of Resignation,” was a good daughter. She got married in 1989 to the eldest son of the eldest son in a large extended family, which meant she had to become a manmyeoneuri, or the eldest daughter-in-law. It was a role that would long consume her life.
She quit her job and worked as a daughter-in-law, mother and wife for decades. But after 24 years, she felt she’d done enough ― and decided to live the life she actually wanted before it was too late.
She filed for divorce in 2012 and submitted a “letter of resignation” to her parents-in-law just before the 2013 Chuseok holidays, a major harvest festival in South Korea. Her loved ones complained and asked how she could do such a thing.
But she had no regrets. She felt like nothing would change before she died unless she acted on her decision. There was nothing to lose.
Her declaration of resignation as eldest daughter-in-law changed almost everything. Her husband, whom she moved in with again after knee surgery in September 2017, finally began to listen to her, and the annual ancestral rites and holiday ceremonies, which had been a source of immense strain and stress, were simplified. She and her husband grew in respect for one another, and ended up not divorcing. The change that occurred in her daily life was significant enough that she has called it a“miracle,” even a “small revolution.”
I’m the only unmarried person in my family. I asked Kim how women should take on their roles as daughter, sister and sister-in-law so that there will be no regrets later.
“I, myself, must be happy first and foremost,” Kim told me firmly. “Put off the pressure of having to play roles in the family; make sure that you are happy first. That’s what’s most important.”
“It’s not a selfish choice but a way to make people around you happy,” she added. “Everyone has their own burdens of life. Rather than trying to solve your family’s problems for them, let them solve the problem for themselves. No matter how long it takes. Seriously.”
We tend to think that we are close to our family, but we don’t actually know their thoughts, who they really are, or even their likes and dislikes. I spoke to Kim about how we can feel happiness in our relationships with our family, how her own family has changed and self-care.
The Korean New Year holidays are just around the corner. How will you spend the festive season?
Just as I typically do ― or, at least, typical as things have been since I submitted my “letter of resignation” in 2013. After my letter, I didn’t go to my husband’s parents’ home for two to three years. Then, when I did go, there again, I didn’t cook ― as I normally would’ve done ― and we ordered in. But the food wasn’t as good as home-cooked meals, so we started cooking one dish at home, and since last year, we’ve been cooking just enough jeon [Korean pancake] for our family to eat.
Before my resignation, I had cooked for the entire family all by myself ― but now we all cook together. My parents-in-law buy groceries in advance, and we all share the rest of our duties. It takes less than two hours to finish now.
You may say, “That’s the same as before, isn’t it?” But it isn’t. The difference is my actions are now voluntary. No matter how good “a duty of obedience” is, no one enjoys doing it. It feels demeaning. But it’s not unpleasant to do it voluntarily in a balanced relationship. Now the holidays have become a fun time to meet and talk about current events for hours, as well as cook and eat delicious food together.
How were your holidays when you were the eldest daughter-in-law, before you submitted your resignation?
It all centered on preparation and cooking. It took two to three days to buy all the groceries. I had to go to traditional markets, big supermarkets and even small shops when I needed a specialty item.
Did you shop alone?
Yes, alone, without even my husband’s help. I bought piles of groceries and cooked all alone. I also had to make a lot of side dishes on top of the main holiday foods. It was so hard and stressful.
I’m feeling a rising frustration in my heart as the New Year holidays approach...
There was a family gathering at the end of last year .… That day was winter solstice, and my father-in-law bought red bean porridge, my mother-in-law boiled the cabbage soup, my sister-in-law went grocery shopping, and my husband’s brother and his wife washed all the vegetables while others grilled the meat. I brought side dishes from home. My husband washed all the dishes.
Everyone from all three generations prepared the dinner and washed the dishes together. My son bought coffee after he finished eating, and everyone was very happy to have coffee and tea together. I felt so content because I felt a great sense of cooperation and equality. I realized again that my ordinary life had changed like a miracle.
A roomful of adults of different generations. It sounds like a recipe for squabbling!
[Laughs.] Is that so? We have three generations. My parents’ generation, my husband and my generation, and our son’s generation. When we meet, we talk about social issues. We all have different ideas and perspectives. Nevertheless, we don’t ignore others, and we don’t say, “you don’t know any better.” By listening carefully, we can at least understand where others’ ideas stem from ― even if we don’t necessarily share those opinions.
Since I know what it was like before, I feel like the present situation with my husband’s family is a sort of miracle. Actually, I feel more intimate with them after submitting my resignation letter. I’ve grown to think of them as actually really good people.
As all these changes happened in your family after you submitted your resignation, you clearly played a big role in this transformation.
No, I actually think the letter was just a spark, a small starting point for change rather than a major personal achievement. It could’ve gone in a completely different direction. I am grateful to my family for having worked toward building the balanced and peaceful relationship we have now.
Have you ever regretted the letter?
I have my regrets. I also regret not “quitting” sooner. Had I acted at an earlier date, I could have created a more equal and respectful environment for my children. At the time, my husband’s family felt like this insurmountable, enormous rock, and it was scary. But then I realized that I too am a person with power.
The rock wasn’t as enormous and insurmountable as you expected it to be?
I had initially regarded myself as too small and meager in comparison to such a huge rock ― and I felt I didn’t have a voice. But after submitting my resignation letter and filing for divorce, I realized how much power I possess.
After I saw how my small actions prompted big change within my family, I realized that it wasn’t just them that had needed to change ― but I had needed to change first.
Questions are increasingly being raised now about the honorific titles and other language used in familial relationships and in the marital setting in Korea. Like, why is it that a woman needs to use formal terms like “miss” or “young master” when referring to her husband’s family members? What do you think about these terms?
I’m very empathetic. When I got married, I addressed members of my husband’s family as “miss” or “young master” ― but I felt like I was a maid.
I remember calling my husband’s 6-year-old brother “young master,” but in informal settings, I would use his real name. When an elder relative got wind of this, however, he told me to call him “young master” instead. I thought it was irrational.
Daughters-in-law are often required to speak deferentially to their husband’s family members. The language contains respect. But there’s not much respect for the names of women. It is a problem that my generation does not dare to touch, but I think that it will change in the next generation.
You lived alone for 10 months starting in November 2016. How was that?
I lived in my parents’ house before marriage, and I lived as a wife, a mother and a daughter-in-law after marriage. It was the first time in my life that I’d spent 24 hours totally alone.
I woke up when I wanted to wake up and slept when I wanted to sleep. I felt a bit lonely, but I went out and met people, and that helped.
Things I really wanted to do had been removed from my priority list when I was living as a daughter-in-law ― but during those months alone, I lived fully and enjoyed it. That’s when I wrote the book.
How is your relationship with your husband now?
I thought that each of us should be free and independent for a healthy marital relationship, and a lot has changed. After I left, my children also became independent, and my husband was alone. When I came back after my surgery, I saw him cleaning the house and watering the flower pots. [Laughs.] Now we do everything together, from start to finish, when we cook.
Have you ever heard of other people who tried to make a change via a “letter of resignation”?
I’ve heard of many. There was a middle-aged man whom I met at a reading. He said he was shocked after reading my story. He had never thought about it that way and began worrying about his own wife “resigning.” He said he had a mental breakdown and decided he needed to change before his own wife quit. He said that he had got rid of all the unnecessary things for holiday preparations and went to the movies with his wife after almost 20 years of marriage, which made them both very happy.
He also said that he was committed to making changes to things that need to be changed from now on, which made me very happy.
I hadn’t expected my book or my actions to have made this sort of effect. I “resigned” because I felt like I was dying at the time, and after, I felt I’d been reborn. I am so encouraged when I hear about those who are trying to recover after thinking they’ve lost everything.
This interview has been translated from Korean. It was edited for length and clarity.